Pieces in Place

If you’re new to organizing amateur dance, listen up. The choreography is the easy part. Which part of the performance puzzle demands the greatest skill, patience, and perseverance? — Scheduling!

The requisite number of dancers must come together at the same time and place, CONSISTENTlY.

If the scheduling piece is not in place, aborted starts and stops will frustrate everyone involved and defeat the very thing a choreographer needs most — the dancers desire and confidence.

When working with amateurs, the minimal rehearsal frequency is twice a week. Start by building popularity via classes. (One of Balanchine’s famous quotes is, “First, a school”) You need to achieve a critical mass of group enthusiasm prior to your first rehearsal. You know that you’re ready to begin when you hear dancers asking YOU for more time.

Even then, you need to sustain their interest by satisfying several common desires besides a love of dance. Provide an experience that is fun, efficient, productive and tribal). Rehearsal can be serious, but they must remain fun even when difficult, especially when difficult.

Convenience is key. Rehearsal must follow directly after class; and keep it short. An hour is a long time for an amateur who has already dedicated 90 minutes to taking class.

Every chance you get FOSTER A SENSE OF COMMUNITY.

At the SF JCC, I’m waiting to be allotted a space immediately following my Saturday class; and the students are requesting a second class session per week. They increasingly take the center floor in my class without my asking them to move forward. (In other words, they are gaining confidence.)

The jigsaw pieces of the puzzle are falling into place! We are almost ready to begin.

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Crack the Whip

The quarter always begins friendly. My introductory teaching persona is welcoming to beginners. Initially, I clown and make lots of jokes between exercises. After all, in health club/ recreational classes such as mine, some of the students that I’m trying to attract and retain are new to ballet, and more importantly, new to the practice of memorizing step sequences. They only know Zumba.

Today, three weeks in, I tighten my grip on the class, and become more serious…less smiles, my expectations evident — higher standards. I shift our facing direction at barre, from starting each exercise with everyone facing the mirror, to each with their left hand on the barre; meaning that half of the dancers face away from the mirror, without an example to follow. I’ll verbally cue the first side of the combination, singing them the French names of the steps just a beat before they are to execute them; but only for Side One. When they turn around and repeat (holding the barre with their right hand) I’ll be silent. Some of them will fail at this point. I must let them fail, reminding myself that I am there as their teacher, not their friend.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll omit the verbal cuing altogether, even for their first side execution. The expectation then becomes that they memorize the combination as I demonstrate it; and I”ll only show it once. That’s a harsh format; but it allows us to get through the barre section of class quickly, so that we can focus our time and artistry on the center-floor combinations that comprise the second half of class.

My reassuring tone is gradually replaced by the sound of critique. Our fun becomes serious.

First, Vocabulary

There are many ways to begin imagining a dance. This past winter, our work began with a story, one that was handed to me along with a recording of an original musical score. The composer and I sat in his car, listening to his creation, while he told me the entire tale he’d envisioned, so that I understood what action and emotions he wants portrayed in this particular, five-minute excerpt. That choreography is narrative, and a fusion of ballet and contemporary dance. For our next one I’d like something abstract, classical, one that is an appreciation of shapes and structure and pattern, without emotion.

I want to showcase my JCC class participants in a way that maximizes their rehearsal time as well as mine. I seek a creative collaboration; but with boundaries, a limited palette of steps. Thus, for this spring’s ballet, we begin, not with a plot, but with a selection of four short sequences lifted directly from the choreography that I’ve set for the Saturday class center exercises: adage, pirouette, petite allegro and grand allegro.

Today I demonstrated the pirouette, and we practiced it without actually doing the turn; because the combination changes directions and pivots on itself anyway. There’s enough difficulty in just executing the phrase to both the right and left sides, without adding tricks…yet. I’ll insert the pirouette next week. I taught the petite allegro (quick, small jump) combination as I usually do, introducing it at first by using a slow, 3/4 time meter (waltz). Next week I intend to pick up the tempo and make the dancers skip.

I’d like to have all four sequences under our belts before we meet for our first rehearsal of the new ballet. Im an ideal world, all of my collaborators will bring these sequences as their tools. Then we can begin to build something in unison.

Fresh Start

Every equinox and solstice, as my own private ritual celebration of  the change of season, I completely revise my ballet class. We begin again. All the dancers, beginners and advanced, literally start out on the same foot and on a level playing field. Welcome Spring!

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That introductory lesson happened this past Saturday at the JCC SF. For the first couple of weeks of the new quarter, I dole out only partial step sequences, keeping the exercises short and repetitive. I’ll lengthen the combinations as the weeks go by, and add arm movements; but at this early stage I keep it simple and offer very few technical corrections. Oh, we’ll get to those; but first we must build the scaffolding (i.e. steps, directions, rhythm) of the lesson, and most importantly confidence.

I watch their faces more than their limbs at this stage. When their eyes glaze with confusion, fear, or too great an internal focus, I insert an extremely simple pattern as a palette cleanser. Gradually, they stop shrinking to the back wall of the studio. Once I again see joy and individual command of the space, I resume the challenge.

This season’s focus is on two steps that demand the arch of a straight leg in the air — pas de basque, and reverse’. Not only do I want to unify the spring lesson plan, but I intend to use all of the new Center step sequences in the creation of a performance piece. As soon as I can get a 1:30 (immediately after class) rehearsal room, the collaboration begins, and hopefully lands us on the Kanbar stage this autumn.

Position

Unknown-1.jpeg“We have a great product here. We should create our Performance Project elsewhere, take it on the road, maybe to Marin County,” my choreographer colleagues exclaim.

“Your last ballet class was well attended by fine dancers,” one of my students praised me, “Keep this up and you’ll soon have a troupe!”

Success however takes more than talent and enthusiasm. Like preparing for a difficult dance jump, dreams also require careful timing and positioning in order to come true. I learned the concept of positioning years ago, in a workshop for selling health club memberships. “Don’t make the Ask until you’ve positioned the sale.”

Positioning is more than preparing just yourself for success. Your surrounding circumstances must also be prepared, logistics like venue and administrative processes; and even more importantly — people.

The larger the scale or scope of the vision, the more buy-in one needs from other people; and that takes time, a LOT of time. My former dance company had seven departments and a calendar planned a year in advance. The preparation was always more work than that performance.

Still, the dream of a portable dance program, or of directing another local performing troupe is seductive even while it’s daunting. I know good people for collaboration; and my fitness business supports me well enough now to take some risk.

How do you know when it’s time to jump?

What can you recommend?

Faking It

It’s time to jump… for both me and my students. However, on any given day, there are good reasons for not risking those steps in the air (i.e. age, injury, intimidation, confusion about the jump sequence). That doesn’t mean one abandons the attempt. There are very studied and effective ways to take the jump out of the jump, and still get the most out of the choreography.images-1.jpegIt’s called “marking”.

This season my students are going to learn how to fully mark steps. Then we’ll have no excuse for giving up, and fading into the back of the studio due to fear or fatigue. Our contemporary culture praises extreme, exhaustive effort. We confuse 100% physical effort with 100% commitment. Wrong.

Mastery comes from coordinating degrees of effort.

How do you know how much, and when, to push yourself?

This season we’ll learn how to properly mark the jumps in order to master six elements of their execution:

  1. Landings (safe and with clean and clear positions)
  2. Rhythm (the body mechanics do not match the downbeat of the music)
  3. Horizontal lift versus traveling distance (for every step)
  4. Arms (their position and pathway)
  5. Face (there’s more to it than simply watching oneself in the mirror)
  6. Accent (for every step) and the dramatic Arch (of the musical or movement phrase)

How’s that for an autumn harvest?

Double Duty

Talent abounds; but there’s only so much time and free rehearsal space available to foster communal creativity. I need to be very efficient with my tribe’s resources!Unknown-1.jpegI’ve got one-third of a dance to choreograph for the Autumn Performance Project on Thanksgiving weekend. I wonder if I can reconfigure the petite allegro combination from my ballet class into a popular, gestural sequence that will appeal to novice dancers who may be more comfortable with hip-hop than classical dance. Can I transform one little jump sequence into something-for-everyone? It has to fit Mike Posner’s pop tune,
“Cooler Than Me.”

How do you make your efforts yield their broadest impact?

Maybe I don’t have to come up with the vision of this double-duty dance all by myself. The art salon that I host each month at my fitness studio always begins with a communally created dance. I’ll try giving my problem to my guests, and ask them to transform the ballet pattern.

Let’s pARTy!

Finish it!

I teach the same step sequences for an entire quarter, for a season. This allow the students enough time to go beyond rudimentary memorization of steps and mastering coordination of their limbs. By the end of a three month period, we’re able to address what matters most to me — musical phrasing and the options for individual artistic choices, rather than body mechanics.

This is the last week of summer. Time to move on .

images-3.jpegAs with when doing a dress rehearsal for performance (or for any creative endeavor), there is always a longing for just a little more time, always room for improvement (i.e. In this summer session now ending, we never quite got the hang of that arabesque turn; and the legs are still late to close position in the air for the jumping step called assemble’).

How do you bring a sense of satisfaction to the decision that your work is complete?

Whatever the sequences I weave together for the autumn class, I’ll include those steps in which our mastery is deficient. We may be done with our summer patterns; but the technical challenges continue. Maybe the greatest satisfaction is with our long-term results.

Do you agree?

Entrances & Exits

images-3.jpegMy current theme for dance class instruction is Entrances & Exits. In the studio we explore the concepts literally; but as metaphor the theme continues to resonate for me long after class.

Examples are everywhere — the greetings that one bothers to make entering a dinner party (or not), or the manner in which one exits a business meeting, are doors to and from experiences, deserving of attention.

Sometimes the periods of one’s life have no defined portal; they’re more like a tunnel or a continuous staircase. My mother’s death earlier this year was clearly an exit for her. The same moment was an entrance for me and my family to a new phase of existence…not so easily defined as Mom’s departure.

How do you recognize and honor a passage?

Sometimes when the season changes with the coloring of leaves, I think that I’ve entered a new period of my life; but its beginning may be only a vague feeling. The presence of a doorway into a new time of life is a matter of interpretation; and yet that interpretation, that recognition that one is entering or exiting, makes a huge difference going forward.

What do you think?

Beginners

This season, the ballet classes that I teach at two very different health clubs excite me. They’re getting good! I’ve made similar attempts at various clubs over the years, but never with this sense of steady success. Having come late to dance myself, I empathize with adult Beginners. images-1.jpeg

I enjoy the analysis and explanation of technique, and that “Ah-ha!” moment that lights up a student’s face when a new concept dawns.

Sure, teaching the fundamentals, the same thing over and over again every week, tries my patience. However, it’s only tedious when I arrive at the studio with plans to set a beautiful step sequence that is beyond the capacity of most of those people who happened to join me that day.

How does an instructor let go of their own expectations?

Beginners require a specific format, different from the intermediate students who are already familiar with basic vocabulary. The new folks progress best with a syllabus set in advance that maximizes repetition; and they need breaks to relax their minds; whereas the experienced dancers benefit from the opposite– a sustained focus. In health clubs, they all attend the same class together.

What do you recommend?