Monday, July 18, 2011

Mouth Closed, Ears Open.

There's often a point in most dancers' training where they have to try and justify everything - sometimes why they're doing something right, but most especially when they're caught doing something wrong.  Whether it's about a performance, or something being done in class - the automatic reaction is the mouth opens and words come. The hardest part is not about doing something right or wrong, but learning about when to shut the mouth.

This revelation came in two-part process for me, more or less.  And I believe it involved a grilled cheese sandwich, as most things do.

It was a weekend, about 6 or 7 years ago, when I had traveled down to Southern California for some events - I think it was a few strung together to make the trip extra worthwhile - a performance at a benefit, teach a workshop, and a theater show.  Back in those days especially, a trip to LA really threw me off energy-wise, almost like coming down with the flu - without the vomiting - but I hadn't really figured this out yet, and let's just say that first performance I'd probably file under "craptastic." And I knew it, and I just couldn't keep my mouth shut about it, even at the event.  The next day, after the workshop, I was having lunch with Princess Farhana (like you do), and I was telling her about how badly it went the night before - at least according to me and my brain -  in between nomming my grilled cheese sandwich.  And that's pretty much when she told me I needed to (learn how to) shut up.  That even if it goes badly, zip the lips, put your chin up, smile, and keep it yourself.  Took a while for that to sink in, but she was very much right (as usual).  If it goes really bad, it doesn't help anyone, especially yourself, to be apologetic to everyone and wallow in it.  Nobody wants to hear it - and if people did enjoy your performance anyway, it doesn't make them feel good to hear you think you sucked, and most often we're our own worst critics anyway. Move on, make notes, do better next time.  I would extend the same theory to when it goes really great - be happy, enjoy it, take notes, and move on. Either way, acknowledge people's feedback positively and graciously, and be congenial, yet concise. 

So, that's part one of keeping your trap shut.  The other part is in the classroom.  I don't remember the exact point of when I learned to do it myself (and whether it involved grilled cheese or not), but I do remember the time I became aware of it as a phenomenon via a class I was teaching.  It was a performance-level class, and part of the class involved me critiquing the students so they could be better performers.  And for every item I commented on, there was a response for why or why they didn't do something from the students.  In a nutshell, there was an excuse for everything, and it was starting to irk me - until I remembered doing it with one of my own teachers back in the day.  As a student, you desperately want to be right, to show your teacher that you do know better, and you want to voice that.  But in the larger scheme of things, this is really unnecessary, and is a waste of breath and time.  Your teacher (most likely) knows you are not a moron, and knows and believes you can do better - he or she is trying to help you be the best you can be.  And the only way to do that is to listen and acknowledge what is being said, and start to think about how to make those changes - instead of making an excuse or trying to prove you know better.  Don't talk about doing or knowing better, DO it, SHOW it, BE it.  The only way you can prove yourself is by demonstrating that ability in the classroom and on the stage, not debating it with your instructor. 

Lastly, this is not to say you shouldn't discuss problems and concerns with your teacher.  There is a time and place for that - usually outside the classroom or perhaps during a private lesson. What I'm talking about here is learning to accept critique from your teacher by realizing you're not on trial, you don't need to cite evidence to prove your case - just open your ears to listen to what your teacher is saying, and look realistically at what you're doing and see what needs to change.  Saves more meaningful mouth-time for that grilled cheese sandwich. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

How Does Your Dance Grow?

I think one of the most important things I have learned on my journey, and that I try to impress upon my students, is the different avenues that are available to us to grow our dance, and the best way to use each.  I believe there are 3 main ways that are crucial to a dancer's development, and it's very important to understand how to use each wisely.  These are: performance, regular classes, and workshops.  Each of these things are vital learning opportunities - the crucial point though is to understand how to use them properly to get the most of yourself and your dancing.

Regular Classes:
Regular classes should be the command center for technique: foundation, movement development and exploration.  This is the best opportunity to not only learn new core movements and dance structure, but to also perfect your understanding of them, review them, and to master them.  The familiar classroom is the best place to get proper critique and correction, to insure that what you're practicing at home is the best way for your health and body.  If your teacher doesn't give you feedback in class (often due to class-size, or sometimes because a teacher fears that critique will lead to student loss), then make sure you let him/her know that you are looking for it, and perhaps schedule a private lesson with them to work on certain points.  Don't assume because you're not getting any personal critique, doesn't mean you're doing it right/you are made of awesomesauce. Often when I draw my class's attention to a specific detail or insight, it's because it's something nearly (if not all) everyone needs to pay attention to.

Sometimes there just aren't regular classes in your area, or your schedule or budget makes it very difficult to attend them.  Then you need to supplement them with some sort of other regular program.  One option is DVDs - which can be great sources of information - the only drawback is you can't get corrections or critique from them.  So if there is at least a teacher in your area, or someone you can make a monthly trip to go see, then schedule a private lesson with them.  Often just one hour of private lessons with a good teacher can give you a month of key points to work on - and they can compare your progress with the last time.  There are also now a variety of online classes, video-review options, skype lessons, etc. 

Sometimes a dancer will think because they have been dancing for a couple years, they've outgrown all of their local classes - rarely is this true.  Taking a basics class can be a great refresher on moves you may have forgotten or have gotten lazy about - and different teachers have different ways of approaching and explaining things.  The best dancers never say "I'm above all this basic stuff."

Workshops are ideal for expanding upon the foundation you create and grow in regular classes. They're also a great way to be exposed to new/different ideas and styles.  The best way to get the most out of any workshop is to have your foundation elements in place, so that you can worry more about getting the concepts down. 

A single workshop in a topic should be seen as a sampling of a concept, which means a single workshop taken does not make you an expert on the subject or now qualified to teach it yourself.  I have heard people say "I want to learn a choreography in X style of dance, so I can add it to my repertoire." That's not really the point of taking a workshop - you can't add a new style of dance to your offerings after a couple of hours.  Rather, a choreography or group of combinations in a given style is presented for you to start understanding how it's put together, why it's done that way, etc - and generally just be better educated about that dance form. 

Workshops are also a great way to study with dancers you may not get to see often, and deepen your understanding of their style and skills.  They can also be really key in unlocking new doors for your own personal style, figuring out what works and what doesn't.  They should challenge your mind and your body in healthy, creative ways, and you should come home with at least 2-3 new points of consideration - whether it's an idea, a movement, etc.  Don't be disgruntled if you can't remember a whole choreography - again, that's not the purpose.  You're going to most likely have a lot of new information thrown at you, and chances are, you're not going to remember all of it.  And that's totally OK!  Just take the time to explore those several concepts you do remember, and add them to your journey.

The last way we grow our dance is through performing.  No matter how much you practice a piece, something else happens when you go on stage and perform it live for an audience.  Through performing, we learn a lot about ourselves, the best and the worst.  We can learn what works and what doesn't work, AND we have the freedom to change it for next time.  I think it's crucial to have a goal that you set for yourself for each and every performance - anywhere from "pretty hands" to "connecting with the audience" - and these goals really do add up and help you process your dance better.

The Power of Three
Lastly, what's really essential with these three things, is that they are used TOGETHER. If you only ever do regular classes - and only with one teacher, you won't expand your dance horizons without workshops and experimenting with different styles.  If you only ever do workshops, you're cutting out the foundation upkeep and critique you need from regular classes.  If you only ever perform, your dance won't grow anywhere as much as it would with classes and workshops. If you really wish to truly grow your dance, and grow it strong, consider how you can make room in your life and your budget for all 3, because it will make the difference.