Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Right Dance for the Right Place

Dragon*Con 2014, acoustic set with The Nathaniel Johnstone Band, photo by ?
There is a time to dance...and the right place to do it in.

When I cover professionalism and elements for performance in my classes and workshop, I always talk about considering venue appropriateness when crafting a show.

What is venue appropriateness?  It is taking into consideration 3 key bits of information regarding the venue you are to be performing in/at.

1) The type of place (restaurant, bar, farmer's market, club, church, festival, hafla, etc)

2) The audience (for other dancers, for a general public, children, teens, college kids, the elderly, etc)

3) Your performance: how well the costume/music/style works when you have considered #1 and #2.

This may seem fairly elementary, but a lot of dancers get so hung up on the excitement of performing that they rarely take into consideration what they're presenting and how appropriate it may be.  And it's very unfortunate when that lack of planning leads to the dancer (or the dance in general) not being received in a positive light.  Or if a dancer has only ever performed for the dance community, he or she may not realize that the general public is not the same audience they have encountered before.

I have come up with some sample situations to consider:

-The Ethnic Restaurant: when performing at an Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Middle Eastern, or other ethnic restaurant where dance performances are standard (I know several Indian and Ethiopian restaurants that feature dancing), it's important to check with the owner/manager/house dancer to see what type of music and costuming is preferred. Do NOT be afraid to ask! There seems to be an attitude of "if I have to ask, then I will look unprofessional" - and frankly, I believe you look MORE professional asking the client what THEY want. Some places only want a traditional cabaret look, others want what is hottest "over there" right now, and others don't care, as long as the customers are happy. But you won't know unless you ask.

And unless the restaurant is more set-up like the golden days of "dinner and a show" with proper stage, sound, lights, and being announced - you're expected to essentially be a novelty, an element of atmosphere, a nice perk for the diners, but they're probably not really there to see you.  The show should be family-friendly/all ages.  So it's a safe bet to leave the nearly-nude designer costume at home, as well as the goat sacrifices choreographed to whalesong.

-Clubs & Bars: As goes with the territory, this tends to be an adult crowd, but how they behave and what may be expected of you depends on the area and kind of bar/club.  In a college-heavy area especially, they tend to expect to see more skin - but it's important to keep in mind, as the booze (and hookah) flows, your own personal safety. If the club/bar has a particular focus or theme, then your performance should be aligned with that theme. For example, at a Goth night, dancing in a baby pink costume to George Abdo may not go over quite as well as a more darkly-inspired costume to Dead Can Dance. Also, unless it's a hookah bar where the dancer is often eye-candy/background, performances are best kept short and sweet.  People come out to club nights to see some cool stuff, but also to get on the dancefloor themselves.  Keep it short and sweet.

-Festivals& Conventions: these tend to be all-ages, all crossroads of humanity kinds of events, but often have a theme - and to really fit in, again you need to know and understand that theme.  The set you use for the restaurant, the farmer's market, and retirement community may work perfect for all of those events, but if you're using that same music and costuming for a Steampunk or Pagan event, it's going to feel weird, in an otherwise appropriately-themed line-up. In the way that throwing tassels on a costume doesn't make a dance tribal, adding a bustle or goggles won't make it steampunk either.  If you're performing at a spiritual event, what will you do to make that connection?  If it's a festival for Egyptian Style Bellydance - then breaking out Tribal Fusion isn't the thing to do. And vice versa. Unless there's a context for it.

Really, I could go on and on about many different kinds of situations - but just from these three, you should get the idea. (I could also get into making sure you are compensated effectively for all of these, but that's a post for another day - I'm going to assume for now that you've already negotiated a fair wage/deal for the job, in agreement with community standards.) 

It's wonderful to perform (and especially to be asked to), but it's even better to make sure you're properly prepared and indeed are the right dancer for the job. Consider where and when you are performing, who you are performing to, and how you're going to cater your performance to satisfy the situation professionally.

If your style, your ability, or your presentation doesn't fit, then don't force it.  Part of being professional is knowing when to perform and when NOT to perform.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Spiral Up: Empower Your Students!

The more resources we provide for our students, the stronger they will become.
Photo by Geisha Moth

This concept is something I firmly believe in and practice regularly.  I feel that my students excel not only because of what I offer them through my instruction, but also by making them aware of other opportunities outside of what I know or do. Multiple influences make for stronger, more unique dancers.

So it confounds me when I encounter teachers who won't tell their students about upcoming workshops, shows, festivals, and other events. It makes me sad for not only the students, but for the teachers, as most of their possible reasons are rooted in fear.  And fear doesn't belong in the classroom.

Here are few of the reasons I've heard along the way:

-"I want to check out this workshop teacher first, then I will know if it's OK for my students."So when's the next time that teacher may be in town again? Bringing in visiting instructors is not an easy or inexpensive task, and for it to happen regularly requires the support of a community - teachers AND students.  If the topic is something I am interested in, I'm pretty sure my students are going to be interested as well. Likewise, my students may be interested in things I don't teach.  It's not my job to pass approval on who they can or can't study with.  Of course you definitely want your students to learn from your idols and influences - all the while you don't want them to waste money on a class that's poorly taught or may injure them.  But you don't have to vet every workshop and instructor for them.

-"I prefer to keep ahead of my students." Or "I don't want to look dumb in front of them." 
If you're only a couple steps ahead of your students and are relying just on the odd workshop to keep that distance, you probably shouldn't be teaching.  It may sound harsh, but if that's your main fear, it's not a healthy one.  Understand that everyone learns differently, and what you pick up on depends on what you are open to in that moment, and the same is true for your students.  So don't be afraid to have your students in the same workshop you are in.  They will absorb what they can or are most interested in, and you can always go over that material together in class and talk about it further.  And it's also important to recognize that EVERYONE feels like a student when learning new things - no one is born a perfect dancer.  It shows compassion that you understand the process and wisdom that you don't claim to know everything.

-"They're not ready."
Workshops can be a geared to a wide range of levels.  Unless a workshop is specifically marketed for intermediate/advanced dancers or is a master class, most students will benefit from trying a workshop. Just as long as they understand they're not going to get everything, and THAT IS OK.  In fact, it's unrealistic to retain absolutely everything you learned in a 2 hour workshop! Heck, even in an hour class, there's a reason why we go over previous material.  So don't hold them back - challenges make for growth.

-"I don't want to lose my students."This is just the wrong attitude to have and it WILL make you lose them. You don't own your students, they pay you to teach them.  If they are inspired by someone else, and want to try their classes, there's nothing wrong with that.  If they truly enjoy working with you and learning from you, they will be there for as long as they can.  But realize, everything is temporary, everything changes.

So if you want to be a good teacher, keep an eye on your local community and what's happening.  If there's bigger events in or out of your area you enjoy, pass along the word. Share the love, spread the knowledge, and you'll see the growth!  Everyone spirals up together!