Tips for College Part I dealt with what to expect in technique classes and performance rehearsals, as well as some tips for success in these areas. In continuation of the series, I will highlight two aspects of dance in higher education with which many incoming students have little experience.
Improvisation may be an entirely new concept for some of you (if we’re not counting the off-the-cuff choreography you’ve performed in front of your bedroom mirror). I count myself very lucky to have had early experience in creative dance and improvisation at my hometown studio. At the time, I did not realize it was a rarity. However, it was not long into my first year as a dance major that a professor introduced the concept of improvisational movement and began leading the class in some beginning exercises. I could feel tension among the students. Some were nervous to appear so vulnerable in front of their peers and instructor and others had no idea how to start or what to do. A few that had before been asked to move as they’d like in a dance studio class had perhaps had no guidance and had always used the moments to re-hash their favorite moves or try something they’d seen the older kids do. It seemed likely that this was not what the professor was looking for. Fear suddenly paralyzed some of the most talented dancers in the class. If you are an experienced improviser, your background will serve you well in the college environment. If you are in the other group, don’t panic! Improvisation, just like technique, takes practice to move comfortably and confidently. And you will get plenty of practice now that you are entering this new phase in your study of dance. So…
- Tip #5: Don’t be afraid to just take a deep breath and go for it. You may feel like a fool, but the only people that looked foolish that day in my class were those that were too afraid or insecure to make the most of the opportunity. They giggled, marked their movement, or froze altogether rather than bravely being willing to appear awkward or even unsophisticated.
Modern Dance, Contemporary Concepts
Modern dance may be new to many of you as well. It is a very important part of many dance programs because it was within academic establishments that Modern techniques were developed and the art form found its foothold in America. Despite its prominence at universities, few dance studios offer Modern Dance techniques in their curriculum. Some of you may compete in (or witness) Modern at competitions. However, often only some of those that compete in this category are studying modern dance techniques and usually even less are utilizing the choreographic processes typical of Modern Dance. If you are one of the few, kudos to your dance school.
The art form of Modern Dance (and Contemporary dance forms in general) is more than just performing the techniques and steps with which it is associated. That is the “how” but Modern Dance also asks “why.” Without the process or investigation of this question, a dancer or choreographer is offering their interpretation of Modern Dance. In other words, a dance may look expressive or emotive, contain un-balletic poses or rolling on the floor, and be accompanied by unconventional music choices, but can lack the artistic intent of contemporary dance forms that you will be asked to explore in college and beyond. I believe I’m safe to assume that many of you will find what is expected of you in your study of Modern Dance (and perhaps other dance forms as well) in a university setting to be very different from your studio at home. There will be more emphasis on dancing with an understanding of how the body functions and how something feels (as opposed to how it looks), on working apart from or even against the music as you dance, on presenting abstract meaning or intent through movement, and on discovering ways of moving that are new or even unflattering. With all of that in mind…
- Tip #6: Embrace the task at hand. Focus simply on the task your teacher, who is guiding you in your exploration, has charged. When you are uncertain or just learning, solving one problem at a time will keep you from getting wrapped up in trying to make something spectacular instead of discovering something spectacular. A direction as simple as “dance with one elbow attached to the ground” or “let your breath guide each movement” may seem silly at first and you may be tempted to think that you don’t need this exercise to be a good dancer. But, don’t think, just try it, because these silly little exercises will help you grow from someone who makes dance into someone who can express themselves through dance.
Filling in the Gaps
There may be a point during your college career that someone may imply that there have been gaps in your dance education and you are faced with breaking old habits or learning something in a different way. If or when this occurs, I encourage you to resist becoming indignant. Refer back to Part I and learn to trust your new instructors, letting go of any assumptions that you “already know how to do” whatever they are asking you to do. As a college instructor, it was often frustrating for me to see talented students holding on so tightly to what their teachers “back home” had told them that their progress in my class stalled. In fact, the students who improved most rapidly in my beginning level classes were those who had little to no dance experience because they held no preconceived notions and could absorb all that I offered them. I encountered students with 14 years or so of studio experience which had yielded many bad habits from repetition of poor technique. Unfortunately in some cases, these “experienced” students seemed unsatisfied with re-examining the basics after having been considered “advanced” dancers at home. It would have benefited these students to remember that even professionals consistently work to better understand and perform the basics of their technique.
I hope that my wording in this post has not made anyone feel that their instruction up to this point has not been worthwhile. While it is wonderful when dance schools for young students take steps to provide an understanding of the more creative or artistic side of dance (and as you may know, I highly encourage this), I realize that teaching students to execute dance is the primary function of a studio. You should not feel shortchanged if your school has provided you with a solid technical foundation and performance experience. You have plenty of time to dig deeper in your understanding of movement and to mature as an artist.
Read on to Part III…