Sunday, April 8, 2012
FULFILLING DRILLING: MAKING THE MOST OF HOME PRACTICE
Taking classes in person is obviously the best way to learn good dance technique, but home practice is the key to refining it. Practice makes perfect, and drilling dance moves will help you to develop good muscle memory and to instill internal awareness into the mechanics of every step you are practicing. Deliberate practice ensures that you are constantly developing your skills at levels that are increasingly challenging… and if you do not do this on a regular basis, and then you will run the risk of falling out of practice!
Drilling is to dancing what running scales is to musicianship, or what memorizing the alphabet, vowels and consonants is to a new reader- it helps the practitioner build up strength, comprehension, dexterity, and control. To some, this may seem like drudgework, but once you’ve mastered the basic premises, you can string together melodies, read sentences or learn dance combinations.
However, drilling your dance vocabulary on your own also means that you could potentially be practicing incorrectly, and either encouraging bad habits to develop, or actually physically hurting yourself.
In order to make your homework productive and your drilling fulfilling, here are some things to bear in mind:
Start And Finish Like a Champ
Warm ups and cool downs are done in class for a reason: to protect your body, and make sure your muscles, joints and tendons are ready for the task they’re about to undertake. Though it might be tempting to just start dancing or drilling, please don’t neglect these ultra-important sections of your home practice!
Consult Your Instructor
To make your home practice more fruitful, it is imperative that you have got your technique down; otherwise you’ll be drilling the wrong sort of information into your muscle memory.
Tell your instructor you wish to practice at home, and ask if you can run a few movements by her to make sure you are doing them correctly. Don’t be shy about this- any teacher worth their salt will be absolutely tickled that you are enthused enough to want to work on your own, and will gladly take the time to watch and, if needed, to correct you.
Check your posture carefully, and keep re-checking as you move through different steps. You should always do a posture check before you begin to actually dance. Dance posture varies a bit from genre to genre, but in general your feet should be about hip-width apart with even weight distribution from the balls of the foot to the heels; your knees should be flexible (not locked and not sharply bent) the pelvis should be slightly tucked, the ribcage lifted, the head and neck level, and the shoulders pulled slightly back and down. This all makes for a beautiful body line, and “safe” dance posture.
Often, while dancing, students will be concentrating so intensely on a certain movement, that their posture falls apart. They either don’t think about what the rest of their body is doing, or every part of the body automatically tenses up, while trying to “help” the part that is working!
So, every so often, do a full posture check- and remember to be conscious of your facial expressions! Concentration sometimes manifests itself as a scowl, a furrowed brow, teeth grinding, or mouthing the counts of the movements…. And you don’t want any of that in your muscle memory!
Drill The Basics
While you may want to blithely plunge ahead and start improvising to music, or inventing your own combinations, remember that drilling the basics never should get old. Even world famous ballet dancers do their barre work every day- it’s a way of reconnecting with the fundamentals and warming up not just the body, but also the synapses of the brain.
Before you start drilling, do a little bit of light, aerobic dancing (you can get your improv jollies out here!) to get your body ready and your brain focused for the conscious drilling.
In order to keep track of all of this, you will definitely need a mirror. But you don’t have to spend a lot of money; a full-length door mirror, the type that would be mounted inside a closet, will suffice for your home practice needs.
Use the mirror to check everything from your basic dance posture to your facial expressions. And once you drilled yourself often while looking into the mirror, it’s time to try the exercises facing away from the mirror, to really ingrain them into your muscle memory.
The mirror can be a great tool for checking body lines and angles, and for making sure that a movement looks the way it is supposed to look- but do not use the mirror as a crutch- you should eventually be able to feel these movements without checking them visually.
Even It Out
Make sure you drill both sides of your body evenly, so that your body feels natural and balanced. However, it’s also a good idea to remember that almost every dancer has a dominant side, and which side dominates is usually depending on whether the dancer right or left-handed. Your non-dominant side may need some remedial work to get it up to speed, so you may want to drill a few extra counts, or a little more intensely on your non-dominant side, so that both sides will have equal power and strength.
Don’t worry, I’m not talking about going on a diet- just asking you to make sure your weight placement is where it’s supposed to be! Are you standing on the right foot and working the left leg? Is your weight supposed to be evenly distributed over both your feet? Are you supposed to be leaning that far forward?
Check your weight placement and footwork constantly- these may seem like small things, but they are huge in the context of getting a movement down correctly.
Finish Your Movements
Finish every movement you make fully, from the preparation to the execution. Be hyper-vigilant about any sort of sloppiness. Although this seems extremely obvious, it’s easier said than done…. I see unfinished movements all the time in the classes and workshops I teach- and I know I was guilty of that exact same thing when I was learning- it’s just natural. Don’t beat yourself up about it, but definitely be aware of it! So, if a movement is supposed to last eight counts, it shouldn’t be finished in six; and if you are attempting to make a circle with your hip, make sure it’s a complete circle, not an oval, kidney bean, trapezoid, octagon, or any of numerous other geometric shapes!
Play With Timing And Texture
Once you mastered a movement correctly, you can then play with the texture of that movement- by making it faster, slower, or more syncopated, by accenting it differently.
Start a specific movement quickly, and then end it slowly, or vice versa. If you are doing a movement to the left, repeat it on the right, if you travel forward, try doing the same movement backwards, and so on.
Add layers - such as pretty arm work, shimmies, and traveling steps to the movements you have mastered.
Even in home practice, make sure you are well hydrated and have some nutritious snacks on hand, to make sure that you are feeding both your body and your brain.
Once you’ve mastered your drilling, you can then use the drills as a warm up before letting your imagination- and your body-run wild. Reproduce the combinations you have learned in class, or make some up on your own. Running combos is a great way to get “flow” into your dancing, because combinations emphasize weight placement, timing, and transitions as well as the individual forms of technique. Put on some music you love and dance as though no one is watching… because no one is, so have fun!