Wednesday, May 6, 2015

GETTING THE MOST OUT OF DANCE CLASSES: APPROACHING LEARNING WITH INTENTION

The chorus at the London Palladium, 1950's
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 Most of us attend dance classes and workshops regularly, and many of us also teach them.  It goes without saying that for dancers, being a perpetual student- no matter what your level- expanding your horizons and pushing your physical boundaries is what it’s all about!  We take classes for a variety of reasons: to improve our technique, to learn a certain choreography or a new style, to hone aspects of a dance genre that we already perform, because we get a chance to study with a local or visiting master, or just because we need to move.

 Because dance presents a challenge that is mental as well as physical, we can never truly stop learning.  And of course, if you want to push yourself, you should take as many classes as possible.  But that’s not always the case.  Sometimes, entering the studio for class with a specific intention in mind will help you grow even more as a dancer. Taking classes to consciously improve on your weaker areas will ultimately make you a stronger dancer.

Sometimes I’ve spoken with dance instructors who are hesitant to take workshops alongside their students, for fear of looking bad.  While that might be a somewhat valid consideration, the main point is that nobody should feel bad about learning!  It’s also a terrific way to set a model for your students, showing them that there is no limit to improving themselves. This is especially true if they’re at that “advanced intermediate” stage where they think they know it all; you know, that little peak that occurs before they find out that there will never be enough hours…or years…or decades to learn everything?  Learning humility and being open to challenges are as much a part of dancing as the movements themselves!

The way I see it, there are many and varied reasons for taking classes, but if you define your purpose for going to a particular class, you’ll get a lot more out of it.

Here’s the way I break down my own needs and what I want to accomplish by taking certain classes:

Technique Maintenance And Improvement
 There are no boundaries for improving your technique- there’s always something new to learn. Longtime professionals and famous dancers take classes often, if not daily, for this reason alone. Just look at any ballet company-everyday classes are mandatory. Did Mikhail Baryshnikov and Suzanne Farrell ever skip a day at the barre? Probably not. Did Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire slack off on rehearsing cause they had better things to do? Doubtful. Though great dance technique is not strictly Use It Or Lose It, the more you actually use it, the better it will be!

No matter what level dancer you are, the experience of being in a class solely to hone your technique will make you a better dancer. While practicing or rehearsing on our own, we strive and sweat and get things done. But knowing that  in class, you are  performing under the watchful eye of an instructor is different- it pushes us to  focus and work a little harder…and to accept corrections or make little tweaks in execution that we might not have noticed on our own.

Learning And Inspiration
 Nothing gets a dancer’s brain synapses firing like learning a new style. We want it all, and we want it now! Many studies have proven that dancing of any kind helps to increase cognitive abilities in people of all ages…and most of them have shown that dancing was the only physical activity that actually staves off Alzheimer’s!

 Aside from that, learning a new type of dance or being inspired by another dancer’s interpretation is thrilling.  The movement differentiation that comes with studying a new dance form is a welcome challenge and is usually lots of fun.  If you’re used to soloing, try a partner dance like tango, swing or square dancing.  If you’re trained in classical ballet, test-drive some street dancing.

 Even if you’re studying a genre you’re already familiar with, seeing how another dancer-the one you’re learning from- moves will motivate you to look at your own technique in a whole new way. Often, breaking out of our own personal boxes and becoming an eager newbie once again will stimulate our creativity and encourage us to excel both in class and in our own familiar genre of dance.

Improving Retention And Sharpening Motor Skills
Some of us prefer choreography to improvisation or vice-versa, but for right now, that’s a moot point. Taking a choreography class (or learning a choreography for a show) is a terrific way to think on your feet, improve your cognitive abilities and aid your retention skills. For many of us, memorizing  choreographed sequences or intricate combinations is a bit of a downfall, but the good news is that with time and practice, you get better at it. This occurs because your brain is actually learning this process through repetition.  Once you’ve mastered this type of study- even unconsciously- it makes it much easier for your brain to apply this skill in the future.

 Another plus is that every time you learn a choreography that someone else has written, you’re opened up to a whole new way of seeing and hearing things. Even in a dance genre you’re quite familiar with, musicality  (and personal style) is a highly individual thing, there’s not any right or wrong. It’s stimulating to see that everyone hears the music-and interprets the phrases-differently. While you might think of hitting accents at a certain point in a musical composition, another dancer might slide right through them and save the dynamic rhythmic references for elsewhere.  At first this might be maddening, because we've learned to rely on own instincts, but ultimately it’s refreshing. When you become used to these little  “surprises” by working with a number of new choreographies, it opens up a world of new possibilities, by breaking down any conscious or unconscious preconceived notions you have about dancing. Even if you never plan on performing the piece you’re learning, it helps you to grow as an artist.


 Advancing Performance Abilities
 As I said before, everyone hears music differently, but they also feel, respond to and interpret it in their own individual ways. This can be an incredible learning experience for you, too. By witnessing someone else emoting to a composition, whether it’s a set gesture done as part of choreography or just a fleeting, genuine moment of emotion, it can be quite illuminating.

If you’re learning or enhancing an ethnic dance genre, such as belly dance, flamenco or samba, watching your instructor respond to the music itself- or lyrics that are sung in a foreign language-is invaluable. The classes you take to improve your performance skills don’t even have to be movement-oriented. I always recommend acting classes or workshops to my students, because they get you in tune with accessing your emotions and will help you to build confidence for your non-verbal performances in dance. 

Last but not least, the more familiar and comfortable you become with  your own dancing, the easier it will be to let the music move you and let your unique feelings shine through…and that is  the key to what makes a good dancer a great dancer.


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Get a signed copy of The Belly Dance Handbook: A Companion For The Serious Dancer here: www.princessfarhana.com

Photo and graphics by Maharet Hughes
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