Sunday, April 27, 2008

Dance on the Rise

Throughout the 20th century, dance has always been a large form of entertainment in the United States. It evolved from a couple of techniques to an abundance of forms that took over the nation. Change was the reoccurring theme throughout this era due to WWI and II, which caused the beginning of the social revolution. Returning soldiers and their wives were more likely to go dancing at bars and nightclubs. Accordingly, the fun and entertainment era erupted, and swept through the states. There have been three major spikes in the development of dance in the 20th century. Television allowed nationwide access to a variety of dances through shows like American Bandstand and later MTV. The Internet allowed videos to be seen at any time, and created another medium by which the public could see new dances. Dance movies stormed through America and the world, exposing dance to a much wider population. From the early days Vaudeville, to present day television, dance has become even more commercialized due to the media outlets that have been invented in the last 20th century like television, the internet and movies.

The birth of the television created new ideas in media. Apparel stores were able to commercialize their clothing and accessories on TV in order to get new customers to enter their stores. Soon, shows such as American Bandstand entered the homes of many people throughout the nation. Putting musicians on television to commercialize their albums opened doors for new dance techniques that went right along with the music industry. As the music industry changed, the forms of dance began to change. When James Brown engulfed the nation on American Bandstand, the teenage population began to shimmy, funky chicken, and mash potato. As time went on, “the old James Brown, the robot, the bug-a-loo, and the soul train” all became major steps used in techniques such as break dancing, popping and locking, jazz, and Broadway. Also, once television hit mainstream, movies followed right after. Top Hat, one of the first Fred Astaire movies from 1935, took Broadway dance and theatre to the big screen, which caused choreography by Jack Cole, Fred Astaire, Gwen Verdon, and Bob Fosse to explode, and become popular in the mid- 1900’s. As the popularity of musicals grew, performance style dance became a new branch of technique within the dance world. Later, movies such as Save the Last Dance, Center Stage, and You Got Served created an increase in ballet and hip-hop popularity. Finally, television shows such as, Dancing with the Stars, So you think you can dance, and America’s Best Dance Crew, gave rise to ballroom dancing, hip hop and contemporary dance.

While dance began to erupt through the mid-1900’s due to television, the late 1900’s introduced the Internet. As the Internet began to expand, YouTube created an outlet for choreographers and dancers, along with anyone in the nation, to put their videos and creations on the web for all to see. With YouTube people can learn how to do popular dances from their favorite music videos such as “lean wit it, rock wit it”, “two-step,” and “crank dat soulja boy”. As YouTube expands, more and more people observe and view new dance styles everyday, which causes a rise in new dance techniques and commercialization.

Television and the Internet created a major increase in popularity for dance throughout the nation and the world. Although dance has always been commercialized through advertisements in newspapers and people yelling them out on the streets, the development of the TV and Internet created a boom for dance forms and techniques everywhere.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Rise of Jazz Dance Companies in the US: Can it be Brought?

When the average person thinks of “dance” companies, they usually conjure up images of New York City Ballet, or the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Major ballet and modern companies are the organizations that most people are familiar with. These companies have a rich, well publicized history in the United States.

Lurking sometimes just below the radar are the jazz dance companies in our country. Founded in 1962,
Giordano Dance Chicago was considered the first dance troupe to dedicate itself solely to jazz dance. Today, there are very few jazz professional performing companies. At their last festival, the Jazz Dance World Congress only identified eleven such major companies in the United States, compared to the dozens of ballet and modern organizations. Why is there such a disparity in the number of jazz companies and the number of ballet and modern companies? Why does our country seem to publicly embrace other forms of dance above jazz? Can jazz performance companies compete with the established ballet and modern companies?

I believe that jazz dance companies face overwhelming odds against them for success. One reason for this is lack of funding. While patrons of the arts are often anxious to support new and innovative ideas, they are usually more generous when the proposals are coming from an organization that has an audience already in place.

Another issue jazz performance companies must address is the ever changing style of their repertory. From the very beginning, jazz dance has relied heavily on originality and improvisation. As time progresses and new generations of dancers emerge, they bring with them their own unique style. Current trends and fads play an extremely important part in the evolution of jazz dance. Although these trends often make jazz so interesting and groundbreaking, they can also be a detriment. If the very essence of a dance form changes every few years to fit the popular mold, there are many challenges it must face when it comes to forming an established company. Donors will not want to spend money on something that does not have a firm foundation.

It would seem that ballet and modern performance companies have a much better chance of success because they have roots in an established, time-honored tradition. By its very definition, jazz dance takes its cue from contemporary ideas and forms, which can unfortunately hinder the establishment of jazz performance companies.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bunheads for a Better Tomorrow Presents…

Ballet is often seen as the foundation for many dance forms. The ballet technique teaches the importance of stamina, flexibility, a keen-memory, coordination, good posture, and balance; just to name of few. These benefits allow dancers to approach any form of movement with a strong foundation. Nevertheless, sometimes that foundation is not enough. As dancers become older, they often begin to take jazz dance. Most bunheads encounter moments of extreme confusion when they begin jazz with only a ballet foundation. Those “rules” of ballet technique fuel a hindrance when dancers are asked for sharp, quick, grounded movements, or turned-in legs, during jazz classes. The ballet-trained dancer has a body that is not used to moving in such radical ways!

Because of this, I feel like jazz is also a key foundation for a dancer and should be taken hand-in-hand with ballet. When considering aspects of dance such as core strength, musicality, confidence, expressiveness, dynamics, and rhythm, jazz technique accomplishes all six. Without jazz, the dancer is missing many key elements to fully expressing themselves in their movement. For example, ballet focuses on strength largely in the lower body only. Jazz, however, works to strengthen areas such as the core. Whether through sit-ups, body rolls, or jumps, jazz technique improves core strength, which in turn helps a dancer during turns or Pointe work for their ballet class. Furthermore, jazz music can be upbeat or expressive in a more free way. Ballet has expression too; nevertheless, it is only allowable to the point of the technique.

One feature of jazz dance is that the movements can be somewhat more mature, or sexualized, than ballet. Because of this, studios must offer jazz to younger children in a modified way. The jazz technique foundation must focus less at times on pelvis isolation, and instead appraoch moves such as bounces, chasses, kick ball changes, jumps, jazz squares, pivot turns, jazz walks or runs, jazz hand combinations, and step-togethers. All these, and more, will allow a dancer to slowly internalize some key aspects of jazz (they can add on the hips and what not later).

As aforementioned, difficulties will arise when learning to move slow first (in ballet) and then fast (in jazz or hip-hop) and visa versa. Instead, dancers must learn to move slow and fast at the same time. They must train their bodies to control their center, and how to let it go. They must understand how to turnout from the hips, but they also must know what it feels like to move in the natural form of one’s body. They must feel what dancing barefoot is, but also know what it is like to sail around the room on satin.

Many of the values that a dance studio enforces uphold the American dream: responsibility, little time for leisure, devotion, pursing your passion and success earned through hard work. It is no wonder that dance has survived so long in American culture: it reflects our culture’s foundational goals! I think that art often reflects the times, and today’s times are quick. We live in a fast-paced world, and the art of dance is beginning to reflect this aspect of society. Jazz somewhat replaced ballet in American culture in the early twentieth century and now Hip-Hop (an even faster and more isolated form of movement) has stepped forward to try to replace jazz. I know I personally do not want to stay a bunhead and behind the times and that is another reason why I advocate a jazz foundation for today’s young dancers.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Dance Competitions and Conventions

Ever since dance competitions and conventions have appeared throughout the country, negative opinions have followed in their path. Art enthusiasts tend to find the convention scene un-artistic and resembling an athletic event; they believe that art cannot be scored. However, when you stop and think about the experiences and exposure that convention and competition bring, personally, I can’t help but take the opposite view. Dance competitions allow young aspiring jazz dancers to develop connections, study various styles, and provide performance experience all within a two day to one week span of time. From personal experience, I believe that dance competitions and conventions help to enhance a young jazz dancer’s knowledge and experience.
Dance competitions provide opportunities for young jazz dancers to make connections in the field. They are exposed to faculty members who are legends in the jazz world both as choreographers and dancers. Faculty members range from, Broadway choreographers to music video performers. Young jazz dancers also have a chance to meet hundreds of dancers who are reaching for the same dream, people who most likely will be seen in future auditions. Dance conventions allow students who may not be able to afford professional training to meet successful people in the business.
Convention classes allow young jazz dancers to attempt and be exposed to various styles of jazz. Students may be exposed to five different combinations a day ranging from hip-hop to jazz to contemporary jazz. Students, who cannot afford year round training with professionals, can bring what they learn back to their home studio to perfect. The competition scene also allows on stage experience of various styles where jazz dancers can observe and learn from their peers. In the competition scene, young jazz dancers may perform possibly up to ten dances of all a different styles in one night. This results in a diverse amount of on stage experience.
Dance competitions have helped to commercialize the jazz world as well. Jazz dance is now more popular than ever, thus the public is better informed. More jobs and opportunities come as a result. Shows like So You Think You Can Dance have helped spark other dance shows such as America’s Best Dance Crew. Who are the contestants on these shows; and who are the judges? Most often, the contestants and judges are members of the competition and convention scene. It is all about connections.
Personally, I have met many famous people in the jazz world through the dance competition and convention scene. I have become close with figures filled with connections like Joe Lanteri and Joe Tremaine. In addition, I have been exposed to iconic figures in the jazz world like Liza Minnelli. I have had a chance to work with and perform pieces for practically all of the judges on So You Think You Can Dance. The majority of the contestants happen to be my peers from the jazz convention scene. Dance competitions provided me with the joy of performing for many weekends throughout my jazz studies as well as experiences I will never forget.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of a Jazz Career

In a 21st century dance world bursting at the seams with modern, contemporary, and ballet companies, what’s a jazz dancer to do? What professional-level job opportunities exist for the dancer who wishes to pursue a strictly jazz-oriented career, and what, if any, opportunities are available for long-term contracts with established “jazz” companies? Essentially, what does it mean to be a “professional jazz dancer” in today’s dance world? Jazz dance, while retaining its wide base of popularity in non-professional settings such as dance competitions, seems to have taken a back seat in recent years to the exponentially expanding arena of contemporary dance. In response, many jazz companies and dancers have expanded to include more contemporary dance influences in their work. Certainly the situation for today’s jazz dancer is somewhat different than it would have been, for instance, during the heyday of Bob Fosse, when the very idea and style of jazz dancing was considered to be on the exciting cutting edge of the progression and transformation of dance. Jazz seems to be no longer a primary focus in dancing thought, a trend which seems to be accompanied by the suspicion that jazz dancing is somehow cheap or less demanding professionally, artistically, or technically than other forms of dance which involve more of a continuous strain of specific training and oft-repeated disciplinary measures. Although there is no universally codified jazz “technique,” the extensive versatility this dance form requires is part of what makes jazz dancing so difficult—it takes just as much artistry, work, and tireless training to master as many other contemporary forms.
It takes even more work, however, for the jazz dancer to find a steady job. Although many opportunities, such as contracts for musical theatre productions, are available to those whose work merits them, the temporary nature of such runs provide a dancer with little long-term guarantee for subsequent work, making a jazz dancer’s life an even longer string of auditions than that of a contemporary ballet dancer. Although there are and have been over time a few professional jazz companies which provide their dancers with longer-term contracts, such as the famous Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, these opportunities are too scarce to make them a practical option to be relied on by a jazz dancer looking for a job. Yes, Broadway offers a plethora of job opportunities for jazz dancers, some of which can feature lengthy, relatively well-paid runs and greater security. However, many of these roles are for ensemble work in particular, and many (though certainly not all) require additional special skills, such as singing and acting ability. One developing and growing arena in which jazz dancers may find greater opportunities is in the film and commercial industries. As a quickly changing venue, new opportunities, many of which can be extremely well paid, are opening up in this realm rather rapidly. These too are temporary however, providing the dancer with work only until the relatively short filming process is over. One of today’s most prolific opportunities for film dancing is in the Hip-hop realm, a growing style of dance which is quickly rising in professional esteem. Although not in fact a style of jazz dance, many jazz dancers crossover for the opportunities it can provide.
There are certainly opportunities for professional jazz dancers available, but they are few and far between in proportion to the opportunities available to those wishing to pursue other dance forms, or at least expand, allowing some crossover between jazz and other contemporary styles in their search for satisfactory professional employment. Many dancers already explore these other dance forms, and while they may prefer jazz, would not object to jobs involving more varied styles. In these cases, a dancer’s jazz training may benefit them in securing a job, but that job is perhaps not necessarily one which entails solely jazz emphasis. For a dancer who is looking to live exclusively as a professional jazz dancer, the options are more limited, thus making the competition to obtain them all the more intense. Is a professional jazz career a viable option? Only for a few.

Dance as Expression in Movin’ Out vs. Spring Awakening
In today’s world, Broadway musical often combine many elements. Whether the show employs comedy or drama, simple or elaborate sets, large or small casts, each show has its own voice; some more audible than others. In my opinion, dance often enhances a show by being its primary plot device or as a means to connect ideas within the work. In Billy Joel and Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out and Duncan Sheik and Steven Satar’s Spring Awakening, dance is utilized in completely different ways to achieve a common goal: providing cohesiveness and connecting the plot to the characters through movement, both simple and complex.

Through Billy Joel’s lyrics, a story unfolds in Movin’ Out. Set in the Vietnam era, the dancers are simultaneously the actors and narrative. The entire production is performed to Billy Joel classics, choreographed by the world renowned Twyla Tharp. She uses dance as the core of the show, but not just as a way to shift from one scene to another. In my opinion, she is successful in transforming the audiences’ expectations of a “ballet” or Broadway show. She blends the two to create a new type of experience by bringing dance to the foreground, instead of serving as embellishment. The dancers (like in classical ballet) carry the plot without being tied to the lyrics. They do reflect what the song is about, but they are not necessarily miming the story. With the group sections, the dancing becomes less about specific characters, and more about the era in which the story takes place. For example, in the section “We didn’t start the fire”, the dancers are not defined individuals, but they evoke the sense of chaos associated with riots, which were all too common in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The end of this section is perfect because of its simplicity. Most of the show is very flashy, showy and daring, but in the last few seconds of the song, the ensemble forms a simple line just staring at the audience. Movin’ Out is a Broadway musical in which the story is told largely through dance, not just lyrics and acting. Other musicals have used this format, most notably Fosse, but probably none have tackled such a difficult topic as the Vietnam War era. Perhaps the medium of dance helps to discuss uncomfortable topics.

Certainly another uncomfortable topic occurs in Spring Awakening. The original 1880s German play was banned because it dealt with exploring the sexual development of teenagers and social taboos such as homosexuality. In contrast to Movin’ Out, Spring Awakening uses dance as a way to show the age of the characters and also as scene transitions. The show was choreographed by Bill T. Jones, who used informal patterns and rhythm instead of flash and dash. Unlike Tharp, Jones did not have the luxury of working with professional level dancers. Jones used high school and college age actors and singers who had very little dance experience. Since the story is about a group of young, German teenagers in the late 1800’s, the movement is often free and playful with lots of props including chairs and microphones. However, because the subject matter of the musical deals with coming of age issues and misinformation concerning our sexual nature, the movement is also often aggressive and nearly punitive. In one of the opening numbers the male students stomp in place and in random patterns exhibiting great angst and frustration. The show is set with a music video in mind; the actors say their lines and then the songs are the characters’ thoughts during each scene. Dance is not the major narrative conveyance in Spring Awakening, but its unique nature of semi-patterns and passive-aggressive expression definitely help convey the attitudes of the characters. Just like Movin’ Out is innovative, so is this production, however, dance is not as prominent. It serves as a more passive role with more interpretive movement. While the “dance”, non-structured and not definable by genre is not the major focus of the staging of Spring Awakening, Bill T. Jones’ choreography makes a tremendous statement and addition to understanding the characters’ psyches, thus illuminating the theme of the play.
Both Tharp and Jones use dance to help with character development and transitions, while simultaneously advancing the plot, but in completely different ways and styles. In my opinion, Tharp use dance better, mainly because she takes it to a new level by making it the plot, not just another transition. Bill T. Jones uses minimal choreography to convey difficult topics, without making dance prominent. However, both approaches work. Movin’ Out is remarkable because it is a Broadway musical story told primarily through dance. Spring Awakening is notable because typical Broadway chorus dances are absent, but the barebones choreography greatly enhances our appreciation of the characters’ dilemmas and hopes. Either way, whether complicated and technical choreography, or the simplest of choreography (i.e. simply moving the chorus), well done choreography is a must for a successful Broadway musical.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

America Doesn't Know What ART Is

The millennium marked the beginning of a new age in television. Since the introduction of “Big Brother” in 2000, reality television shows have become increasingly popular, and the variety of reality shows offered has multiplied. You can now watch as average people “Survive” the outdoors, “freak” out on “Fear Factor”, get an “Extreme Makeover”, or discover that they are “America’s Next Top Model”. There are numerous other shows that solely focus on celebrities, specifically their personal lives. All of these shows have radically changed society’s perceptions on “celebrities”. Whereas this designation was previously enjoyed by music and movie stars, politicians, and the wealthy, reality shows offer average people the opportunity to become instant celebrities, idols of the American public.

Within the reality television madness exists a special category of elimination, competition based shows that rely on audience participation. Participants in these shows obtain celebrity status by simply being selected to be on the show, but they gain even greater stardom through their “performance” on the show. Dance-based reality shows are one of the top offenders of this instant celebrity status through their performances. Shows such as “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance?” give dancers the opportunity to secure jobs in the industry as a result of the fame they acquire from being chosen for the show.

The American public assumes that dancers on these shows are the best. So much emphasis is placed on the audition tour and the opportunity for dancers everywhere to perform their best. Many of the dancers selected for the show are chosen on standards not related directly to skill level, i.e. a particular style, a particular ethnicity, a particular “look”. These are all characteristics that are unable to be judged, in the traditional meaning of the word, and yet, they play an integral role in the selection process.

Because the American public is so poorly exposed to the arts, they tend to not be informed as to what is deemed good technique versus impressive tricks. Since the dancers want to gain audience approval, they often rely on their flashy tricks to secure the vote; and they are quite successful at doing so. Yes, many of these tricks are quite difficult to master, but when the intention behind them is solely to get a vote they lose their artistic grounding. Quite often, the most technically adept dancers (in particular the ballet dancers) get voted off these shows because the audience doesn’t fully appreciate the mastery of technique. Given that the point of the show is to “win” and get the most votes, it is understandable why you perform what would impress your audience the most. But, it is quite unfortunate that the American public is so poorly informed that they automatically turn to the performers with the most tricks up there sleeve.

The biggest problem with reality dance programs is that the dancing on the shows is creating a new standard for jazz dance. Audiences assume that the movement they see on television is dictionary-defined jazz, and that assumption has been socially constructed by the (possibly) technical ineptitude, individual style, and flashy moves that are produced under the heading of jazz dance. Because these dancers are assumed to be the best their movement is assumed to be the epitome of dance at its finest. Thus, competition, flashy jazz dance is perceived as being the standard for this “art,” and all of the dancers who classically train in the jazz field of dance for numerous years are not recognized.

I feel that the only way to avoid the problems of reality dance programs is to educate the American public. I am a firm believer that an appreciation of the arts begins as a young age, possibly in children as early as their elementary school years. Thus, through exposure to the classics of dance, music, and visual art, young children could develop a more educated appreciation of the arts that would differ dramatically from those views held by generations of the reality television shows. At least reality dance programs do expose the art of dance to a wider audience than would typically enjoy such experiences. However, exposure without education is not ideal because it neglects the prior establishment of dance standards. In a utopian dance world, all of the uneducated Americans who waste time watching these shows would instead use their time to attend a live performance and to patronize the development of programs focusing on the arts. However, America is lazy, and it is much easier to turn on a television and assume that you are experiencing the arts than it is to get dressed up and buy tickets for a performance. Reality dance television is not a detrimental to the “pristine” dance world, but rather, it is a guilty pleasure enjoyed by many to fulfill a void that only the arts can satisfy.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

How has the jazz technique style has progressed in my own experience of training.

Ball change, chassé, pivot step, and fan kick were some of the first steps that I learned when I was taking my first jazz class in middle school. I was introduced to the jazz technique style when I was fourteen years old; I attended an art middle school where the dance department offered ballet, modern, and jazz. There I was taught how to dance all three dance styles, but jazz was always the one that always caught my attention because of its unique movement and rhythm. Over the two years that I was there, our dance teacher focused on jazz combinations that were very cheesy. We danced to Cher, James Brown, but most of the time to Broadway music; in fact we even did a combination To All That Jazz and performed it everywhere! The next four years that followed, I continued taking some jazz classes in high school and that’s when I noticed that the movement began to change a little more. After experiencing more jazz classes, I learned that many dance teachers have their own style in jazz just like modern and ballet. After becoming aware that jazz was just like any other style, I also learned that it was important to always maintain the first basic steps that were taught by the first teacher.

At SMU I was introduced to other styles, for example in Danny’s jazz class I learned to become grounded. The movement that was given became vernacular and there was a lot of motion of the arms that connected to rest of the body. The presentation of the movement is given in another form; it is now portrayed to be shown in a performance level and not simple. I believe that the same is going on with Lauren’s class. Her style has helped me become aware of my body, for example, I am noticing if I am using every detail she has given me, from using my plie to jump higher, to maintaining an engaged center through a combination.
Overall I believe that my progress in jazz has made a big change and will continue to do that. I still don’t have every step perfect, but what all those different classes have done to me is just given me the opportunity to work and learn the variety of styles that exist


Quite simply, competitions and conventions are money-makers. Of course there are competitions and conventions that are based more on the advancement of the art than monetary gain, but these are not the types of organizations I will not address because they are much rarer. Most companies that produce for-profit events charge money to participating dancers, ensembles, and audiences. There may also be an extra charge for crowded master classes, which are sometimes open to the public to allow for greater return. In sum, the more people drawn into the enterprise, the more money its producers will reap. This emphasis on profit usually detacts from the development of the participating dancers.
One of the possible hindrances of development as a dancer is that, to create a higher gross, many competitions will award all participants simply for participating. This action does, however, have the possible upside of encouragement. It is important to encourage artists, especially in a world as potentially demeaning as dance. Awarding all particpants both credits the hard work and self-abandonment that dance requires, and hence it is a positive aspect. Also, "losing" or not receiving first place can be a deterrent when young dancers are considering continuing dance. Especially when there are only competition-based studios available to youths, receiving an acknowledgement of hard work helps to sustain a positive attitude towards dance, possibly until a confidence in their own abilities has been established; such awards may help to sustain interest in dance so that a dancer decides, based on experience rather than discouragement, whether or not he/she wishes to continue studying the art form. That said, dance is a hard lifestyle and younger dancers eventually need to prepare themselves. They need to prepare themselves for the reality of not being cast in a piece, accepted into a company, or walking away with a prize. Therefore, the lesson being taught by rewards based solely on participation is questionable. If dancers become adjusted to constant positive reinforcement, it may be harder to adjust to the lack of extra encouragement in the professional sphere. In reality not everyone wins and it is not necessarily logical or realistic to make it seem otherwise.
The biggest benefit to the participant in a competition or convention, despite any monetary qualms, is camaraderie. Not only can dancers grow closer to and more supportive of each other when placed in an unfamiliar situation, but the chance to befriend dancers from other regions is invaluable. Dance is time-consuming and many dancers have little time left to themselves, so meeting others who are equally as devoted can be a rare opportunity. The chance to make connections that may serve a dancer well in the future is also extremely important: much of a dancer's success is determined by the experiences he/she has had and by the impressions made on the people he/she has come into contact with during those experiences. If the dancer does not meet anyone valuable to network with, at least they may have come away with a friend. This should be the real, equally attainable prize.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

An Eye-Opener to the 
World of Commercial Dance

Dancing at a studio for sixteen years where ballet dominated the other dance forms limited my knowledge of the outside dance world. For so long I believed that being a successful dancer meant that you were a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre or New York City Ballet. I was ignorant to the fact that commercialized dance networks existed. I only knew of tap-n-twirl studios in my area that did not take dance seriously enough to enforce any form of foundational technique. Now that I am in college and dance with people who have very different dance backgrounds, I have been exposed to a fascinating side of the dance world where the spirit of dance is at its highest.
Learning the technique of classical ballet is important and enables a dancer to adapt to different styles of dance. I used to believe that perfect technique would get a dancer a free pass into the top dance companies, but after attending college for two years and experiencing auditions for many different dance styles, I have learned that it is the inner light of energy that transforms the technically-correct student into a performer. After speaking with several friends about their years in dance competitions, I learned that it is not just about the glitzy costumes or superficial, cheesy smiles, but it is about the passion that produces the dancing. Since I have been in college, I have taken several jazz classes that integrate elements of competition jazz and were more difficult than I had imagined. I am used to being graceful and making my movements flow, so when I took my first commercial jazz class, I was in for a real surprise. The combinations did not involve flailing of any sort like I had once imagined; there was a real art behind the quality of the movement. Matching the new choreography perfectly to the fast music felt like a foreign language to me, but once I allowed my body to relax and sink into the choreography, it became quite enjoyable. A side of me that I was not familiar with began to show through and because of that, I have been able to perform with different intentions. When I watch my friends who grew up with this style of dance perform, they automatically catch my attention. They may not have the strongest technique, but the performance quality of their movements makes my eyes only focus on them. The driving forces behind the choreography perfectly match the dynamic changes in the music and their organic productions of the movements are breath taking. No dance combination is produced with superficiality; everything is organic and comes from the heart.
Presently, dance companies are performing contemporary works that have strayed from the traditional. Contemporary ballet companies incorporate elements of hip-hop, jazz, and modern, and the little ballerina inside is transformed into a powerful and versatile dancer. Commercial dancers grow up learning these amazing other dance forms that are rarely offered at strict ballet studios. They are learning key performance qualities that go along with the different techniques. Their foundation techniques may not be as strong as a dancer who is trained at a strict ballet studio, but they have learned and applied a performance quality that makes them unique.
At my ballet studio, I only took one modern and jazz class per week, but it was not required. I am thankful that I took these classes because my passion is no longer classical ballet. Even though I have had minimal experience with these other dance styles, I am continually working on improving my skills in these weaker areas so that when I audition in the real dance world, I can be given the opportunity to dance with a prestigious dance company. I learn by watching others and I admire the grace and excitement that commercial dancers put into all of their movement. For so long I was naïve and close minded about the dance forms that were not ballet and now that I have a better understanding for this other dance form, I can incorporate what I learn from my peers and produce more eye-catching qualities in my own dancing.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Competition Jazz Teams

I used to have the preconceived notion that there was not really a point to dance competitions. I did not look down upon people that had been a part of competition jazz teams or anything, I just did not understand why people would pay a panel of judges to tell them if they are better than the next person. But since I have been at SMU, I have realized that although at times they can make people develop some odd mannerisms in dance, competitions can play a valuable role in a person's development as a dancer. For instance, since competition jazz teams work so hard on performance quality, it can be quite helpful for when a dancer has to have that performance quality at auditions and during rehearsals so she can get the job or the part. Also, I think that competitions can help people become more confident in their movement. Competitions expose dancers to various styles and choreographers, and people can learn from this hodgepodge of work.

Competition judges have the stereotype of focusing more on tricks and smiles than technique. For a while I thought this was definitely a bad thing, because I felt that technique seemed more important. I have since realized that while technique is highly valuable, it is worthless if you do not give a performance for the audience. A dancer that can emote while performing is much more interesting to watch than someone that uses her technique perfectly, yet fails to have any artistic quality. It seems much easier for a person to work on her technique, than it is to create a performance quality after focusing primarily on technique for years and years. When companies hold auditions, they look for people that can perform the choreography immediately after learning it, a skill that many dancers that competed possess. Since some companies make cuts during a ballet barre, it is also important to perform during the simplest of combinations in order to show the company that you have an artistic voice.

Even if a dancer is incredibly uncomfortable with the movement, she has to fake confidence in order to be successful at a competition. This indubitably helps later on in a dancer’s journey with auditions for jobs and specific parts. With dancers getting choreography thrown out at a quick pace and being asked to reiterate it soon after, a strong self-confidence is imperative to have. Without it, a dancer can become nervous in front of the people choosing the cast and not perform her best. Also, everyone makes mistakes every now and then, so a dancer’s confidence must carry over to commitment to the movement so the audience does not perceive it as an error.

Being exposed to the myriad styles of dance that are showcased at a competition facilitates a dancer’s growth immensely. Becoming aware of how other dancers move has always aided me in achieving various aspects of dance that I struggled with before, and because so many people take part in competitions, there are many to learn from. Watching others can also inspire a dancer to work harder, dance more often, or perhaps even choreograph. I feel that I learn from every performance I watch, and since competitions typically last for hours, there are numerous opportunities to discover something new and exciting.

All together, I feel that my previous negative thoughts on the matter are undeserved, and that competitions and competition jazz teams provide their members with exceedingly valuable skills to go out into the dance world. In a sense, auditions are a type of competition, in that at times you are competing with a number of other people for the same role or job. These skills that help dancers become successful at competitions, such as confidence and performance quality, are also skills that help dancers become successful at auditions. Furthermore, at each competition, dancers get the chance to learn from their peers, as well as get exposed to other dance styles they might not normally get exposed to at their schools and studios. The overall experience of competitions and competition jazz teams ultimately enrich the quality of a dancer’s training to better prepare him or her for the highly competitive field of dance.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Relative Pros and Cons of the Convention and Competition Circuit

Many dancers participate in the convention and competition circuit at varying points in their adolescence. Some love and praise dance competitions while others admonish and scorn them for varying reasons. I entered the convention and competition circuit when I was ten years old, and have eight years of experience and dozens of competitions under my belt. After coming to SMU, I have become more aware of relative short term disadvantages and long term advantages this participation has on dancers.

As with most activities, dance conventions and competitions possess a fair number of significant potential disadvantages that can dissuade or hinder emerging dancers. Many conventions include classes and categories for children starting at age six or seven. A number of these children get tired and burn out as teenagers, particularly if they fail to excel at the rate they would like or excel so quickly that they belief they have mastered the art and have no where else to go with it. Even dancers who start later can and do burn out as a result of time spent in conventions and competitions, usually as a result of the politics behind performance, judging, and awards. These events are laden with extreme stage mothers and aggressive studio owners who place a high value on winning overall titles. From these sources, glitter body spray, false eyelashes, and heavy stage make-up become the norm. Although young performers learn to apply stage make-up at an early age, many often resemble drag queens or hookers. This image is further heightened behind the politics of costuming. Over my years in the competition circuit, I observed and learned that dancers who wear smaller, skimpier, and more revealing costumes often receive higher scores. Although I have no direct causal evidence to support this observation, a correlation is definitely apparent. Many studios, parents, and dancers have picked up on this, and young girls are performing dances with suggestive themes that grossly exceed their maturity level. I’ve seen fathers and brothers wheel poles onstage for their young daughters to perform pole dances, fourteen and fifteen year olds dance in bras and mesh pants with bright orange thongs showing through, young adolescents wearing straight jackets with booty shorts, and a group of teenage girls with heavy makeup and teased hair rip off orange prison jumpsuits to reveal white underwear, to name a few. Sometimes it’s unclear what kind of stage we are training our dancers to perform on—that of a nightclub or a theater.

Another significant disadvantage attributed to dance conventions and competitions is the susceptibility to injuries. Conventions are almost always held in large ballrooms in hotels, and classes take place on carpet and parquet floors that do not provide the spring or support for dancing. In addition, the rooms are not always large enough to hold all of the dancers in attendance. This congestion makes it difficult to perform some dance steps and combinations, increasing the likelihood of collisions between dancers and resultant injuries. In addition, many of the instructors love to challenge the dancers to try complicated jumps, turns, and abstract floor work. Unfortunately, the limited space and large attendance often makes it tricky to receive both clear, thorough instruction and the ability to correctly and safely learn the movement. Dancers in my company alone suffered sprained ankles and wrists, dislocated ribs, tendonitis, shin-splints, strained muscles, broken ankles, and other such bumps and bruises at conventions. Although these disadvantages tend to be relatively short term, they are significant and have potentially lasting effects on emerging dancers’ personality, beliefs, and physical well-being.

Despite the shortcomings of dance conventions and competitions, they also provide a number of advantages that help shape and prepare emerging artists for a successful performing career. Dance conventions are customarily marked by two long days of five or six one to one and a half hour long classes. Each class is taught by a different instructor in a different discipline or style of the technique. Classes I participated in fell under the following titles: ballet, jazz, theatrical dance, musical theatre, lyrical, tap, jazz funk, contemporary jazz, hip-hop, African dance, etc. This exposure to a wide variety of styles and instruction from a number of esteemed teachers with diverse performance backgrounds helps to build versatile, well-rounded performers. The exposure to new, diverse choreographic ideas also fosters openness, curiosity, and creativity among dancers and future choreographers. Furthermore, participants in conventions must learn to pick up choreography quickly. The instructors teach at a rapid pace to ensure that the dancers learn a large portion of their choreography and get the opportunity to perform it multiple times in small groups. Yet, they still stress attention to stylistic and musical details, encouraging and rewarding those who can learn and perform their movement with speed, clarity, and correctness. Conventions and competitions are also valuable for the number of performance opportunities they provide dancers. Although politics and personal biases do sway judging, the feedback provided by judges can be beneficial in helping young dancers to grow both technically and artistically. Scholarship auditions provide adolescents with opportunities to engage in the audition process, test their skills at picking up choreography and performing it quickly, explore improvisation techniques, find and showcase their strengths, and to recognize and build connections with other emerging artists. These opportunities are invaluable if they are recognized and utilized by dancers in the circuit.

Clearly, the convention and competition circuit is an imperfect system. A number of disadvantages and advantages surround the system, exuding both short and long term effects on dancers. However, if dancers take advantage of all of the benefits conventions and competitions can offer while successfully surpassing the politics and potential downfalls, then the long term pros greatly outweigh the relatively short term cons, becoming sharp, versatile performers.

Competition Dance: Good or Evil?

Competition Dance: Good or Evil?

            Considering the fact that all of my training has been at pre-professional ballet schools, it is not surprising that prior to my time at SMU my opinions about competition jazz dancers were far from positive. I’ve been told repeatedly that dance is a disciplined form of expression, not a gimmicky showcase for tricks. I thought that competitions were nothing more than an excuse to show your biggest smile while executing meaningless and passionless choreography in revealing costumes. Coming to SMU, I met a number of very talented dancers who were trained in studios that focused on jazz competitions. Needless to say, meeting these dancers made me rethink my poorly thought out prejudices against competition dance. While I now admit that there are definitely many benefits that this kind of training can offer, I still hold to a few of my won opinions about competitions.

 In competitions, dancers are scored on the technical difficulty of their steps. Because of this, competition dancers demand an exuberance of everything: more turns, higher jumps, higher extensions, etc. I cannot deny that some of the best turners I have met were indeed competition dancers. The frequency of competitions also requires dancers to become comfortable performing often and under high-pressure circumstances. I have noticed that this sometimes gives competition dancers a very definite stage presence that is often absent in classically trained dancers. The demanding nature of competitions requires that dancers execute steps precisely. They must be able to pick up choreography taught at the conventions and retain that choreography for later use.

 Though I admit the benefits of this training, I still feel that there are a few rather large problems with it. I think that the pressure for dancers to perform challenging steps often causes them to do so poorly. I have seen many competition dancers who could do multiple pirouettes, and had ridiculous extension but poor placement. When the focus is centered upon the ends and not the means, dancers will often take shortcuts in order to produce the desired results. Thing like turnout and pointed feet often fall by the wayside in attempts to achieve the desired five pirouettes and double axles. There is also a lack of expression in most competition dances. Cheesy smiles and slutty costumes do not connote artistry. I have seen “lyrical” dances that contain an exaggerated sense of emotion. I could see a usefulness to this but feel that the exaggeration is just a bit too much to watch.

            While there are definitely days where I wish I could turn and jump like these dancers, I feel that this kind of training does not produce well rounded and artistic dancers. These dancers often became amazing at performing tricks and showing all their teeth onstage but the overall lack of technique and artistry outweighs these benefits in my opinion.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Now Everyone Thinks They Can Dance∗

Why Jazz has replaced Ballet as the most essential technique in America

I have this idea for a reality show. For the theme song: an orchestral version of R.Kelly’s “World’s Greatest”. The first image the television viewing audience will see is a slow moving montage of the great ballet dancers of the past. A masculine face appears and he says, “Think you’re America’s Greatest?” Of course, he’s Russian so it sounds more like, “Sink you’re ze vorld’s greatest?” Thirteen faces, names, and favorite dance poses slide across the screen. Finally, the screen fades to pink and the worlds, America’s Next Greatest Ballet Dancer in black calligraphy fades onto the screen, the words fade into hosted by Kara Hunter. Who is Kara Hunter? I don’t know. Has she ever taken a dance class? Probably not. Was she ever counted among one of the greats in the world of ballet, or even dance? It doesn’t really matter because she has an accent. The target audience will be the small minority of people that still consider ballet to be the most essential dance form. However, the success of public-guided television shows such as, So You Think You Can Dance or America’s Best Dance Crew, and the popularity of dance movies such as You Got Served, Honey, Stomp the Yard, Save the Last Dance, and Step Up (and their unnecessary sequels) suggest otherwise. These productions have caused a paradigm shift in America, perpetuating the belief that extensive training in jazz, not ballet leads to a lucrative and enduring career.

I was recently watching a marathon of sorts of the fabulous television series, America’s Best Dance Crew (don’t judge me). The group...I’m sorry, crew, Fysh and Chicks impressed the prestigious judge, Lil’ Mama with their knowledge of the ballet technique, particularly their execution of a fouetté turn into an attitude turn, or as Lil’ Mama pronounced it, fu-oy-te rand-de-jam. She expressed the importance of ballet training, which is extremely evident through her own music videos. I can honestly say I felt honored to be a ballet dancer when I saw the technique represented in “Shawty Get Loose”; and I don’t know about the rest of you, but nothing loosens me up like a midmorning dip in the fountain of classical ballet...but I digress.

In the case of choosing their favorite dance crew, how did America respond to the incorporation of ballet? Fysh and Chicks was promptly voted off the show. Even looking at the judges, you have to wonder if Lil’ Mama was right about ballet being essential. The esteemed judges also include Shane Sparks, and former N*SYNC member, JC. Shane Sparks has proven to be an amazing hip-hop choreographer. JC became a valued member of society through his association with a 90’s boy band, and Lil’ Mama won America’s heart through her ability to create an entire song and dance about make-up. However, none of them are, or have even attempted to be portrayed as classically trained dancers, therefore denying its importance. If anything, through their careers, aspiring dancers see the importance of jazz and hip hop training.

Ballet is a technique based on superiority and illusion. Jazz and more contemporary work focuses more on realism and the commonalities of humanity. For instance a ballet dancer needs to get from one side of the stage to the other. She, presumably wearing pointe shoes, will rise to the ¾ pointe, hold arms in the appropriate position, gaze towards the third balcony, don the look passion, which usually consists of raised eyebrows and the mouth slightly ajar, and run, bending the knees as little as possible, while still attempting to look pleasant. It’s convoluted, complex, and extremely dramatic. On another stage, in another theater, a jazz dancer needs also needs to travel across the stage. She neither rises to a high demi-pointe nor dons the look of passion. She walks. Her smile may flirt with the boundaries of normality and she might extenuate the arms or legs for added stylistic flare, but as a whole the movement is pedestrian. Ballet may be older but jazz is more identifiable and in the end no matter how pretty something is, audiences are more drawn to something they can relate to.

I believe I betray both my ballet training and general intelligence when I say this but, Lil’ Mama may have actually been right...sort of. Ballet is important and every dancer should have ballet training. However, in the eyes of the American public, Jazz, not ballet, is the essential technique because of its relatable and pedestrian quality. Ballet has become the proverbial Jones family. While everyone may be trying to keep up with the Jones’s, very few people appreciate or even, like them. However, the Jones’s would be loyal viewers of America’s Next Greatest Ballet Dancer, so they’re fine with me.

∗ Considering the author, it is safe to assume the tone of this title to be fueled by bitterness and festooned with sarcasm. Let it be said, however, the author does believe in the existence of certain individuals who actually can dance. Those chosen few need not take offense.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Dance Competitions and Conventions

The Competition Dance Phenomena . . . When Enterprise Meets Training

Dance training for children can be valuable on many levels. It provides and outlet for early training in creativity and exercise. Dance can be fun, educational, motivational, and a great source of developing interpersonal skills. It also gives children an opportunity to be exposed to a side of American culture and art to which many still remain ignorant. Unfortunately, this opportunity often becomes overshadowed by the dark side of dance training: the growing industry of competitive studio dance.

They key to understanding the motivations of this trend is to look at it from a capitalist perspective. Competitions are a major source of revenue for fledging dance schools. Parents pay, in addition to tuition for basic classes and training, fees for entry, costumes, extra rehearsals, private lessons, travel/lodging and often time for the trophy or medallion won at the competition. Competitions also provide the small town dance studio go-er a chance to travel and a be a part of a larger dance community. This fact is many times abused by Competitions organizers and is used as a selling ploy to get studio to enlist in the progressively bigger and more elite competitions.

Again, looking at the competition world as a capitalist environment, the only way to get to people to repeat their investment is to produce positive returns, thus many of the organizations focus on the axiom “Everyone’s winner.” Some, curiously, are more of a winner then others. After everyone has performed and the results are tallied, it is rare that any competing group goes home empty handed, with even the lowest ranking entrants often earning some sort of medallion or participation trophy. Groups who actually perform well and place highly in the competition are honored with material goods of large trophies and many times the opportunity to continue to the next level of competition, to test their skills against similarly ranked teams. For the corporation and studio this advancement will start the entire process again, incurring a fees, costume, extra rehearsals, travel expensed, etc . . .

If the children are being trained well and enjoying the experience, who cares if those at the top are taking home a little extra? Unfortunately many children and parents who are seeking honest to goodness training are unknowingly thrust into learning environments that are less then optimal and overshadowed by this growing industry.

In efforts to pump out as many “successful” routines, or pieces as quickly as possible important aspects of training and cultivating the student into a dancer, as well as an artist seem to be over looked. Training the students receive seems to be focused on the extreme shape, with sacrifices made to overall health of the instrument. The exploiting, particularly younger dancers extreme flexibility and resilience leads to physical aliments later in life. The intensity of the physical, social, and emotional situation created by the competitive environment also leads to students burning out quickly.

Despite boasting a “Where are they now?” portion to the websites of many of the competition corporations, a closer look at the biographies of those deemed success stories will show that many have progressed on to climb the ladder of the company, now working the administration end of the competition establishment which includes becoming master teachers at conventions, judges, and studio directors of winning teams. A select few have moved on to a career in either commercial or concert dance of varying idioms. But given the overall number of participants in the competition, this ultimate career aspiration seems to be far from the norm.

As in any situation, there are exceptions to the overriding trends presented by the competition dance world, but unfortunately they are few and far between. Good dancers, teachers, and an enjoyable experience is an integral part of the learning process for dance students, and all of these are capable of being found in the competitions environment. But it begs to question the future of this enterprise? How long can it sustain itself? And what long term effects will it have on the arts community to which dance is apart of?

Friday, April 4, 2008

From Platinum Winners to Balanchine's Rubies

Rhinestones, spandex zebra print costumes, 3 minute dances featuring a mega mix of the latest musicals to hit the movies, and more rhinestones- how could this possibly benefit the growth of a professional dancer, least of all a professional concert dancer? While it is true that Martha Graham herself had a penchant for flamboyant costuming it seems highly unlikely that she could find any worth in competition jazz but more and more these days the two worlds of commercial and concert dance are converging and there are some that successfully make the leap from Miss Betty’s School of Dance to the great companies of the world. Tiler Peck, a soloist in the New York City Ballet, is a California native and a junior national champion of Showstoppers Dance Competition (Check out the hair and pink halter). Jon Bond, Jessica Lee Keller, and Matthew Rich are all dancers that trained heavily in jazz and received awards and scholarships from competition. Today they are members of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet Company

The most prominent competition to concert crossover is the runner up to last season’s television show “So You Think You Can Dance”, Danny Tidwell. Growing up dancing for his adopted mother and competition jazz studio mainstay, Denise Wall, Danny became a major competition winner. In high school Tidwell decided, after receiving most of the accolades one can achieve in competitions, that to continue to challenge himself he would delve deeper into the world of ballet. He was accepted to the Kirov Academy in D.C.
He would later join ABT before coming back to commercial dance with SYTYCD. The bios in programs and stories in trade magazines prove that there have been many successful dancers that have won acclaim in competitions and the concert halls.

While there are many detractors for children competing in competitions, what cannot be taken away from competition jazz is the discipline it instills in the kids at a very young age. Many will have rehearsals after school late into the night and more rehearsals, competitions, or conventions on the weekends. The commitment they are already making to their art is tremendous and good time management skills are a necessity. What I think is even more important is the diversity in styles that competitive jazz dancers acquire. If you were to walk into any ballroom for a convention you would quickly realize that the most awarded and lauded dancers are those that adapt to the styles of every teacher that weekend. Every convention stresses the value of being able to switch styles at a moments notice for the commercial world. This skill of impressing a choreographer by taking their style quickly is a wonderful asset for modern companies like Paul Taylor’s where you might be performing a somber requiem to Mozart and the next piece will be a jazzy fifties teen bop to the Andrew’s Sisters.

It would be impossible to immediately segue from years of competing to a professional company but with as much talent that is found out there and the good habits learned through years of competing it is not unusual for competition kids to make the top university dance programs in the nation. Dance companies are always looking for their next star and they might just be competing this weekend at the local dance competition… wearing lots and lots of rhinestones.

regards ~ Lee Duveneck

Thursday, April 3, 2008

I always wanted to be part of something cool like this! Too bad I caught onto Xanga too late... I can be a bit behind the times on these things :P
I did it lauren!!! Whoooo:)