Adult Dancers: You Are Making Progress

getting-betterAdult students are often quite hard on themselves. We take all of our adult baggage into the studio classroom with us (and I use “we” because I do it too!), and expect to be able to do anything the teacher asks of us perfectly the first time.

Well, when put that way, it sounds a bit ridiculous. No one can do anything perfectly the first time. So why do we pressure ourselves like this when learning a new skill, particularly one as challenging as dance?

We adults should be kinder to our beginner selves. Being a beginner is an exhilarating and inspiring experience if we allow it to be. Not only does allowing ourselves to learn and make mistakes make the whole “learning new things” thing easier and less stressful, but our adult brains just don’t take in information as quickly and in as large amounts as they did when we were younger. In his book Guitar Zero, Gary Marcus notes that adults, with their limited time to practice and diminished brain plasticity, have to learn new information in smaller chunks than children. He also says that kids learn new things so quickly because their brains are growing and developing so quickly, they often have more time to devote to learning a new thing—unfettered by jobs, raising kids, household chores, and other “adult” responsibilities—and they are, of course, often way less self-conscious than adults are when learning something new. Being a child means learning new things every day.

Adults, however… we think people are judging us, and we have egos to feed, and we want to feel accomplished because we’re all grown up and that’s what grown up people do: they accomplish things and do them well, and we can’t possibly take up something new and look like a beginner again. That would be… embarrassing.

Dance isn’t easy. We do things in the studio that we often don’t do in daily life. That’s the appeal, isn’t it? We don’t do plies, 6-steps, or upper back curves while walking down the grocery aisle (well, I know some of you do, and keep on with your bad selves). So why do we expect to be able to do a new move or technique in the studio classroom the first time the teacher asks it of us?

Then if you do stick with dancing, you might not think that you’re getting better at all. There’s that phenomenon that happens that when you are involved in something regularly, it’s so difficult to see your progress in that activity. Or when you have children, you might not see on a daily basis how quickly they’re growing, but a relative who hasn’t seen them in a year will blurt out the inevitable, “Wow! They’ve gotten so BIG!” You look down at your kids and think, “Well, yes, but I see them everyday…”

That’s my job as an instructor, though: To see my students every week (or more), and also recognize the overall, long-term progress that they are making. I’ve had students for over a few years now who might not think that they have improved at all, but I can see how their technique is stronger, their timing more accurate, and their posture lengthened. And part of my job is to tell them that I do see it, even if they don’t see it themselves.

As students of anything, we must find instructors (and I suspect most teachers of anything) who can see the micro-level of the day-to-day—giving subtle technical and timing reminders and, of course, encouragements—as well as the macro, month-to-month, year-to-year progress that each student makes in their own time.

All of us will improve at our own pace. Some of us will progress very quickly, and others will have to take their time in a particular level or class for months, maybe years. It’s so easy for us as adults to compare ourselves to the other students in class, but we have to recognize that each of us is going to learn and progress in different ways. Each of us has our gifts and each of us has our challenges. And if you look back a year, you’ll see how much you’ve gotten better.

I guarantee that if you’re going to class regularly, you are getting better. There’s almost no other option but to improve!

 

 

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Flock You! How to Be a Better Dance Company Member

I’ve spent most of my movement “career” as a soloist, only responsible for the placement of my own body in space.

As a figure skater, I had to learn quickly how to dodge other skaters, maneuver around small children on skates for the first time on crowded public sessions, and predict the pathway of experienced national and international stars preparing for triple-revolution jumps. As I navigated around the other skaters, I had to avoid the crowds, and work through them to take advantage of space and openings to practice my own jumps, spins, and programs. Occasionally, I would perform group numbers with other skaters, but that didn’t always go so well for me. (One of these days I’ll tell a story about that…)

As a belly dancer, too, I’ve spent most of my time as a soloist. But for the past several years, I’ve been performing as a core member of a company, and my responsibilities are quite the opposite. Instead of avoiding other dancers, I must move in unison with them, predicting their movement not to get out of their way, but to match their body angles, arm and leg lines, and facings.

Learning how to move as one with a group of people, while remembering choreography, facings, staging, and other complexities is not easy. But it taps into a kind of sixth sense that we humans do have.

Flock

Moving With Others Is Instinctual

Humans are social creatures. We learn at a very young age how to read the body language of our parents and the other people around us. By mimicking and interpreting the gestures, facial expressions, and other physical movements of our fellow humans, we learn to integrate into increasingly larger and larger social circles.

One way that we integrate into social situations is by literally imitating the physical actions of those around us.  In dance improvisation, we call this “flocking.” Of course, we see flocking in nature, too, in the flight patterns of migrating birds and in swirling schools of fish. And several recent studies of human behavior indicate that this instinct is inherently human, should we allow it to manifest. We see it in the behaviors of demonstrators, concert-goers, and Black Friday deal-hunters….whether we like it or not.

The ability to harness this human instinct conscientiously and flock and change direction within a crowd is essential to being a strong member of a dance company.

Then, if it is born into us, why is it sometimes so difficult to match our fellow dancers in rehearsal or on stage?

Well, when we add in additional cognitive and physical actions, such as remembering choreography, counting music, playing finger cymbals, additional blocking or staging, the brain is doing much more than just following the crowd. We must not only keep track of where we are in space in relation to our fellow dancers, but also trust our technical training, engage with the audience, and put on an entertaining show. This takes time, but with practice and mindfulness, you can improve your ability to read your fellow company members.

Fostering the Flocking Feeling

How can we work on our flocking instinct and become more integrated members of our dance company?

  • Start in class. When you’re in class, you are not alone. Sure, you are there to work on your own technique and progress, but you are also part of a group. Also, we are often in class with other students who are in our respective dance companies. Being in class is regular, low-pressure opportunity to “vibe” out your fellow company members, and get in sync with them as you drill, work across the floor, or dance a combination. In many of the modern classes I’ve taken, the instructor will encourage following the other dancers over following the music.
  • In rehearsal, when running group choreographies, pay special attention to the upper backs of your fellow dancers. The width of the upper back, including the shoulders, often determines the facing the body, and when performing set choreographies with changing facings, it’s important that everyone’s upper bodies are all facing the same direction at the same time. You’ll notice that if one dancer’s back is slightly off from the rest of the group, the entire group will look look less cohesive.
  • If you’re a company director, take some time with your dancers to try some improvisational flocking games. Try the second game on this page, aptly called “Flocking.” Encourage your dancers to play with facings, arm pathways, traveling directions, and level changes. See how tightly the group can move together, and how closely the dancers can follow one another.

Of course, some choreographies, such as modern and contemporary pieces, don’t always rely so heavily on strictly-timed, unison movement. Each dancer might be dancing a different phrase, or the same phrase in different timings. But many dance forms do feature this choreographic device, such as the tight unison of this hula halau at the Merry Monarch Festival in Hawai’i.

Next time you rehearse, remember these shoals of anchovies and mumurations of starlings in the wild, and know that the ability to follow your fellow dancers is already in you.

 

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