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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How Dance Company Rehearsals Aren’t Technique Class

We dancers rely on repetition. When we work on the same movements again and again, refining and expanding them, we help integrate them into our muscle memory. From that memory, we can call upon those movements when we need them, be it when performing a choreography, improvising, or creating new work.

Sometimes it feels like because we are practicing the same choreographies again and again that attending company and troupe rehearsals might also be a substitute for taking technique classes. Yes, rehearsals require refinement of movement, learning the skills of working with others, matching their lines, flocking, and also showcasing your clean technique. But rehearsals and technique class have different objectives, and your mindset in each should be slightly different.

TechniqueNotRehearsal

Attending rehearsal is not the same as attending a regular technique class.

In most dance forms, skipping technique isn’t even an option. Professional dance companies, from ballet to modern to hula, almost always require their members to take at least one weekly class. If you’re skipping out on technique, you’ll be missing out on opportunities to work on the essential movement elements you need to use in rehearsal. Plus, rehearsals just aren’t the time to be learning how to do the movements.

Here’s what you’re missing if you regularly skip technique:

Working on you. When you attend a technique class, you are there to push yourself with the instructor’s guidance. You don’t need to worry about what anyone else in the class is working on at that moment. You are there to work on what you need to work on and receive feedback from your instructor to make you a better dancer. You are pretty much only responsible for your own learning. You are solo, unencumbered by responsibility to the group (apart from the usual classroom courtesies and etiquette of not running into people, managing your personal space, and staying in lines and groups as necessary). In rehearsal, however, you are one member of a larger unit. A whole. Everyone in a company rehearsal is responsible for everyone else. It is not a solo venture. Let technique class be a time to work on what you need to work on.

Expanding your physical and embodied knowledge beyond what is necessary for the next performance. When a student attends more rehearsals than technique classes, they are only working for the short-term. What’s the next show? What dances are we performing? What are we working on next? If you’re only attending rehearsals, you’re very likely working on choreographies that might be using one side of the body more than the other, and it’s very unlikely that the choreographies you’re working on are going to include the wide breadth and scope of technical skill required of your dance form. Technique classes challenge your body and your physical skills, so that when you attend rehearsal, you can bring those skills in right away.

Building your movement vocabulary. This is certainly related to the previous point. If you’re only ever attending rehearsals, you’re not working on an a wide range of movement vocabulary. Even if you’re running an evening-length show. Technique classes keep your body primed for whatever the next choreography might be, so that you can just jump right into doing that dance without figuring out how to do it. That’s not what rehearsal is for; that’s why you attend technique classes.

Pushing yourself in a relatively risk-free space. Sure, when you attend dance class, it can feel like you need to get everything right each time you try something. But technique class is an opportunity for you to experiment. What happens if you reach your arms a little more, breath deeper, extend through your toes more, or press up into your forced arch just a little higher than you did last week? Does it work? If not, why not? If so, how can you find that sensation again when you need it? What could you do to make your next round of movement clearer, cleaner, more effortless, and more confident? You also learn how you work under various stresses. Maybe it’s a bad day at work, a bad night’s sleep, an injury. You still come to class and do the work. How does that work change from week-to-week? You won’t know unless you attend regular classes. In a technique class, you should be pushing yourself beyond your technical limit so that when you do perform, either in a company or solo, you can be so confident with your movement that you don’t have to think about it. You bring these discoveries to rehearsal, rather than making them there.

When you miss technique class, you miss an opportunity to work on yourself. Plus, you might find that when you are tired and maybe even a little bit grumpy, that taking that time for you will make you feel uplifted and reinvigorated. Make technique class as high a priority as attending rehearsals. Your body will thank you, and it will make learning that new company choreography so much easier.

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