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By Jen Peters
Dancers today are expected to operate with a full box of crayons, not just a single color. From wide-ranging genres on So You Think You Can Dance to the inclusion of modern work in ballet company repertoires, versatility is synonymous with marketability. It can mean adding a specialty like aerial dance, learning a world dance technique like salsa or West African, or exploring acting or vocal work. Dancers who train outside their comfort zone multiply opportunities for networking and auditions. Dance Magazine spoke to a dancer, a voice coach, a gymnastics teacher, and others to get their views on versatility today.
Tricks That Wow
After completing national tours of Contact and Movin’ Out, former competitive gymnast and Delta Festival Ballet dancer Kurt Gorrell began helping other dancers land jobs in New York. He noticed more musical theater auditions asking for dancers with tumbling or special skills, so in 2009 Gorrell’s “Gymnastics for Dancers” class at Chelsea Piers was born. “The big difference between tumbling and dancing is you must pull the shoulders up to rebound off the hands and lessen wrist pressure,” he says. The handstand is a staple skill, and he works on variations like handstand pirouettes, an easy way to wow at auditions.
The other big problem for beginner tumblers? “The fear of jumping backwards and being upside down is a huge barrier,” Gorrellexplains. “Some people develop skills in one session, but others take a long time to be unafraid.” His 90-minute class requires no previous gymnastic experience; skill levels range from beginner to advanced, and the warm-up is a mix of Horton technique, yoga, and Pilates. He offers private lessons, during which he may work on a showy tumbling series for auditions.
Even dancers who have no interest in back flips can benefit from studying gymnastics. “Contemporary dance requires work on the hands, and many choreographers are testing limits on how far bodies can go before hitting the ground,” Gorrell says. Gymnastics helps develop upper body strength, which enhances partnering work in any genre.
Releasing the Voice
With dance being a silent art form, dancers may be quite shy when it comes to singing or acting. Gail Noppe-Brandon, communication coach and founder of Find Your Voice, helps Broadway chorus dancers who want to shoot for bigger roles. “Dancers need to be more comfortable in the verbal realm,” she says. “They can have trouble physicalizing the acting and are uncomfortable using their voices.” When dancers have difficulty moving without set choreography, it disheartens her. “We lose our imaginations by always being told how to move,” Noppe-Brandon asserts. “It gets schooled out.”
One rung in the versatility ladder is becoming more comfortable and connected with voice and inner dialogue. When coaching for acting auditions, Noppe-Brandon asks dancers to speak naturally and make eye contact with her. “Acting shouldn’t feel like a performance, it should feel like a conversation: the voice should be your own—not soft, held, or overly projected.” Dancers tend to overuse their bodies and resort to big gestures. The challenge is to allow your body and voice to respond spontaneously. She believes that learning acting and effective communication helps a dancer interact better with others onstage. She encourages dancers to have a “fuller kind of presence, not just pasting an emotion on your face.”
Sadie Wilhelmi, an Ailey/Fordham BFA graduate, found her love for aerial work and acrobatics at Jefferson Performing Arts High School in Portland, Oregon. “I grew up with ballet, modern, jazz, tap, but I have a passion for aerial pieces,” says Wilhelmi. “It’s like extreme sports, an adrenaline rush, and I like fusing contemporary ballet or hip hop with the aerial work.” Her aerial work also sustains a New York–
dancer lifestyle. She performs every weekend in night clubs, and also gets gigs at celebrity parties and bar mitzvahs. It pays the rent—and she has enough time to go on auditions and work on other dance projects.
Many dance programs across the U.S. offer a wide range of techniques, including new and up-and-coming styles. On the commercial scene in Los Angeles, EDGE Performing Arts Center is a hot spot for both foundational technique and cutting-edge styles (SYTYCD’s Tabitha and Napoleon, Sonya Tayeh, and Mandy Moore are on faculty). Executive director Bill Prudich says, “If you just want to work in one part of the business, like hip hop or ballet, then versatility isn’t as crucial,” he admits. “But it’s hard enough to get a dance job, so why not increase your chances by increasing versatility?”
EDGE has open enrollment—students pop in and out—and a selective scholarship program. “Many of the young students are strong, lyrical, contemporary dancers, so in the beginning we put them in challenging, uncomfortable classes,” Prudich says. “We create versatility by filling the blanks in students’ training, and all the agencies and choreographers in town know that.” He encourages younger dancers to go beyond contemporary even though it feels good. “Contemporary lines are so extreme and released, you have to learn the difference of a strong jazz line.”
Classically Diverse Training
At Interlochen Arts Academy high school, director of dance Cameron Basden says the school is rooted in a solid ballet foundation. Students at the Michigan boarding school take ballet every day, as well as a variety of modern, jazz, composition, improvisation, Pilates/yoga/Gyrotonic, somatics, and academics. “Dancers today, even classical ballet dancers, are asked to dance almost everything,” says Basden. “We encourage our dancers to become aware of movement possibilities.” Alumni have gone on to companies like the Joffrey Ballet, Hubbard Street, Shen Wei, Limón, Martha Graham, LINES Ballet, and musical theater productions.
Interlochen and other conservatory schools allow dance majors to investigate complementary genres, like acting, music, or visual arts. Even the academics integrate with the dance studies at Interlochen. “We try to bring the art form into academics. This year we looked at artists as revolutionaries in history and English. Math and sciences also incorporate a sense of movement and physics,” Basden says. “The more information you have, the more well-rounded a dancer and person you are.” Versatility not only refers to a dancer’s physicality, but also to the expansiveness of a dancer’s mind.
And if versatility facilitates getting onstage instead of waiting tables, then why not keep exploring?
Jen Peters is a Pilates instructor and dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works.
Kurt Gorrell teaching a dancer the tricks of a new trade at Chelsea Piers. Photo Courtesy Gorrell.