Career

It’s the Little Things

Small details can have a huge impact on your performance.

Juliet’s pedestrian movements should differ from Aurora’s. Here, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in Romeo and Juliet. PC Blaine Truitt Covert, Courtesy OBT

As a dancer, you spend hours looking at yourself in the mirror perfecting your lines, and try time and time again to fit one more rotation into your pirouette. But stop for a second, and think about what you admire in other performers. Sure, your favorites probably have nice facilities and can pull off great tricks. But there’s something else that makes them sparkle onstage.

That’s because dancing is all about the details—the way you connect movements, how you hold your hands and the way you walk onstage, for instance. “It’s about how you inhabit the steps,” says Linda Kent, who teaches modern dance at The Juilliard School. “Because guess what: It’s a performing art. Why are you dancing? To be a good little machine? One hopes not.” These details can bring out your artistry in new ways—and have the power to make or break your performance.

Transitions

The most individual dancing happens within the connections from one movement to another, but dancers often forget to give proper attention to these transitional moments. “I don’t want to see a step,” says Kent. “I want to see the impulse.”

“So often we’re focused on what the final picture looks like,” says Kristin Sudeikis, who teaches contemporary jazz at Broadway Dance Center. “But the reason we’re interested is because of everything that leads up to that.” Build this sense of anticipation by playing with your timing and musicality.

Sudeikis says dancers have particular trouble transitioning from left to right. “I sometimes think of the tide of the ocean—you drop down and in before you switch to go another direction.” Thinking about things like your arm placement and turnout can help you maintain control. Remember that the audience can see you, even if it feels like a small moment.

Hands

Hands can be the most expressive part of the body, so pay attention to what every part of your extremities looks like, including your wrists, knuckles and fingertips, says Sudeikis. Fixing a bad habit doesn’t always start with the hands themselves, though. “You want to be aware of them from the spine, to the shoulder blade, through the bicep, tricep and elbow,” she says.

It can be difficult to find a happy medium between energized and relaxed, and to adjust your approach for different pieces. “Think of your hands for each role: If you were doing Giselle, you would want them to be softer. If you were doing Swan Lake, you have to feel those wings right to the end of your fingertips,” says San Francisco Ballet School’s Tina LeBlanc.

Focus

Onstage, your eyes can communicate as much as your entire body. “They can be dropped by a quarter of an inch and it can say something totally different,” says Kent. “You want your sternum lifted and your eye level above the horizon a little bit so we can see you.”

But focus isn’t just essential when you’re looking at the audience, says Sudeikis. Think about how you engage with the dancers around you. “Don’t look past the person to your right, even if you’re not making eye contact with them,” she says. “Look at their shoulder or pick out another specific point so that you really see something.”

Like most details, this is something that can be practiced in the studio. Know where your focus should be at all times, and think about what kind of energy you should be expressing, whether soft, intense or somewhere in between.

Walking and Running

When done carelessly, traveling onstage can be one of the most distracting parts of someone’s dancing. How you approach walking and running should be different for every genre and piece. Obviously, running in pointe shoes will feel very different from doing it barefoot; but it also depends on whether you’re dancing Paul Taylor’s joyous Esplanade or a heavy Graham piece.

“It’s all about the weight transfer,” says Kent. “As you give weight into one foot, you’re taking it from the other, and you want to make it seamless.” Don’t forget about the rest of your body, though. Using your shoulders and back effectively, like leaning into a series of runs, can completely change its look and feel.

It helps, too, to think about how your character would run. “Juliet is going to look different running than Aurora,” says LeBlanc. The same goes for abstract pieces. If you have to create a character in your head to help clarify how they would travel, do so. And stay in character until you’re offstage, adds LeBlanc. “One of my pet peeves is seeing a dancer’s energy drop before she is out of sight. You should exit like you’re running the length of a football field.”

Bows

A piece isn’t over until you leave the stage, but bows are often left unrehearsed and unrefined. “You see this incredible piece and then the bows are kind of messy,” says Sudeikis. “It immediately takes the sophistication of the work to a different spot, and you’re doing yourself a disservice.”

How you bow is going to depend on what you’re doing. Of course, if you’re bowing during a ballet after a variation, you should stay in character. But other styles may call for something a little more “human.” Think about being yourself, and expressing genuine graciousness for the applause you’re receiving. Thoroughly rehearse your bows. Are your feet all the way together or hips-width apart? Are you trickling through your spine or staying more formally stiff? Define your finish, so you can leave it all onstage. 

Megan Fairchild in Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. PC Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.

Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'

I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.

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Dancers & Companies
Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

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From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

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A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

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Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


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Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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