Paul Matteson teaching at Lion's Jaw Performance & Dance Festival. Photo courtesy Matteson

These 5 Mistakes Are Holding You Back from Improving

There's a healthy dose of repetition in your dance education—whether it's those same fundamentals you're asked to practice over and over as you deepen your technique or the many run-throughs it takes to polish a piece of choreography. But teachers also see the same missteps and issue the same reminders from student to student, perhaps over decades in the studio.

We asked five master teachers to describe the things they wish they no longer had to correct—because if students could just remember to incorporate the feedback, they'd be on their way to becoming better dancers.


1. Copying Shapes in the Mirror

"I see many students struggle to find themselves in the work because they're just living in the mirror. If you're only copying the teacher, here's what you're missing: the momentum between the shapes, where your weight naturally wants to go and the points of engagement for each moment. Yes, the teacher might be saying, 'Hit this on one and this on two,' but are you sliding or slicing your way there?

"Get past showing me what you're doing and get curious about the journey from each shape to the next—that is what makes an artist interesting to watch. Maybe that means turning something away from the mirror on your own so it's less scripted. You can do a jump, of course, without understanding that it's a form of extension, moving you through space and reaching through your toes with as much intention as you can. But it doesn't look the same."

—Wade Madsen, professor of dance at Cornish College of the Arts and the longest-tenured instructor at Velocity Dance Center in Seattle

2. Not Getting to Know Your Tools (Or Roots)

"I see too many students without an awareness of how the tap shoe affects tone, accent and style. Do the same movement for 30 minutes and try to keep it interesting just by messing with the approach of the foot, where your weight is and where your tap meets the floor. That's what will make you a professional—not some list of steps you check off.

"Knowing how to tone also has a lot to do with understanding the impact of how the screws are tightened. For example, do you know what it sounds like when a tap's about to crack? These are the tools of your craft.

"Also, I don't understand not tying your shoes—I guess that's a cool thing? But you're holding yourself back from exploring movement and rhythm, because you're in this one place on the floor. You literally can't go farther!

"Finally, if you're a jingle tapper, know that it's because you're referencing a certain tap master: It all ties back to the culture and tradition of tap."

—Jumaane Taylor, tap instructor for the Lou Conte Dance Studio at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

3. Waiting for the Final Combination

"There are a few types of students who fail to make the most of their class time. First are those who mark the combination until it's time to perform in smaller groups at the end. This may stem from a desire to conserve their energy—or their look—until it's time to show off, but it tells me that if I were to hire that dancer, he or she would only give me what's absolutely required.

"I also see students who are too shy or insecure to engage with me about the technique until they loosen up toward the end of class. I wish so badly that they would fearlessly step into the class and just give their all from start to finish! They could've spent an hour and a half enjoying themselves, asking questions and getting feedback to learn even more.

"But mostly I see dancers with an expectation of just learning as much choreography as possible, rather than actually exploring the textures, dynamics and technical challenges offered throughout the class. Picking up lots of choreography quickly is a necessary skill for a working dancer, but it should not be the pinnacle of each and every class. Understanding how to develop the movement and where it comes from is just as valuable as physically producing the steps and 'slaying' in the final 20 minutes. Dig in, engage with your instructor, go full-out and walk out a better, more technically prepared dancer."

—Ashlé Dawson, instructor of contemporary and commercial styles for Broadway Dance Center

4. Focusing on Your Limbs Instead of Your Core

"If you disconnect your arms and legs from your core, everything becomes artificial. We see that a lot in young dancers who are just trying to get noticed in competition. Hyperextended legs and certain holds are just for effect, but it's overdone aesthetically without being physically correct. Don't chase these shortcuts.

"Allow your core to support your arms and legs and use your partner's weight to accomplish each movement through natural mechanics, rather than physical force. The musicality you develop will get you noticed, because you'll be moving more in harmony with your partner and performing each movement more fully.

"In ballroom, everything starts from your center—even the awareness of your partner, which is very easy to lose after you've rehearsed the same routine for hours and you both know it inside and out. If you're not following their lead, you're just dancing choreography, and it can never be quite as musical or organic."

—Jolanta Mosteika, studio director and lead ballroom instructor for the Fred Astaire Dance Studios on New York's Upper West Side

5. Practicing What You Already Know

"I'd love to see dancers give their teachers a little more credit for the time we spend creating classwork that challenges them. I see a lot of students completely unaware that they're modifying sequences that specifically include teaching elements. For example, a dancer may add an extra weight shift or assume it's an even eight-count, so the sequence serves the skill set they already have. I also see dancers slide right through the prep—like a moment where I want them to take extra care with their plié—just to get the next action 'right.' This is related to an overconcern with appearance, and if you're caught up in that mindset, it's easy to miss the lesson on support that I'm trying to work in.

"With challenging sequences, I see some dancers get frustrated and impatient, because there's an assumption that to be good you have to get it right away. But technique class is meant to open your mind and make you more attuned to the subtleties of the movement. If you were just here to practice what you already know, that would be called overtraining—not dancing."

—Paul Matteson, assistant professor for the School of Dance at University of the Arts in Philadelphia

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