Standing Its Ground
Why jazz belongs in universities.
By Lauren Kay
Compared to modern dance and ballet in college dance departments, jazz sometimes looks like the neglected stepchild: At many institutions, other techniques far outnumber jazz courses. But is this in the best interest of the aspiring dancer? Three leading jazz educators—Danny Buraczeski of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Sheron Wray of the University of California at Irvine, and Peter Bertini of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts—believe jazz is integral to every dancer’s development. “The lion’s share of work available outside of concert dance companies is in musical theater and on TV,” says Wray. “Both areas are influenced by jazz. So if your department is there to enable students to get a career as well as an education, you’re doing them a disservice if you cut the jazz program or classes. Jazz deserves a voice.” DM investigates the case not only for keeping but expanding university jazz classes.
If It Ain’t Got That Swing
With genres like “contemporary,” “lyrical,” and “commercial” now popular, it can be easy to forget what defines jazz at its core. All three experts agree that the connection of dancing to music is jazz’s most basic element. “Simply put, jazz dance is what you do to jazz music,” says Buraczeski. Wray adds, “Unlike modern, where dance and music can be independent, the two are inextricably linked in jazz.”
The syncopation and improvisational riffs of jazz music give rise to the aesthetics of jazz dance. “The quality of swing and not being straight on the beat; of being low to the ground; of working with broken lines instead of ballet’s elongated lines—these stem from the music,” says Buraczeski. Jazz’s blues and African influences created its weighted effect. “The feel that the music puts in the body is energized and grounded,” Bertini explains.
What Jazz Has to Offer
Of the many worthwhile aspects of jazz class, says Wray, first and foremost is the emphasis on improvisation. Just as jazz musicians riff off a basic structure, so jazz dancers are encouraged to find freedom within form. “To truly be a jazz artist means to be able to speak in the language yourself,” Wray says. “It teaches dancers to dance without it being a literal representation of someone else’s choreography.” In some of her more advanced classes, Wray throws in improvisational across-the-floor phrases. “I create a short phrase and then the students have to add extension or variation, but in strict adherence to a given number of bars of music.” Then, just like jazz musicians, they must “be able to go back to the main phrase.”
The link between jazz music and dance also offers a window into American cultural history. “Jazz music and dance are two of America’s greatest artistic contributions to world culture,” says Buraczeski. “Jazz dance reconnects students to American heritage.” He makes an effort to introduce the music and dance within a historical context. “For example, the Charleston in the late 1920s and early 1930s has everything to do with the development of the American city. Buildings became closer and the pace of life naturally increased,” he explains. “The low-to-the-ground, fast Charleston embodies that! Students learn all of this in one jazz dance class.”
Bertini notes that jazz dance immerses students in a different kind of physicality from ballet or modern. “Today in the professional dance world, you have to be competent and athletic,” he says. Jazz enhances those qualities. “It gets the body moving in a demanding way that uses a lot of stamina.”
While Wray, Buraczeski, and Bertini have their own teaching styles, their classes share some common ground. Often they include discussions about music, a warm-up with strengthening and isolations, exercises to sharpen weight-shifting, long phrases based on polyrhythms, and repertoire. Buraczeski focuses on “helping dancers to maintain the weighted quality of standing in sand and feeling gravity pulling them down.” Wray gives similar images. “Jazz is not supposed to be ethereal,” she asserts. “It’s grounded. That comes from a connection to the earth just as in the African forms that serve as part of its influence.”
Despite these merits, jazz has a difficult time finding a stronghold in the university. Wray points out that many college dance programs were founded by modern dancers, with ballet courses following soon after. “There is a struggle for resources in the department,” she says, “and it’s a deeply contested space that jazz doesn’t always win.”
Another possible reason for the genre’s second-tier status is a lack of codification that would give it more worldwide standards. In addition, Buraczeski notes, the scarcity of jazz concert dance companies is a concern for some departments. And, he says, some students are initially reluctant to study classic jazz, because they’re more familiar with hybrid genres like contemporary or lyrical.
He goes on to say, however, that once students connect to the music, “they respond and love it. They go online to find the tunes.” And because of the music’s rich emotional bent, “they can explore many emotions before they actually have the life experience,” he says. “This makes them deeper artists before they even leave the university.”
Bertini adds pragmatically, “Studying jazz—and ballet, and modern!—helps students learn what speaks to them stylistically. The university is where dancers should discover their personal choice. And jazz is popular! Why would you get rid of something popular? The only thing our jazz program is suffering from now is overcrowding. And that’s how it should be.”
Lauren Kay, a
Dance Spirit contributing editor, is a dancer and writer in NYC.
Break Your Bad Habits
Mental Blocks in Class
By Jen Peters
With its demands of “perfection” on the body, dancing naturally attracts perfectionists. “Dancers go through many years of paying attention to what’s going wrong, and the negativity gets into one’s mind day after day,” explains Dr. Kate Hays, founding psychologist of The Performing Edge in Toronto. Because the mind-body connection is so strong, harsh self-criticism can prevent you from moving forward with technique and artistry—and take all the joy away from learning. For insight on overcoming a few common mental hurdles, we talked to Hays; Jane Weiner, artistic director of Hope Stone, Inc., in Houston; and Zvi Gotheiner, artistic director of ZviDance in New York City.
Habit: Being too hard on yourself
Probably the most prevalent psychological habit among dancers, especially ballet dancers, is perfectionism. This manifests through a variety of distracting behaviors, from overwhelming frustration and tears to angry outbursts to depressed apathy. “Traditional training stresses negativity,” says Gotheiner. “Teachers think people will get better through humiliation, but dancers often internalize negatives.” Both he and Weiner strive to create a positive learning environment. Otherwise, one negative dancer can suck everyone in, spreading tension throughout the class.
Step one is becoming aware of overly judgmental thoughts. Hays suggests setting aside a specific time after class to evaluate and jot down what went well. Identify specific goals to work on, rather than writing something dismissive like “I sucked today!” Over time, strive to leave the critiquing outside the classroom, and stay focused on immediate tasks. “Negative thoughts are not invited, they just come,” says Gotheiner. “So you must decide whether to dwell on them or move on.” Next, remind yourself that class is just an exercise; it’s not the end of the world if you can’t get the step. As a “recovering perfectionist,” Weiner believes that “class is not a rehearsal. We are all discovering what the phrase or the movement might be together.” Strive for your personal best instead of perfection!
Habit: Obsessive comparing
There are two sides to comparing oneself to others: One is seeing another dancer’s assets—turning, flexibility, turnout, jumps, “flawless” body—and thinking you aren’t good enough because you lack those things; the other is using observations to motivate growth and learning. Hays suggests that rather than “skimming the cream,” or looking only at what other dancers do perfectly, recognize that we all have things to work on. “When I stopped comparing myself to everyone, I finally started dancing,” says Weiner. Especially for female dancers, constantly comparing your body to other dancers will only build anxiety and stress, making it harder to progress artistically.
Observe how often negative comparisons happen. While you can’t completely stop observing other dancers in class, watch your peers as a tool for learning instead of self-criticism. “If you participate in negative mind patterns, you can get depressed; you won’t have power and won’t enjoy taking class,” says Gotheiner. As an experienced teacher, Weiner tries in every class to mention each student’s name with an encouraging comment. She also recommends using the mirror only occasionally, not to check yourself all the time and definitely not to watch yourself while moving across the floor.
Habit: Cruising on autopilot
The nature of dance training is repetitive. Dancers will practice countless pliés and tendus in their lives, and warming up daily is part of the job description for professionals. It is normal to have occasional spacey, less-focused classes, but continuous complacency and boredom can hinder growth. “Repetition allows students to become more detailed,” says Gotheiner. “A class should have a mix of familiar, so students can flow, and unfamiliar, so they can be challenged.”
Sometimes “autopilot mode” is a response to uninspired teaching. But Weiner feels every class is relevant, with new discoveries to be gleaned. “If the class is simple, go into yourself, work on subtle internal changes,” she says. For chronic focus problems, Hays advises paying attention for 10 seconds, notice when your thoughts start to slip away, and then bring yourself back for another 10 seconds. In Gotheiner’s view, knowing your own learning style is just as important as understanding your physical strengths and weaknesses. “You must develop a personal process to enlighten the mind and teach yourself to be engaged and be colorful. Otherwise life will be black and white,” he says. “If you recognize how much you enjoy dancing, then taking class becomes exhilarating!”
Jen Peters dances for Jennifer Muller/TheWorks.
Across the Floor
East Room Foray
Thousands have seen Alvin Ailey’s Revelations onstage, but how many can say they’ve seen it in the White House? Or better yet, performed it in the White House?
In September, 100 dancers from 11 schools—including The Ailey School, Ballet Hispanico, Cab Calloway School of the Arts, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Interlochen Center for the Arts, The Washington School of Ballet, National Dance Institute, Chicago Multicultural Dance Center, and Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts—were the esteemed guests of First Lady Michelle Obama.
Students attended a 90-minute workshop in the East Room, followed by a tribute concert to Judith Jamison in her last year as artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The performance included appearances by her company as well as Paul Taylor Dance Company, The Washington Ballet, Super Cr3w, New York City Ballet, and others.
The Obamas have kept their promise to support the arts—especially dance. Former New York City Ballet superstar Damian Woetzel was appointed to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and he also emceed this event. With the new White House Dance Series, the first lady showed off her love of dance, too. “From ballet to Broadway to hip hop, today is a celebration of some of the most beautiful, powerful, and emotional aspects of American dance,” she said.
During the afternoon workshop, former Ailey dancer Nasha Thomas-Schmitt taught parts of Revelations. She led students in opening their arms wide at varying speeds—the girls sharply, the boys more softly—for the soulful “I Been ’Buked.” For “Wade in the Water,” all imagined slicing through imaginary waves. The group broke into a collective smile as “Rocka My Soul” came on, inviting hips to swirl round and round.
Alvin Ailey drew on deep-seated memories when he created this iconic masterpiece 50 years ago. For these children, the experience of dancing Revelations in the East Room will certainly stay with them as their own lasting memory.—Emily Macel Theys
Pictured: Sheron Wray leads a jazz class at UC Irvine.