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.”
Jazz Now 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.
Break it: 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.
Break it: 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.”
Break it: 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.
Imagine this scenario: You get a text from a friend just as you're heading into ballet class, and have to answer as quickly as possible. Now, if you were heading into a juggling class, or water polo match, or fencing practice, you'd be able to send a quick emoji in response. But alas, you're forced to type out a full sentence. Because, to the ballet world's collective frustration, There. Is. No. Ballet. Emoji. Until now...
According to Emojipedia, the site for all things emoji-related, a ballet shoe emoji is slated to come out later this year (the exact date hasn't been announced yet) as part of Emoji Version 12.0. The proposal came from Australia-based tech company manager and ballet fan Rüdiger Landmann. Landmann proposed three separate ballet emojis: a ballerina, a male ballet dancer and a pair of pointe shoes. Only the pointe shoe emoji was approved, and we'll be honest, it doesn't look like any pointe shoe we've ever seen. It's more like a pink loafer with ribbons attached. But we're trying not to complain, as this is definitely a (wobbly, given the shape of that shoe) step in the right direction.
You might still be thinking wistfully of the figure skating choreography at the 2018 Winter Olympics or already looking forward to the gymnastics competition at next summer's games, but we're officially marking our calendars for Paris 2024. Why? There's an excellent chance that break dancing will make its Olympic debut.
The jukebox musical is a bonafide Broadway staple. Everyone from ABBA to Elvis and Billy Joel to The Beach Boys has been given the Great White Way treatment, and shows with Alanis Morissette's and Michael Jackson's hits are on their way. The big question on our minds is, What current artists' songs might we hear on Broadway in the future?
The fourth wall has come down, and it has opened up a whole new kind of gig for dancers. Since Sleep No More became a hit in 2011, immersive theater experiences have been shattering expectations by inviting audiences to move through the world of the performance as they please. What kind of skill set does this burgeoning art form demand?
For choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, music is simple: "There's good music and there's bad music and I love good music and I love to hate bad music."
But, true to form, Kelly—whose past few months have included choreographing the Skittles Super Bowl musical and earning one of our first-ever Harkness Promise Awards—had some surprises up his sleeve when he made us a playlist he describes as "for moody Geminis who work over 12 hours a day and need a playlist that can shuffle and never disappoint."
Though the playlist has some whiplash-inducing twists and turns—from Coheed and Cambria to Carly Rae Jepsen to Missy Elliott to Schubert—there is a through-line: "Music that makes you feel like you're in your own movie. I love walking through the street feeling like I'm on a runway, living my best life."
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
Every dancer's nutrition goals are different. Maybe you're trying to go vegan, or maybe you want to cook your own dinner more often. No matter what your personal objectives are—or whether you work with a dietitian—there are all kinds of apps that can help you make smart decisions at the tap of a button.
The lack of female leaders in ballet is an old conversation. But a just-launched website, called the Dance Data Project, has brought something new to the discussion: actual numbers, not just anecdotal evidence.
Whether she's performing on stage, in music videos, or on television, French electro-pop sensation Chris (formerly known as Christine and the Queens) never seems to stop moving.
Building a full-length ballet from scratch is an intense process. For the world premiere of Anna Karenina, a collaboration between The Joffrey Ballet and The Australian Ballet, that meant original choreography by Yuri Possokhov, a brand-new score by Ilya Demutsky, costume and set designs by Tom Pye and lighting designs by David Finn.
Growing up, I never saw a problem with my dancing and neither did my Muslim-Egyptian dad or my non-Muslim, American mom. They raised me to understand that the core principles of Islam, of any religion, are meant to help us be better people. When I married my Pakistani husband, who comes from a more conservative approach to Islam, I suddenly encountered perceptions of dance that made me question everything: Is it okay to expose a lot of skin? Is it wrong to dance with other men? Is dance inherently sexual? What guidelines come from our holy book, the Quran, and what are cultural views that have become entwined in Islam?
When Thomas Forster isn't in the gym doing his own workout, he's often coaching his colleagues.
Two years ago, the American Ballet Theatre soloist got a personal training certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Now he trains fellow ABT members and teaches the ABT Studio Company a strength and conditioning class alongside fellow ABT soloist Roman Zhurbin.
He shared five of his top tips for getting into top shape.
No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.
When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.
"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."
Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.
However, this is the reality of how I often felt throughout my dance career. Once I knew the steps, there was no undoing it. It was the process of getting there that haunts me to this day.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.
It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistic possibilities. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).
The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.
Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."
The suit states that during Sturdivant's senior year, the Dazzlers' choreographer, Kevin Murakami, would not allow her to perform in a contemporary dance because he said her skin would clash with the costumes, and that she would steal focus from the other dancers because of her skin color.
You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.
What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.