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.
Online video game Fortnite is involved in serious controversy over its "emotes" dance feature. Even if you're not a gamer, this is a case choreographers should keep close tabs on. Here's why.
Let us quickly introduce you to Fortnite Battle Royale: The video game sprung up in September 2017 and has grown to insane levels of popularity. It's free to play and features 100 users duking it out to be the last person standing. But here's the catch: If you want to get ahead, you have to make in-game purchases, trading real money for V-Bucks, which you use to redeem things like weapons.
So what's it got to do with dance? A whole lot. One of Fortnite's most popular—and lucrative—features is its emotes, animated dances that users can purchase to perform on the battlefield. Many are taken directly from pop culture, and Fortnite's developer, Epic Games, is in the midst of a heated lawsuit regarding its Swipe It emote. After much public debate, rapper 2 Milly filed a suit last week claiming that Epic Games stole—and is now largely profiting from—the Milly Rock, a dance move he created and popularized, without his permission. Take a look:
It's the 60th anniversary of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and their season at New York City Center is going strong with more than 20 works—including world premieres and company premieres.
Ronald K. Brown, who just received a Dance Magazine Award, has made his seventh work for Ailey, The Call. It's a gorgeous pastiche of three different types of music: Bach, jazz by singer Mary Lou Williams and Malian music by Asase Yaa Entertainment Group.
If a teacher or choreographer has ever commented that your dancing looks stiff, the problem could be that you aren't breathing effectively. "When dancers aren't breathing, their shoulders are up and there's no length in their movement. They start to look like they're just waiting to get to the next thing," says Maria Bai, artistic director of Central Park Dance in New York.
It may seem like a no-brainer—of course you can't move without breathing. But beginning dancers often hold their breath because they are so focused on picking up choreography, says Sarah Skaggs, director of dance at Dickinson College. Even advanced dancers can benefit from focusing more on their breath. "Sometimes they are paying so much attention to what their limbs are doing that they forget about the lungs, the chest, the trunk. Breath is the last thing they're thinking about, but really it should be the first," says Skaggs. The more integrated your breathing is, the more relaxed and present you will feel.
I've been a fan of Jordan Isadore's for about a decade. His gorgeous, spine-contorting renditions of Christopher Williams' repertory are legendary, and for many years I had the privilege of making dances with him and producing his works through DanceNOW[NYC].
Over the last year or so, as he began winding down his performance career, Isadore began making odd, phenomenal objects: dribs of Labanotation scores rendered as hung mobiles, gorgeously crafted in stained glass and metal. The designs are stunning, imbued simultaneously with a hipster-nonsense contemporaneousness and reverence for dance history.
I spoke with Isadore about his retirement from the stage, and transition to crafting full time.
There's always that fateful day each year, usually in February or March, when ballet contracts are renewed. Dancers file into an office one by one, grab an envelope and sign their name on a nearby sheet of paper to signify the receipt of their fate. Inside that envelope is a contract for next season or a letter stating that their artistic contribution will no longer be needed. This yearly ritual is filled with anxiety and is usually followed by either celebratory frolicking or resumé writing.
Whenever I received my contract, I would throw up my hands joyfully knowing that I would get to spend one more year dancing. In 14 years at Boston Ballet, I never once looked at my pay rate when signing a contract. The thought of assessing my work through my salary never crossed my mind.
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Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
If the news about the upcoming CATS movie has your head spinning, we're right there with you. It seems like every week we have a bit more to share about the new film adaptation, which is set to release in December 2019. So, in order to keep it all straight, we present you with our master list of everything we know—our version of "The Naming of Cats," if you will. We'll add updates as they emerge.
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks: