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.
I don't understand why I've lost my motivation to dance at 20 years old. My parents have always encouraged me to have a life plan and ask continuously how my pre-professional training program is going. I feel crushed by their expectations. I'm actually relieved when I get injured and can't dance, even though I miss it.
—Confused, Nashville, TN
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With limited space for luggage on the tour bus, Justin Timberlake dancer Natalie Gilmore makes sure her beauty routine can pull double duty. "Most of the stuff I use day to day I also use onstage," she says, adding that the dancers do their own hair and makeup for every show. "They give us a lot of freedom to use what we want, and I really enjoy getting to play with new products and experiment with different looks." That same freedom she has with her look carries over into her performance. "There's a lot of freestyle in the show," Gilmore says. "We have certain places we need to be, but we're able to map out how we want things to flow—I have a lot of fun with it."
As a dancer going through a mental health challenge, loneliness can feel like your only companion. Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Steven Loch has managed obsessive-compulsive disorder since middle school, and for nearly a decade felt too scared to speak up. "We feel like if we say something people will be horrified by some of the thoughts that we are having," he says.
But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in the U.S. experiences a mental illness each year. Psychologists say that in competitive environments like the dance studio—where perfectionism can make you feel like you're never good enough, and an injury can suddenly strip you of your identity—this likelihood may increase.
Last summer I shared my own story of quitting dance due to untreated depression on the Dance Magazine website. It was met with an outpouring of support and camaraderie that I found both affirming and terrifying. A few weeks later, the magazine published an online survey to learn more about dancer attitudes around the need for mental health support. Readers submitted more than 1,000 comments, demonstrating that these struggles are very much a shared experience.
Considering the demands of a career in dance, it isn't surprising that many professionals find romance in the rehearsal studio. With taxing schedules, perfectionist tendencies and quirky habits, it can be challenging to find true love outside of the art form. We spoke with three non-dancer spouses to hear what it's like sharing their life with professionals from ballet to Broadway.
As a very shy little girl, my happy place was my room, where I would wear improvised costumes and giggle with happiness while dancing for an imaginary audience. I was raised in a family where dancing was "normal." My mom and sisters graduated from the national ballet academy in Poland, and I, of course, wanted to follow their steps. But I was never forced to. I am proud to say I discovered the magic of ballet all by myself.
Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy of Petra Conti
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The midterm elections are less than three weeks away on November 6. If you're registered to vote, hooray!
But you can't fully celebrate before you've completed your mission. Showing up at the polls is what matters most—especially since voter turnout for midterms doesn't have a fabulous track record. According to statistics from FairVote, about 40 percent of the population that is eligible to vote actually casts a ballot during midterm elections.
Many members of the dance community are making it clear that they want that percentage go up, and they're using social media to take a stand. Here's how they're getting involved:
Dancers will do just about anything to increase their odds of staying injury-free. And there are plenty of products out there claiming that they can help you do just that. But which actually work?
We asked for recommendations from four experts: Martt Lawrence, who teaches Pilates to dancers in San Francisco; Lisa-Marie Lewis, who teaches yoga at The Ailey Extension in New York City; physical therapist Alexis Sams, who treats dancers at her clinic in Phoenix; and stretch training coach Vicente Hernandez, who teaches at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet.
With a contemporary air that exalts—rather than obscures—flamenco tradition, and a technique and stamina that boggle the mind, Eduardo Guerrero's professional trajectory has done nothing but skyrocket since being named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" earlier this year. His 2017 solo Guerrero has toured widely, and he has created premieres for the Jerez Festival (Faro) and the 2018 Seville Flamenco Biennial (Sombra Efímera). In the midst of his seemingly unstoppable ascension, he's created Gaditanía, his first work utilizing a corps de ballet. Guerrero is currently touring the U.S. with this homage to Cadiz, the city of his birth.
At our cover shoot for the November issue, Bobbi Jene Smith curated one of the best lineups of YouTube music videos that I've heard in a long time. From Bob Dylan to Tom Waits, they felt like such perfect choices for her earthy, visceral movement and soulful approach to dance.
Dance technology has come a long way from ballet variations painstakingly learned by watching fuzzy VHS tapes. Over the last few years, a dizzying number of online training programs have cropped up, offering the chance to take class in contemporary, jazz, ballet, tap, hip hop and even ballroom from the comfort of your own living room or studio.
Usually, it takes new recruits a few seasons to make their mark at the Paul Taylor Dance Company. But Taylor wasted no time in honing in on the talents of Alex Clayton. Only a few months after Clayton joined in June 2017, Taylor created an exciting solo for him in his new Concertiana, filled with explosive leaps and quick footwork. Clayton was also featured in new works by Doug Varone and Bryan Arias. At 5' 6" he may be compact, but onstage he fills the space with a thrilling sense of attack.
Scottish Ballet is turning 50 next year, but they'll be the one giving out the gifts.
In 2019, the company will make five wishes from fans come true, as a way of thanking them for their loyalty and support over the years. "It can be anything from the dancers performing at a birthday party or on the banks of Loch Ness, or even the chance to get on stage and be part of a Scottish Ballet show," according to the company.
Some of my favorite experiences as both an audience member and a dancer have involved audience participation. Artists who cleverly use participatory moments can make bold statements about the boundaries between performer and spectator, onstage and off. And the challenge to be more than a passive viewer can redefine an audience's relationship to what they're watching. But all the experiences I've loved have had something in common: They've given audiences a choice.
A few weeks back, I had a starkly different experience—one that has caused me to think deeply about how consent should play into audience-performer relationships.
People have a tendency to think of dance as purely physical and not intellectual. But when we separate movement from intellect, we limit what dance can do for the world.
It's not hard to see that dance is thought of as less than other so-called "intellectual pursuits." How many dancers have been told they should pursue something "more serious"? How many college dance departments don't receive funding on par with theater or music departments, much less science departments?
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.
It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.
Flamenco dancer and choreographer Rocío Molina created her first full-length production, Entre paredes ("Between Walls"), at the age of 22. At 26, the prodigy received Spain's National Dance Prize, the most coveted dance award in Spain. Now 34, her rupture with tradition makes her no stranger to controversy. But it, and her fiercely personal and contemporary style, means that each new project is a fascinating voyage.
Molina is the subject of French filmmaker Emilio Belmonte's first feature length documentary, IMPULSO. The film, which makes its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum on October 17, follows Molina for two years as she tours Europe presenting a series of improvised works. These improvisations ultimately inspired the creation of one of Molina's masterworks, Caída de Cielo ("Fallen from Heaven"), which premiered in 2016.
In a move that was both surprising and seemingly inevitable, New York City Ballet closed its fall season by promoting seven dancers. Joseph Gordon, who was promoted to soloist in February 2017, is now a principal dancer. Daniel Applebaum, Harrison Coll, Claire Kretzschmar, Aaron Sanz, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Peter Walker have been promoted to soloist.
Newly promoted soloist Peter Walker has been showing his abilities as a leading man in ballets like Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB
The announcement was made on Saturday by Jonathan Stafford, the head of NYCB's interim leadership team. These seven promotions mark the first since longtime ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired in the midst of harassment allegations at the beginning of this year. While Stafford and fellow interim leaders Rebecca Krohn, Craig Hall and Justin Peck have made some bold choices in terms of programming—such as commissioning Kyle Abraham and Emma Portner to create new works for the 2018–19 season—their primary focus has appeared to be keeping the company running on an even keel while the search for a new artistic leader is ongoing. Some of us theorized that we would not be seeing any promotions until a new artistic director was in place.
Ryan Steele has a simple rule for demanding days on Broadway: "I listen to my body," he says. "I have whatever I'm craving: If I need more protein, I go straight for that. If I'm tired, I know I need carbs."
This wasn't always Steele's approach. Growing up, shuttling between the studio and school meant relying on McDonald's and Burger King.
For over a decade, husband-and-wife team Pascal Rioult and Joyce Herring, artistic and associate artistic directors of RIOULT Dance NY, dreamed of building a space for their company and fellow artists in the community, and a school for future dancers. This month, their 11,000-square-foot dream opens its doors in the Kaufman Arts District in Astoria, Queens, a New York City neighborhood across the East River from Manhattan.
In the final years of her decade-long career with the Lewitzky Dance Company, University of Arizona Associate Professor Amy Ernst began to develop an interest in dance injury prevention. She remembers feeling an urge to widen her understanding of dance and the body. Soon after retirement from the Company, she was hired by the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Inglewood, California as a physical therapy assistant, where she worked for the next three and a half years. This work eventually led her to pursue an M.F.A. in dance at the University of Washington-Seattle. She remembers growing into the role of a professor during her time pursuing her degree. That incubation phase was critical. Ernst joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 1995, and now as director of the M.F.A. program, mentors the new generation of dance faculty, company directors and innovators.