By Brenda Lynn Siegel, Artistic/Executive Director, Choreographer, Dance Educator.
Dance instruction and choreography come with a lot of safety risks both physical and emotional. It can be hard to know and understand what makes a qualified choreographer and dance educator. One strong miss conception is that strong dancer = strong choreographer and educator. This makes sense to the lay person right? If they are a strong performer, they must know how to keep bodies safe, they must understand the principals of choreography, they must understand how to teach the skills effectively…right? Wrong! A strong dancer is just that, a strong dancer! They may also be a good effective educator but strong dancer does not a strong educator make. It is about education and training and just like any skill there is a piece that comes naturally to some. I see this mistake made time and time again in studios, theaters, schools and even within some good dance centers. The problem is that a mistake in hiring the wrong instructor or wrong choreographer can not only mean poor training, but, also it can mean injury.
So, what makes a strong educator or choreographer? Strong educators and choreographers have some academic training in the field to back them up. They are able to refer back to anatomic and physiologic knowledge to keep bodies safe. They are able to refer back to choreographic exercises to create strong works. They are able to test and re test language to be able to teach effectively and they know what skills not to push to beginners. Most importantly a well trained professional knows how to both listen to their students, teach their students to listen and respect their bodies and they also know how to listen to their students bodies for them. They know how to recognize a twinge in the eye or pop of the knee. They know how to help a student know when it is too much so that their body stays safe. They don’t push too hard, they only push hard enough! All of this begs the question: How do I know if I am hiring the right person?
Let’s start with making a distinction between Dance Educator and Choreographer, because not all dancers are both and some are neither, some are performers as we discussed earlier. Rarely is someone the whole package. Just like with any field, people in dance have specialties. For example: I myself specialize in choreography and teaching composition to students. I am both a dance educator and a choreographer, but, my specialty is choreography. Now, there are many people out there qualified to do two of the three, a few that really do it all. However, there are also a good amount that can only do one of the three. It is more common for a Choreographer to be a strong educator and sometimes performer then it is for someone who is primarily a performer or dance educator to be a strong choreographer. As you can see the art/science/academic piece is actually quite complicated. So, we really have to break it down into three fields of focus, Performer, Choreographer and Dance Educator. Today we will discuss Choreographer and Dance Educator.
First lets break down the qualifications for a Dance Educator. If you are searching for a Dance Educator you should look for these 4 things:
1. Dance Educators should be educated.
In my estimation Dance Educators must be educated. I prefer college educated when I choose faculty, but, there are other way to achieve the education. (I want to make the caveat that there are exceptions to the rules) . In a college setting your body matures under the instruction of the best faculty in the world. You are given tools to keep your body safe and imagery that helps you learn. You are asked to think about dance as you watch it, what it means, and how to describe it. (This is normally not an experience you have in high school or in a company.) In addition, college requires you to learn Anatomy and Physiology, Dance History, Choreography and some require courses that would assist you in teaching as you continue your career. College gives you the tools to keep a body safe, put movement together and use imagery in a way that is effective. It also teaches you proper training, so, that you do not pass on habits that may cause long term injury or prevent a student from improving.
All of that said, there are dancers who danced with major companies, that after a 20 year career have had the training and mastery to be ready to teach and there are students who come out of high school ready to teach. Teenagers and young adults however, often miss something in their training and that is the opportunity to grow in their own bodies, heal from their own injuries and experience a wide range of dance educators to pull from and learn from.
2. Dance Educators should understand the scientific foundations of dance for the purposes of body safety and effective teaching.
If I were to pick one issue that is the most important to me, it would be body safety. For dancers, our bodies are our tools. A student has to feel safe to approach us and to tell us when they are hurt and we have to be able to recognize if something is hurting a student and they have not chimed in. We also have to know how to keep our students safe. We have to know that beginners should not do push-ups which are hard to do correctly without hurting your back or shoulders, that inversions should be taught in increments, that some people are not flexible, that it is more important to get your knee over your toe in a plie then it is to have a 180 degree turn out, we have to know that in a back bending motion it is important to extend up and out and not just fold in half because that will crunch and ultimately damage our backs.. We have to know how to teach a lift correctly and how to hear our students words.
3. Dance Educators should understand the use of imagery and be able to describe the language of dance.
In addition to teaching safely, we want to choose faculty who are effective. What does effective mean? It means you are able to articulate concepts and communicate feedback constructively. In other words knows how to describe the language of dance in a way that students can understand and internalize. A good dance educator, knows the order of skills to teach to have the best outcome and has a wealth of visualizations to use to help students draw the knowledge into their own bodies. They also understand the language of dance backwards and forwards. They can describe muscularly, skeletally and visually what the execution of the movement will be. This is everything from the seemingly simple tondu to the ever so complicated like a double attitude turn en avant en dehors. A strong educator has to have that knowledge floating about their being. They also have to know when they do not know and spend the time gaining more knowledge and continuing to grow as an educator.
4. Dance Educators should have the ability to interact appropriately with the age student that they are working with.
This is a little more tough of a skill. For some it is natural and for some it is learned. I would say to have a mastery of the skill, you must have some natural ability in the area. You have to be able to acknowledge that you are working with whatever age you are working with and be able to design your class and your communication around that. Again, this happens by some academic work, but, mostly by natural ability, observation of your own faculty and assisting in classrooms where someone can observe you. This is a skill that not all have and some have to work with adults as a result.
Breaking down what makes a good choreographer: I will first note that a strong choreographer has all the same qualifications as a strong educator, plus a few more. This is a little more complex, but, if I were to choose four things, these would be them.
1. A strong Choreographer is also educated.
Same as above, a strong choreographer usually has an education. Why? Well, there are many reasons. For starters, there is still a body safety issue in choreographic work. Choreography is an art and sometimes what you imagine you would like to see is not possible anatomically or you have to have the skill to creatively effect that image without actually doing what is in your imagination. Additionally, you have to understand things like: spacial design, effective movement, what movement is overused, why certain music can doom your work, how to walk away from the music you envisioned, how to design an effective and not painful lift, musicality and how to “write” a dance. There are many more. Choreography while an art, is actually quite an academic knowledge. In a college setting you learn tools to choreograph. You learn how to write a story through dance, how to make a dance that is just a dance, how to string movement together in a way that does not bore the eye, how to reach or not reach a lay audience. You learn where space and silence is just as effective as vigorous movement and you learn how to put multiple phrases on stage in a way that speaks to the audience in the way you are , meaning to.
2. A strong Choreographer is very aware of spacial design.
A strong choreographer understands that how they use the space very much effects the meaning of the space. Having beautiful movement phrased is not enough. Movement is not slapped together in one space, one direction or one angle. One has to learn to use the space effectively and be able to design a space as much as they are able to create artistic phrases. Spacial design is arguably one of the most complex pieces to creating work and it truly does make or break a piece of work.
3. A strong choreographer is able to set work on any body of any ability and make it look beautiful.
This is a very telling aspect of a choreographer. One has to know who they are working with and yes challenge them, but, no do not force them into movement that does not look good on them and that they cannot execute well with practice. It is as if you are working with a paint color. You know that orange is orange, you can lighten the orange, you can darken the orange, you can mix the orange, but, it is still orange. When you put that orange on the canvass, it will be orange. So, you have to place it well. You have to make that orange work within the painting. It is the same if you are working with either a very skilled dancer or a beginner. Their movement will look like them moving, so, you have to not just set the movement that is your vision, instead, you must work with them to create movement that from the audiences view will be seamless and appear to have existed always within that space. The risks of not having this quality are both injury and poor work.
4. A strong choreographer is appropriately suited to the students or dancers that they are working with.
Choreography is hard and can be particularly dangerous and the wrong choreographer can easily injure dancers and hurt the soul of the people that they are working with. Choreography is art and the stage is the canvass and your dancers are the paint. Only paint does not have human injury, feelings and limitations. When you’re choosing a choreographer, that person must be suited to understand that their vision may be altered for the needs of the human who is acting as their paint. They must be qualified to work in the setting you are hiring them for. They must be have some experience with that type of choreography (which they may get by assisting others in their work). They must understand their audience. I.E. if they are working with non dancers in a beginner class, at a camp or at a theater, then they simply must be able to set work on that type of dancer safely. They must know the power of simple movement and be able to build up the confidence and break down the barriers to create nice work. They must have tolerance and be able to truly embrace the mover that they have in front of them. Bottom line, choreography is not just stringing movement together, it is something that you learn and train to do and once again, there is a piece of it that is just natural.
It is extremely important that one chooses a qualified professional for the safety, training and artistry. Dance is often misconstrued as just stringing a bunch of movement together to a piece of music, when in fact it is a sport, an art and a science. It is in the top 25 most physically active careers and you are dealing with real bodies that can be injured, sometimes permanently. Understanding dance academically is important to teaching and choreographing. Dance is wonderful, but, for dancers our bodies are our tools and the tool wears down eventually, so , it is important to care for the tool to the utmost and explore the possibilities within the realm of artistry and creativity. To quote Billbob Brown “Dance is for absolutely every single person on this planet.” With the caveat that teaching and choreographing is not. Make sure to check resumes, check references and know that you have chosen the right professional with the right specialties for your programs. Remember. All the rules can be broken, but it should probably be a qualified dance professional who knows how to tell when that is appropriate deciding when to break them!