My key years of modern dance training in the 90s as an undergraduate came at the time of the highly athletic dancer. Lois Greenfield’s images of Pilobolus dancers with 6-pack abdominals, proudly wearing minimal costuming, clearly portrayed the dancer as an athlete. Both male and female dancers were strong and muscular.
As an undergrad at the University of Utah, it was assumed that you spent your days in technique classes and various other movement classes. On top of this, you trained by doing other activities such as weights, running, swimming, or biking to build your cardiovascular and muscular systems, and to simply burn calories. I may have been the last group of students who were studying particular techniques (i.e. Graham, Limon, Horton, etc.); this training led to specific performance aspirations in a company like Limon or Graham. Things seemed more clear: you were studying to be a performer or studying to be a choreographer.
Looking at the Bay Area dance scene today, many dancers actively pursue many facets of dance—as performers, choreographers, producers, teachers, and more. Thus, the topic of training is not so cut and dry, since the skill set a dancer might need in their variable chosen activities has expanded considerably in the last 20 years.
As Assistant Director of a dance center, this topic circles my head constantly. What does “training” look like today in the bustle and expense of the Bay Area? My hope is to encourage all of us to be more deliberate with our choices when it comes down to our weekly and monthly activities that lead to performance. Here I focus specifically on dancers who perform modern and contemporary work, but I encourage discussion and articles about training in the Bay Area’s many dance forms.
As most dance spaces in the Bay Area offer 10 am advanced modern dance classes, it is worth examining this tradition within dance. What are these classes offering, and who does and does not regularly attend? Looking at the history of the Bay Area dance community, many came to the West Coast to leave the structure of dance and training on the other coast, looking for new and “alternative” ways of learning and developing as a mover. Some 10 am classes still hold onto the structure of a warm-up with exercises for the back, feet– tendues, rond de jambs, etc., and then head across the floor and into a final combination. Other 10 am classes are more of a study in a particular choreographer’s style—not necessarily making you do tendues—but rather refining movement and working on its execution and performance. Both structures of classes have value in contemporary dance training, but it’s important to be deliberate about why you choose the classes you do. What is your goal? It would seem that many of the dancers who take the latter type are interested in class primarily as a sort of extended audition or way to get work, vs. “life-long training as a dancer.”
Other issues that affect training are the basics of time and money. How many dancers simply cannot be there, because of their current work schedule? Many professionals simply do not have that time in their lives and look for other options, including evening and weekend classes that might not be listed as “advanced level.” In terms of economics, how many dancers can afford to pay for anywhere from 2-5 technique classes every week? $100-200 per month is simply not feasible for many in the Bay Area dance population.
So what does training look like for modern dancers these days? Is it a “technique class?” So many movement-related forms now affect dance and how we move: ballet, cultural movement forms, yoga, Pilates, gyrotonics, Alexander Technique, Barteneiff fundamentals, martial arts, trapeze, rock climbing, and more. When it comes down to it, the average modern dancer is striving for many skills, including, technique, strength, muscle tone, aerobic endurance, creativity and openness in rehearsal settings, improvisational skills, and opportunities to experiment and develop as a performer.
I contacted two friends on the “other coast,” to gather their perspectives on this topic. John Beasant, a member of Doug Varone and Dancers, says the company does not hold company classes for its members. “Each dancer is responsible for his or her own body needs outside of rehearsal hours, which typically are noon until 6 pm.” In terms of the overall training scene in New York, John noted, “In general, people are mainly still training with daily technique classes 3- 5 times a week, which vary in many forms and styles. Although the ballet and contemporary classes are the main attractions, exploring techniques in the William Forsythe method, the Gaga method (Ohad Naharin), as well as the general “release” form are getting increasingly popular. Cross training in other body scaling techniques such as yoga, Pilates, and gyrotonics, in combination of working out in a spa or gym make them a nice fit for dancers as well.” Jillian Harris, a dancer with Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers, shared another view. “The cost of living has noticeably skyrocketed here in NYC, so taking classes on a regular basis has become quite difficult. Personally, I do not take classes anymore because working five jobs simply doesn’t allow it. What I have done is create my own personal training program that interweaves yoga, Pilates, and ballet barre work. I train every day, sometimes getting up at 4:15 AM to fit in a session before going to work with my clients. Surprisingly, I feel as though I have improved as a performer using this approach because I have removed myself from the competitive mentality that pervades many of the dance centers and become more responsive to what my own body needs each day.“
Finally, I want to encourage all of us, myself included, to really reflect on how we prepare for performance these days. Tough as it may be to breach the subject, do you know what the choreographers you work for would say is the “baseline training” to best do their work?
Leyya Tawil, Director of Dance Elixir, started giving contracts to her dancers this year, which included a statement about the dancers’ training. It reads: “The company dancers of Dance Elixir are expected to train regularly. Training refers to the daily practice of embodiment and conditioning on a physical level. Choosing how to pursue training is left to the individual dancer. Besides the obvious reasons like injury prevention and technical growth, a daily investigation of the moving body facilitates change—allowing for new aesthetic and kinesthetic interests to emerge. This informs the creative act and deepens the performers’ presence and prowess.”
Outside of the Bay Area, some view our dance community as less technical and “anything goes” in terms of what is put on a stage, while at the same time others view the dance scene here as too stuck on technique, and not moving forward with new movement trends and aesthetics currently seen around the world. I think it is more of a matter of personal consciousness about our work, our craft, and what will best support our art, as well as seeing non-Bay Area dance performances, traveling, taking workshops, and reading publications like Movement Research Journal. It involves thinking about clarity and intention.
What do I need to do on a weekly basis to do the work I am doing? How am I taking care of my body, strength, and alignment for a life in dance? What activities continue to help me grow as a dancer?
Speaking with Frank Shawl, now 75 and still performing and taking classes on a weekly basis, he stated it well: “You have to develop and maintain. This is what gives range and longevity to an artist. You can’t just wish for it. Class makes you constantly aware of something you have to maintain. It’s about pushing the boundary, but not losing what you already have.”