Monday, November 14, 2011

Competition vs. Art and Entertainment

Part 2: The competition business

Over the past 20 years, the field of dance competitions has ballooned from a select few in to thousands of different companies holding events around the country every week. There are competitions that stand alone or others associated with conventions. There are also conventions that just offer classes and showcases. Some are quality organizations with the best intentions. They hope to share their knowledge of dance and the arts, give constructive critiques, and encourage young dancers to stay with it. However, in recent years a certain culture seems to be emerging. I'm going to call it "The Dance Mom Culture". I don't think I need to say more if you've ever seen the show "Dance Moms" currently on television...

The competition circuit has literally created it's own style of dancing. It's full of tricks, turns, amazing jumps, incredible displays of flexibility and peppered with gymnastics and wild gyrations. Generally the costumes are scant and loaded with hundreds of rhinestones (why not just rhinestone fabric?) and the song choices and subject matter are often provocative. I've already voiced my opinion on this to my own peril. (and support!)

For me, competitions are always a touchy thing in dance. It seems unfair to judge art or entertainment with a point system. I realize the judging is based partly on technique - which is most certainly an important part of dance.  However, dance is personal and a matter of taste and style too. It's sometimes a ridiculous thing to try to put a number on it. I spent some time working for dance competitions in my early teaching years. It was grueling and difficult. I tended to score the entertaining numbers higher as I value the enjoyment as much as the accomplishment. Hence my love of the "Entertainment Award" at any competition. It's the one I want to go home with. Dance is a performing art, meant to be shared and it's impact on an audience is the most important thing to me. The other thing I always took notice of was the choreography. It's an amazing feat for a teacher to create art with their students. That is why the other award I always hope for is the choreography accolade. The competition scene does not always reward creativity, but often encourages conformity. Not something I feel is enhancing the art of dance.

My reasons for attending competitions with my dance studio have always come from my students. They want to be able to get out there and show what they are doing as well as see what their peers are up to. However, the more I attend these competitions, the more dismayed I become with what they are rewarding and how they are influencing young dancers. The style of dance that competitions are encouraging is close to absent in the professional dance world.

After my last exposure at competition, I have decided to be as selective as possible when choosing a company to work with. These competitions exist because of businesses like mine. They would not BE if it weren't for the dance studios that they solicit. They charge between $30 and $100 per number in some cases just to perform, and many times my dancers leave feeling let down. We are not the type of studio that pushes for the technical perfection at a young age. It's about development and timing. So, we sometimes are overlooked because our routines do not include moves that seem to be compulsory to the top scorers. Most of my kids understand this but the younger ones have a harder time.

 Perhaps finding a way to bring some of the dance community together to celebrate what we do rather than compete is a better idea! I don't like feeling competitive towards other dance studios as I think those of us who dance and teach dance have so much in common! A love for dance and children and a desire to share our knowledge and love for the art form. As a creative person, when obstacles arise I am interested in finding a way around them. How about we create something BETTER for kids to achieve rather than a plastic trophy and an elite top first platinum titanium award. Isn't it time to find a cause other than winning to use our talents towards? I think so.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dance and Age appropriate material

PART I: Premature expertise and the exploitation of kids in dance

After a weekend of witnessing more dance than I ever care to see, I thought it would be a good time to share some of my thoughts on the subject of dance competitions, age appropriateness, and the discretion of dance studios. After much discussion with my staff, my colleagues, my students, and parents of young dancers - I felt compelled to write about my opinions on these subjects.

Let me start by saying I don't wish to discredit any other business or organization while talking about this and will refrain from being specific or naming names. I suppose one thing I can be specific about is the television shows like "Dance Moms" and "Toddlers in Tiaras". These shows depict a culture that I feel is inappropriate for children, and yet people are mesmerized by these programs. I suppose it's like seeing an accident. You just can't help but rubberneck.

Now I'm no prude.... I worked in Las Vegas for many years. I was NOT a topless dancer. However, I was around it and never felt it inappropriate as it was specifically for adults. I performed in somewhat provocative shows that I felt were tastefully done and were in a place where you knew what to expect. There is no denying that dance is a sensuous art form and can easily be very sexual and provocative. Heck, there is an entire industry based on this (exotic dancing).

Over the past weekend I attended one of the many dance competitions that go on every week all around the country. I viewed hundreds of dances from a variety of studios in my area. The children ranged in age from 4 to 19. Many were highly skilled dancers who put in thousands of hours to hone their craft. Their dance skills were astounding. They were well rehearsed and totally prepared.

Now, I understand the desire to strive for excellence and technical expertise, but here is one of my dilemmas: what is the reason for pushing a child to the pinnacle of precision at a young age? These kids are not aiming towards becoming a ballerina or professional modern dancer as far as I can tell. They don't seem to be looking to dance on Broadway. Perhaps they are hoping to one day win a spot on "So You Think You Can Dance?". (Another subject I hope to address) Nope, that's a long way off. They are just dancing. A lot. To become a company member at many of these studios, you cannot do anything else. No cheer leading, no chorus, no school dances, no other extracurricular activities at all. The rules are stringent and the hours numerous. Many times they are pulled out of school to rehearse for competitions and they compete most every weekend. It's overkill at it's finest.

These kids are young and influenced by the adults in their lives. Their parents are in control. I suppose a parent is entitled to do whatever they want with their child as long as they aren't breaking the law and/or abusing them. If they want their kids to miss school to rehearse... then that is their prerogative. I'll keep my opinion limited on this.

The real issue for me is with the educators and choreographers. In my observation, many of the instructors and choreographers are young and exploring their own expression which of course includes sensuality. It is possible they have not yet developed an opinion about children and provocative dancing as they are still immature themselves. Whatever the reason, it seems they just don't consider it. They are just responding to the music that inspires them without considering the impact of their creation on a young impressionable child and the audience that will be witnessing it. Many choreographers do not have access to grown dancers and so they place their work (that would be amazing on an adult) on children and/or teens. I understand choreographers see a vision but many times it turns out that they are acting out their fantasies on the wrong group....

I feel there should be careful consideration in the creation of any dances performed by children.

Here's the other thing, these wonderful young people are missing some very important things in their life. Kids need time to be kids, right? They should be able to go out and play, ride their bike, watch cartoons, or play with dolls. Instead many of these girls (in particular) are performing to songs such as "two ladies", "my discarded men", and other luscious morsels of musical genius (I actually do think they are genius in the context of the musicals they were written for!).  What is the child really gaining from all this? I believe it is this: An ability beyond their years that will be burnt out by the time they are able to utilize it as a professional, a warped sense of what is appropriate, and sexual eroticization at an inappropriate moment in their life.

As a studio owner, I take it very seriously that I am influencing young people. I am cautious and I encourage my staff to be careful about the material they present. Suggestive music in combination with suggestive movement and provocative costuming just isn't the image I care to project. Occasionally our older students will touch on more mature subject matters and some sensuality, but we try to be subtle or maintain a sense of humor about it.

I do feel that many other studio owners are ignoring the red light of conscience when it comes to dance. They assume that because it is dance, it is OK to be revealing in costume and suggestive in movement. They do not bother to filter their music and it's subject matter. It is a very precarious balance we must strike as dance educators. I feel as if there are many studios that for years have ignored this responsibility. I do not claim to be perfect in this sense but I am very aware of this aspect of dance education. Children need to be children, even when they are dancing.

by Ann Bode

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Origins of Contemporary Dance

By Tamara Warta

The origins of contemporary dance are illustrious and span the globe, with beginnings in both Europe and North America. Read on for a brief history of this genre of dance, as well as some of the great names behind its start

What is Contemporary Dance?

Contemporary dance is officially the name given to a series of dance styles including modern dance. Extremely interpretive in its choreography, contemporary dance often includes an innate focus on alignment, opposing movement, raw emotions and systematic breathing.

While many dance genres including jazz and lyrical, focus on flexibility and excellence of various structured steps, the technique in contemporary dance is focused much more upon unconventional choreographic moves that were devised in the first 60 years of the 20th century by various masters of the craft. Below is some brief information on these key contributors to the origins of contemporary dance.

The Masters of the Dance

There are several individuals who helped develop what we know as contemporary dance today. Each has made a unique contribution in his or her own way, providing us with a rich tapestry to reflect upon when investigating the origins of contemporary dance.

Martha Graham

Graham is often credited as the founding mother of contemporary and modern dance. As a dancer and choreographer for over seven decades, she brought this unconventional style into the mainstream, as the first dancer ever invited to perform at the White House and receive a medal of freedom.

Ironically, she hated the terms "modern" and "contemporary," as she believed dance styles were constantly evolving and changing according to the times. She didn't want her choreography or her ideals boxed in, and this has continued to be a running mindset amongst contemporary dance choreographers immediately after her through today.

Merce Cunningham

Born in Washington in 1919, Cunningham danced for Martha Graham's company until he formed his own company in 1953. He and his romantic partner, John Cage, created what is known in the contemporary dance world as "chance operations." It is based upon the Chinese thought of casting your fortune off of the hexagram. The number 64 in music, for example, could allow you to cast by chance to discover what sound will first appear, and then casting again to predict the second, and so on until an entire song has been operated this way. Cunningham applied the same principle to dance, using a chance series of movements that he wrote on pieces of paper. He cherished this sporadic style of choreography, and it continues to be practiced in studios across the nation today. In his contribution to the more modern version of contemporary dance, Cunningham was instrumental in its technological, 21st century origins, serving as a developer for a dance software program called Danceforms, which allows one to choreograph via a computer.

Lester Horton

Horton was known for infusing elements of Native American dance and modern jazz into his contemporary dance routines. He went on to train some dance greats, including Alvin Ailey. He founded the Dance Theater of Los Angeles, and while this company is no longer together today, his technique and distinctly different style of choreography that lended itself to the origins of modern dance will forever be remembered.

Other Origins of Influence

One of the beautiful things about contemporary dance's origins is that they come from all different directions. In contemporary movement you will not only see technical dance steps, but also moves borrowed from pilates, yoga, and plenty of dance improvisation like none other. Perhaps the true origins of contemporary dance are found in the hearts and creativity of all who've dared to take it on, stretching their choreographical limits and abandoning their inhibitions for a craft that tolerates none

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Benefits of Preschool Dance and Creative Movement

At Desert Star Dance, our main goal for younger dancers ages 3-5 is to encourage them to develop independence, learn to follow directions, enhance their enthusiasm for dance, and most importantly to have FUN!

To understand the positive aspects of movement, all anyone has to do is watch the smile that graces the face of a child spinning and hopping to the beat. There is a sense of pride and self-accomplishment that comes with mastering the movements. Dance teaches preschoolers to follow directions, learn new vocabulary, gain rhythmic skills, and much more. Additional Benefits of Dance for Preschoolers:
  • Enhances social skills
  • Promotes physical fitness
  • Improves attention span
  • Encourages participation and group interaction
  • Provides opportunities to lead, share and respond to others 
  • Creates a positive self image
  • Teaches arts appreciation
  • Enhances poise and grace 
  • Improves balance, coordination, and agility
We know that dance, creative movement, and programs encouraging coordination development are of great importance to preschool aged children. We have seen the benefits through many years of developing our Preschool Dance Program.

There was a time when parents didn’t worry about their preschoolers getting enough exercise. After all, kids that age are a bundle of energy that don’t ever seem to stop being in motion so they naturally get all of the exercise that they need, right? Wrong. With technology creating more sedentary activities for children as young as toddler age, it is our responsibility to help ensure kids get moving and get the exercise they need.

Television, video games, computers … these are tools that, when used correctly, can help improve a child’s life. They can give him or her new skills, be used for educational purposes and appropriately entertain children at certain periods throughout the day. But these tools sometimes cause a drop in the necessary amount of exercise a child needs for optimum health. With more sedentary options available, young children are exercising less. We’ve all heard that obesity is increasing and we know the risks that come along with that. Make sure your child develops a routine that incorporates regular fitness. Fitness is fun at their age, and dance classes are a great way to add some of the necessary exercise they dearly need.

Ann Bode