Preparing Students for Opportunity’s Knock
What dance teachers can do to empower the next generation of performers
By Emily Yewell Volin of Dance Informa.
Audrey Hepburn is quoted as saying, “I was asked to act when I couldn’t act. I was asked to sing ‘Funny Face’ when I couldn’t sing, and dance with Fred Astaire when I couldn’t dance – and do all kinds of things I wasn’t prepared for. Then I tried like mad to cope with it.” Does this sound like performance experiences in your life? I certainly relate, and that information haunts me now that my primary role is that of an instructor. A teacher feels charged with helping his/her students prepare for opportunity’s knock. Plans for how to accomplish that preparedness can be daunting.
There is integrity to becoming an expert in any dance technique. However, in addition to that expertise, we must insist our dancers become well-rounded artists who can fulfill a variety of roles. Directors are often looking to book dancers who sing and/or act. Time and money allotted for staging shows often do not allow for specialized cast members. And, even in the concert dance world, a performer must be technically versatile enough to perform an increasingly varied repertoire.
As I reflect upon my training and experiences I realize there has been a shift in the priorities I pass along to students. Hepburn’s quote resonates with me because there have been multiple times in my career when I’ve said “yes” to a project and then been tutored into the logistics. What can we teachers do to empower the next generation of performers to prepare for, anticipate and thrive in unexpected circumstances?
1. Demand, or at least encourage, versatility. With few exceptions, concert dance repertoire is technically and stylistically diverse. Provide opportunities for students to receive quality instruction in addition to classical ballet. Provide training, or workshops, in jazz, contemporary, hip-hop, tap and world dance. Movement informs movement.
2. Provide opportunities for enrichment through acting and vocal coaching. It’s responsible to expose dance students to these additional performing arts forms. Many students may find they prefer musical theatre to concert dance. Support their exploration of the form and find ways to offer classes, or workshops, to enhance their abilities. At the core, a teacher’s goal is to help students find and inform their passions.
3. Keep students informed of opportunities to attend live dance and theater. Recall what it was that made you fall in love with what has become your niche in the dance world. Commit to providing resources for your students to experience performances of high artistic merit. Mediocrity does not excite and inspire students. If your geographic area is not frequently host to professional performance opportunities, make plans to travel to performances. Students will viscerally react to masterfully performed works and their reactions will inspire progress and exploration.
4. Provide diverse resources. Supply your students with online resources, books and magazines to browse during their studio breaks. These materials help inform students about dance history and contemporary issues in the field. Invite professional performing artists to deliver a presentation and a Q&A with your students. Ask them to inform your students about what is unique about their career paths and how they prepared.
5. Encourage summer exploration. Summers are a terrific time for students and teachers to explore the world beyond the confines of their own studios. In addition to your regular summer programming, perhaps your studio would like to arrange a summer exchange with another studio. Students can stay in their home studio while being exposed to a different instructor’s eye and technique. Likewise, you can provide the same service at the reciprocal studio. The dance world is not an isolated place. Programs like this help connect students and faculty in meaningful and inspiring ways.
Sure, most dance students who are serious about a career in the field dream of extended contracts with concert dance companies. A few will enjoy the longevity of that dream. For most, though, a life in dance comes with unanticipated twists and turns. That’s not to say the twists and turns lack fulfillment; it’s typically quite the contrary. It seems the projects that most excite us are the ones that terrify us most.
I do think one gift we teachers can pass along to the next generation of dancers is an open mind for the possibilities of a career in dance. Success and failure are not hinged upon a single contract or performance, but rather a lifetime of exploring the possibilities. Empowering our students with the necessary skills to navigate their own course is a daunting and thrilling charge. Watching students realize their dreams and thrive within them is the reward.