Competitive dance, by its very nature, can breed a culture of precision and uniformity. The world of precision dance has a place, indeed – look at the Radio City Rockettes. Their clean, crisp movements and spot-on clarity of body lines and angles are feats to be admired and appreciated. We can also find this precision in the world of drill and dance teams. While important in all aspects of dance, precision and uniformity can also lead to a lack of personal artistry. Artistry can only be developed when dancers are allowed to delve into their own unique movement style and find what makes their movement theirs alone.
So, how do we develop artistry in a competitive dance world?
Artistry, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is “the artistic quality of effect or workmanship”. In terms of artistry in choreography, there are many ways to develop and showcase artistry. An adult choreographer has years of life experiences that have shaped them as a person, as a dancer, and as a choreographer. As adults, we have the opportunity to explore many subjects through our students. For a moment, remember your life as a child. What was important to you? What experiences did you have that stand out? Perhaps you had a favorite grandparent who made you feel safe and comforted when you were with them. That feeling can be a jumping off point for a lyrical dance for the under 8 team. Tell your mini company the story of your grandparent and the feeling you had when you spent time with them. Ask the dancers if there is someone in their life who makes them feel safe, and have them draw a picture of how they feel when they are with that person. By creating another form of art as expression, you are helping the dancers develop a different part of their artistry which will translate into the dance. Stick to subject matter that the dancers can relate to. Age appropriate choreography and themes, as well as musical content, will help your students develop their artistry at the correct pace. As artists, young and old, it is important to experience all parts of life – being a well-rounded human being, complete with interests and curiosities about subjects other than dance, will only enhance your artistry and ability to create relatable work. When the whole artist is being nurtured, then the work in the classroom can flourish.
A typical dance class, in any style, will usually consist of learning how to perform steps correctly and with proper technique. Beyond this, however, we should also make room for teaching creativity. It is never too early to introduce improvisation games into your classroom. Especially important for younger dancers, improvisation allows students to explore their own personal movement patterns and choices. Freeze dance is a perfect, easy introduction into improv. Begin with a normal game of freeze dance, letting the dancers move in whatever way they would like. For the next round, add a caveat – “This round, we are dancing like we are underwater,” and see what that does to the dancers’ movement quality. “This round, we are dancing with very sharp movements.” Change the dynamics of each round so your students break their habits and challenge themselves to discover other ways to move. Improv games are helpful at all ages and levels. An additional challenge is to play Improv Roulette – put your music on the shuffle setting and have the dancers move in reaction to the different songs. This is an excellent exercise in diversity of style and dynamics. Other challenges could include partnered improv, mirroring games, student choreography day – the only limit is your creativity as the teacher.
“But Lesley, what ever happened to dance for dance’s sake? I just want to do a fierce jazz number/pretty lyrical routine/rhythmic tap dance that doesn’t have a story.” To this, I say – YES! You can do all of those things. I think we can all appreciate a hard hitting jazz dance, or an intricate tap dance. However, this doesn’t mean there has to be a lack of artistry. Artistry can be found in the clear interpretation of the rhythms of a song. It can be expressed through a repeating motif or study of shapes.
Artistry comes not only through the intent of a story but also through the thought and attention that has been paid to the construction of the dance.
An important thought I will stress is that as dance educators and choreographers, we must always push ourselves to grow and develop with the changing times. The dance world has evolved by (literal) leaps and bounds in the last twenty years. Dancers are progressing so much more quickly in terms of technique and athletic skill, and as I have seen judging across the country for the past 6 years, what is lacking is the artistry. Dancers are not only athletes, with incredible power and strength, but artists, with the ability to move an audience to joy or tears. It is no longer enough to do a perfect pirouette (or 7) – there has to be artistry behind it, and that only comes with careful, thoughtful training by the dance teachers. If we do not continue to evolve as artists ourselves, how can we instill the always-changing, ever-developing skill of BEING artists?
As a judge, I have seen too many dances to count. The ones I remember, the ones that stick out to me as being special, are the ones that have been completely unique. They did not follow trends of movement, or song choice, or subject matter. Artistry can look like a fresh take on an old subject, a risk in movement quality, and a willingness to veer away from a trend. Inherent to artistry is risk – artists in all mediums must take risks in order to break down barriers and reach an audience. Challenge yourself as a choreographer to seek out unique music for competition pieces by supporting less commercialized musicians; look at history for concepts and themes that may not be touched on often in the competitive world; and continue your own education by taking class or delving into the world of Youtube for tutorials or performances of dancers old and new alike. The only barrier to becoming better artists is ourselves, and we owe it to our students to be our best artists so we can teach them to become their best artistic selves.
Lesley Mealor is a professional dancer, choreographer, teacher and adjudicator based in New York City. She is currently a full time, in-demand competition adjudicator and the Administrative Assistant/Editor at Impact Dance Adjudicators.