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For a dancer, solid technique is perhaps the most coveted and strived for attribute that can be achieved. A good technical base can prevent injury, be a building block towards stylistic goals, and set you up for a lifetime of success in the field of dance. On the other hand, a lack of technique can lead to all sorts of problems - namely, injuries that could be career ending. In a competitive dance world that seems to be more interested in trends and tricks than technical excellence, what does the future look like? How can we as teachers promote technical study in a way that’s engaging, fun and productive? IDA judges Maddie Kurtz and Micki Weiner, both of whom also perform and teach, discuss the merits of proper technique and give examples of technique-building exercises that can be done at home to up your game!
Success as a dancer requires a number of things in addition to good technique. Micki Weiner, recently seen on tour with “The Phantom of the Opera”, insists, “Passion is the most important aspect to being a dancer. Hands down. However, you need technique to back up that passion. Does your technique have to be the best in the world to be successful? No, not at all. It does need to be strong enough to show that you are capable of executing choreography in a strong and clean manner. Picture this: two dancers are up for the same job. One is a brilliant technician but lacking in performance quality. The other dancer has good, solid technique, but is incredibly exciting to watch. I can bet that nine out of ten choreographers would give the second dancer the job. However, if that brilliant technician also has a stunning performance quality, then the job is theirs. My point? Technique is not the most important component, but it is important!” As educators, it is part of our job to train today’s competition dancers to be able to compete in the professional market, whether it be in commercial, contemporary, or classical dance.
Often, in competition, judges see evidence of training that appears to be in the vein of “get your leg up by any means necessary” instead of “use your core to initiate the movement of a battement, sending the foot through tendu, dégagé, then finally allowing your hamstring to release the leg into the height of a grand battement.” The difference in this one simple step, executed either properly or improperly, can give judges an immediate idea of what the training has been for this dancer. Maddie Kurtz, MFA candidate at SUNY Brockport, who is currently studying the intersection of training and performance practices within the divided worlds of American dance competitions and academia, says “I think it is hard to get hired without solid technique. Of course, there are contemporary performance artists making work in which they showcase untrained bodies, or are interested in elements other than a dancer’s technical ability, but for the most part, technical skill is important. In the commercial dance world, I argue that it is impossible to achieve success without solid technique. Of course, performance and personality are also paramount, but I would argue that most casting directors are in a position where they can first consider technique because the technical level of [many] professional dancers is at an all-time high.If a director starts by cutting everyone in the audition without solid technique, they are left with the best dancers and can then consider performance skills and notice who has that “It Factor.” In addition to passion which is backed up by technique, versatility is also integral to the success of today’s dancer.
Fusion of dance styles has become incredibly popular in recent years, with many professional companies branching out into new worlds (see below, the Atlanta Ballet’s 2008 collaboration “Big” with Outkast, among others).
Studying the techniques of different styles of dance, not only ballet, is essential to creating a well-rounded dancer. Maddie suggests that versatility “goes beyond the fact that the more styles of dance you can do, the more auditions you’ll feel comfortable attending. Yes, this is true; if you have never studied hip-hop, you’re eliminating an entire realm of possible jobs and have also discounted a genre of dance that you might actually enjoy…and you might even find your true calling! But beyond versatility, I like to emphasize the different skill sets that each style of dance offers. For instance, even if you have no desire to pursue tap dance in your professional career, the understanding of rhythm and musicality that tap dance teaches is invaluable, as is the sense of grounding that tap forces us to find. Did you ever consider that your mastery of tap skills could land you that dream contemporary gig? If you have a specific understanding of rhythm and time, as well as an ability to find ease in your hips, knees, and ankles, you’re well on your way to advancing your contemporary artistry.” Acknowledging the benefits of and participating in multiple techniques will only serve to support your primary genre of study and help you to succeed no matter which avenue you choose (or which avenue chooses you, as is often the case!)
As with any other field of study, practice makes progress (not perfect, because no one is perfect!) Dancers committed to honing their technique must be consistent in their practice to achieve the results they want, which means working outside the studio. Micki says, “Relevés can be done anywhere and are a great exercise to strengthen your ankles for turns and jumps. Find a countertop or wall, for support, and do ten to twenty reps in parallel, first position, second position, and on one leg. Make sure that the ankle doesn't sickle and that the back of the knees elongate as you rise up.” The perfect time to add relevés to your day is while brushing your teeth. In the three minutes it takes to properly brush your teeth, you can do a full relevé series! Repeat at night for clean teeth and strong ankles!
In addition to being a dancer, Maddie is also certified in Pilates, which she has found helpful in her dance training. “If I could write a letter to my high school dance self, I would tell her to listen to her teachers when they explained the importance of cross-training. As a young dancer,” she explains, “I was so wrapped up in just dancing all the time that I didn’t recognize how non-dance exercises could actually elevate my technique to a much higher level. I started practicing yoga and Pilates in college and it completely transformed my dancing. There are tons of resources available online, but my suggestion is a daily 10-15 minute Pilates regimen of “the hundred” and the “stomach series.” These exercises also make for a great warm-up for dancers who are working on technical skills outside of class time and need a quick option to get their blood flowing!”
Getting back to the basics of technique in all genres of dance should be at the forefront of dance education. A dedicated technique class gives students the chance to isolate and focus on the fundamentals of what will make any choreography shine on stage - solid technique. It’s comforting to know that every day, around the world, ballet classes all start with the humble demi plié, which gives dancers the chance to learn and grow into safe, proficient professionals.
Dancer in Photo: Alexandra Dobrzynski from First Position School of Dance - Milltown, NJ