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Cirque du Soleil. Pilobolus. Momix. What do these three companies have in common? The use of acrobatics, or acro, in their performances. From contortion, to weight sharing, to tumbling, in the dance competition world, acro skills have become more and more commonplace to show off power, flexibility and control. As the bar is set higher and higher for dancers, the more it takes to stand out from the crowd, and acro can be a great asset to a dancer trying to book work. How much acro is too much acro at competition? What if there is no safe and adequate tumbling training in your town? Will a dancer find success without acro? IDA judges Jen Garaffa, Jessica Ice, Ashley Marinelli, Miranda Spada, and Christina Young answer those questions and more this week!
Everywhere you look at a dance competition, someone is doing an aerial. Or a chin stand. Or a chest roll. Acro skills are being integrated into all styles of dance, but when did this start, and why? “When I was growing up,” says Jessica Ice, teacher and performer from New York, “there was much less acrobatics and gymnastics at dance competitions. I think that the integration of acro and gymnastics came when the dancers on So You Think You Can Dance started adding it into their “Dance for Your Life” solos to wow the viewers.” Miranda Spada, teacher from Buffalo, NY, adds, ”I think back to when I was competing growing up, which would have been over a decade ago, and acro has certainly changed. Now we see fewer group acro dances and more acro elements being added into routines. The acro skills themselves have definitely evolved and I have seen the technical element drastically improve as more people are finding new tricks to incorporate. As I judge routines, I notice that an aerial cartwheel is almost as common as a pirouette in a routine. It seems to be the norm to incorporate them regularly into routines whereas back in the day, an aerial cartwheel was mainly used in acro-based routines.” Fusion of dance styles is a huge trend right now, and acro fits right in with this trend. In many regions of the country, you will still find group acro routines, but in many cases, acro is being showcased individually now more than ever.
An important thing to consider when deciding to include acro in different categories of dance at competition is intent. Obviously, one intent is to showcase the power, flexibility and control that different acro skills require to execute properly. If that is the main intent of a routine that includes a lot of acro, it should be entered as such. Ashley Marinelli, IDA judge and professional dancer and teacher in NYC, adds, “At competition, I think it is best to reserve acro for Acro categories, Open categories, and very occasionally (if it’s tasteful and artistic), for Contemporary categories. I’m not opposed to a trick in a Musical Theater category if it helps to get your point across (your character is showing off so you do a tumbling pass to show off, for example), however; although I am impressed that you can tumble in tap shoes or pointe shoes, please don’t. Not only is it dangerous (those sort of shoes are not made to be safe for acro), but it distracts from the category you have entered yourself into. I would rather you use the precious time in your tap solo to show us a phrase of fast, accented syncopation; use the time in your pointe solo to suspend a controlled balance; use the time in your jazz solo to draw our attention to those true jazz lines. Make sure your style matches the category you’ve entered.”
Christina Young, teacher and IDA judge from Indiana, agrees, “Outside of the Acro category, tricks are often seen in Contemporary, Jazz, Lyrical and Open. The problem is that these categories are sometimes used to showcase a second acro performance that is still mostly tumbling and contortion. I would prefer Jazz, Lyrical, Contemporary, etc to limit the number of acro tricks. It seems forced, not in the style of the rest of the piece, and breaks the flow. Many times, acro and contortion move past true dance into “walk and do a pose”, or run into a trick, and the “dance” portion of the routine gets lost in the tricks.” Just like the suggestion for advanced dancers to “hide” their preparation for turns, preparations for acro can be hidden and seamlessly integrated into a dance piece so that it doesn’t turn into a gymnastics floor routine.
The demand for dancers who can do it all is increasing thanks to innovative choreographers (and to be frank, the desire of producers to save money by hiring fewer people!) Thus, acro training feels almost integral to success in the current dance world. Jen Garaffa’s experience has been just that. Based in Orlando, she says, “Often times choreographers may ask for a step-out tumbler on a gig. I have been able to use my acro background to help me in auditions that may be for dancer roles, but they are also looking for someone that they can teach stunt work or stage combat to. The client may need performers with a giant skill set or performers with the strength and desire to learn new skills such as aerial work. If you have the strength to tumble, they can probably mold you into an aerial performer as well. If a company can hire fewer people with more skills, they can save money in the long run. My advice is to acquire every skill you can so that you can be the most valuable and versatile performer at any audition.”
Miranda agrees, “Right now we are seeing a lot of companies include acro and aerial elements; we are in a generation where we thrive off the flashy, the cutting edge, and the innovative. Companies like to find ways to make them stand out and attract audiences. I think the skill set necessary to execute acro work translates very well into the professional world; those that have acro skills have a strength and coordination unique to that craft, they are more likely to try new things with a better ease, understand the importance of safety and trust, and also have a better concept of using their bodies in space that others do not. All these skills are valuable when looking to hire a dancer; I have never found a situation where knowing too much hinders a dancer's chance of becoming marketable.” As always, safety should be the first priority when deciding where and how to train in acro. No two bodies are alike and good acro training takes that into consideration.
While being skilled in multiple areas can be incredibly important, there is still room for performers who stay true to what they do well. Christina explains, “While being able to perform an aerial, walkover, or back tuck can certainly give you an extra skill to showcase at an audition, you can most definitely find work in the dance world without acro! I have worked professionally as a dancer since college and can do no acro tricks past a cartwheel. Just as with everything, it is your job as a dancer to make yourself as marketable as possible, but if acro is not your strength, find ways to showcase the things that are!” Adding training in acting and singing may be just as helpful to your success as a dancer as acro and tumbling. Essentially, most dancers who are successful in the professional world have cross trained in several styles of dance and related fields.
Acro at dance competition and in professional performances can be exciting, powerful and beautiful. There are many opportunities to transfer your acro skills from competition into professional work. Just as the world of dance is ever expanding and the levels of proficiency are getting higher, the same is true for acro.
Photos provided by Diva Dance Competition