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Whether we hear it from teachers, judges, directors, or casting agents, the importance of technique is a constant topic of conversation in the dance field. As dancers, we work tirelessly to hone our technique, ultimately striving for perfection—or as close to it as we can possibly get. Whether you’re a budding ballerina, future Broadway star, or Beyoncé’s next backup dancer, the time you devote to your technical training will ultimately set you up for future success as a dancer. This week, we asked IDA judges from across the country to discuss the values of technique classes, as well as tricks and tips for students and teachers to keep classes engaging and fresh, especially at the height of competition season.
The overwhelming majority of judges agree that taking technique classes regularly and in multiple styles of dance provides dancers with a solid foundation for safe, efficient, and clean movement. As studio owner and judge Kimberly Corbett so perfectly stated, “Technique classes are so important because technique is the foundation of your art.” Technical training provides the form, and choreographers then provide various structures that employ said forms. But Kimberly also reminds us that “dance is not just about choreography, it's about learning to train your body to use the proper muscles to execute a step.” On a practical level, technique classes provide dancers the opportunity to build strength and stamina that will ultimately prevent injury and lengthen their careers. Without the foundation of technique, it’s arguably impossible for dancers to develop into artists. Buffalo-based judge and teacher Miranda Spada recalls a professor telling her, “You must learn how to make the line first before you can distort the line.” Without the foundation, there is no room for dancers to explore their artistry or interpret diverse patterns and pathways from a range of choreographic styles.
As judge and teacher Christina Young notes, we constantly hear the argument that ballet is the foundation of all dance. But what about other styles? Ballet training certainly allows dancers to hone their lines and learn how to articulate their feet and legs, but each genre of dance has its own valuable traits. Christina explains, “Ballet technique requires dancers to be lifted in their centers and to strive for straight legs, straight backs, and pointed, stretched ankles. Tap technique requires dancers to release their ankles, bend their knees, and find looseness in their joints to relax. Jazz technique generally utilizes parallel positions which challenge the turned-out ballet preparation. Contemporary takes all of these ideas, throws them in a blender, and explores the results! It is true, ballet can be the basis, but it is important to explore the different styles to challenge your body and truly gain an understanding of your own physicality.” New York City-based judge and dancer, Sam Quinn, echoes these sentiments, ultimately emphasizing the importance of versatility in today’s dance field. He explains, “Training in different genres of dance allows dancers to be even more marketable and open to more job opportunities,” and continues to explain how studying tap dance, for example, transforms how dancers hear music and attack movement rhythmically and dynamically, which ultimately makes them more hirable.
With competition season growing near, the focus often shifts from training to choreography, but judges agree that this can be detrimental to young dancers for many reasons. First, Miranda notes, “Putting rehearsal time in a slot that is reserved for technique is essentially telling the dancers that we value choreography and competition more than we do technique and the art of dance itself. Although competition and choreography are a huge part of the dance studio environment, it is important to maintain a structure that allows for consistency.”
Similarly, Kimberly affirms, “I vehemently disagree with swapping out technique classes for rehearsals as competition season grows closer. As a studio owner, I understand there are only so many hours in the week to fit classes and rehearsals in, but technique classes should ALWAYS come first.” She explains, “Dancers who do swap out those technique classes only grow weaker. In my experience, the loss of the technique training adds to the development of bad habits.” Judge and teacher, Christina Fuschetto, agrees, acknowledging, “I understand the importance of a clean routine, but too often I see dancers solely focusing on competition routines and their technique suffers.” She also raises critical questions about progress and improvement, noting that dancers can’t expect to progress if they continue to only focus on one set of movements for a given routine.
Judge Jessica Olinik also warns that technique usually makes up at least fifty percent of an individual routine’s score, so by neglecting to focus on technique in class, teachers and choreographers are ultimately doing a huge disservice to their dancers. Teacher and judge Michelle Tolson also cautions that when the focus moves away from technical training and toward solely choreography, “dancers then focus on the tricks in the pieces and not on how to attack the pieces technically.” Finally, Kimberly reminds us to remember the bigger picture - “Sure, competitions are fun! But those triple platinum overall high scores with sprinkles won't matter once [dancers are] in the ‘real’ world. Their technical training and understanding of how important that training is will ultimately lead them to success in their dance careers.” At the end of the day, the trophies don’t define your dancing, but your technical ability certainly impacts how you are perceived as a dancer, especially in a competitive setting.
But how can teachers instill a sense of excitement in their students when technical training starts to feel tedious or stale? Many judges cite strategies such as switching up music or including exercises from other movement practices like weight training, yoga, and Pilates to change up the usual class content. Sam suggests using Thera-bands and ankle weights to add a new and challenging element to training, and Michelle reminds us that “children love being challenged and rewarded,” so implementing games can also be a great way to get students excited about technique. Miranda likes to play a game where she divides the class into two lines and the leaders of each line go head to head to answer a question about technique. The first dancer to answer correctly goes to the end of the line, while the other dancer sits down. The first line to outlast the other wins. To keep her students focused, Christina Y. likes to articulate overarching themes or goals for her students, such as, “Today, we are going to concentrate on connecting our heels to the ground,” or, "Our goal today is to fight for closed ribs and dropped shoulders." She explains, “These goals give the class something to focus on (with my constant reminders and imagery), [which keeps] their minds off of the fact that they've been doing pliés three times a week since they were six.” Beyond keeping the students engaged, this strategy helps Christina to plan her classes because she develops class material based on the theme of the day. Judge and teacher Adrienne Hicks also suggests the simple idea of letting students wear fun colored leotards to ballet class once a month if the studio dress code is black leotard and pink tights. Small changes, especially in the midst of the exhaustion of competition season, can make a huge difference.
In addition to teachers providing technique classes that are engaging for students, it’s important for dancers to remain interested and excited about their training, especially when it starts to feel monotonous. Adrienne suggests that students pinpoint dancers who are sources of inspiration and to consider the time and commitment that it took those dancers to reach the level at which they are now. Further, Sam encourages using social media to continue to be inspired by other dancers, as well as taking classes from as many teachers and in as many styles as possible. Miranda also adds quotes and images to the list of potential inspirational sources for young dancers. Christina F. reminds dancers that everything is a dance, whether it feels like an exercise or not, and Jessica offers the simple advice to switch where you stand in the room during class. One of the greatest challenges, though, comes with injury. While focused, intelligent technical training can help prevent injuries, they are, unfortunately, an inevitable part of our field because we ask our bodies to perform superhuman feats.
Judges agree that injured dancers can still use technique class as a place to learn and hone skills, whether they have to modify or sit out and take notes. Dancers can, with the help of their teachers and doctors/physical therapists, often create plans to continue to safely condition their bodies. If a dancer has a broken toe, for example, she can still actively perform abdominal and spinal articulation exercises from Pilates. Dancers who have to sit out also have the advantage of being able to learn by observing. Both Sam and Miranda comment on the value of actively watching other dancers, and Kimberly adds that she has injured dancers share their notes with the rest of the class to allow everyone to reap the benefits of these active observations. While injuries can be extremely frustrating, there are so many ways for dancers to stay involved and make the most of their time on the sidelines.
Technique is the root of dance training and class is where dancers hone their foundation. It’s so important for dancers to continue to sharpen their technical prowess because it will translate into their performance of varied choreography. To be a versatile, hirable, injury-free dancer, it’s essential to train in multiple genres and garner as much embodied information as possible. The more you know, the more successful you will be! Overall, though, it’s important that the hard work doesn’t replace the joy because if you think back to your first dance class, it was probably the sense of freedom in movement that drew you to dance in the first place. Reinvest in your training, especially as competition season looms, and allow the challenge of the work to be your source of bliss. Take advantage of your time in class to maximize your abilities on stage. As judges, we truly want you to succeed. For us, there is nothing better than handing out platinum trophies, and, as a result, seeing your glowing smiles as we celebrate your achievements.
Photo: provided by IDA Judge Jessica Olinik. Studio: American Dance Academy - Hockessin, DE