Author: Ashley Marinelli
Ever heard the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none”? It’s meant to be a warning about spreading yourself too thin, to encourage people who lack focus and dedication to pick one pursuit and stick with it, rather than flit from activity to activity. Thankfully, however, this adage does not apply to dancers (phew). Not only do dancers possess focus and dedication in spades, but we’re also really good at multitasking. We have the ability to pick up multiple pieces of choreography at once, imitate a myriad of styles, and keep all kinds of seemingly contradicting technical information in our heads at the same time (plus we do it all while standing on the ball of one foot). It’s hard, of course, but certainly not impossible, which is fortunate for us, because versatility is one of the most important things a dancer can possess, especially in 2019.
Let me tell you why.
#1 - Being versatile makes you more likely to be hired.
By the numbers, more people than ever before are going into dance as a profession (to learn why, check out this article from the Miami Herald). More people pursuing careers in dance means that jobs are even harder to come by than they once were, since you are competing against a larger pool of people for relatively the same amount of jobs. However, one way to make yourself eligible for more jobs is to be versatile. Think about it: if you have studied modern, ballet, musical theater dance, and street styles, you can audition for concert dance, ballet companies, musicals and commercial gigs (as opposed to someone who has only studied ballet and is only qualified to audition for ballet jobs). More auditions = more opportunities to be hired!
In addition, many gigs/shows now require you to flip from one style and another. In one show I performed in, I had to tap, then do some partnering, then do a classic jazz solo, then tumble, and then for the finale, I had to strap on my pointe shoes. Isn’t that crazy? And because there are very few people in my industry that do all of these things, there were only a few people the casting director could choose from. And they ended up choosing me!
Plus, many theatrical, concert and commercial works now blend styles, and dancers are expected to be familiar enough to blend also, and the trend is certainly not slowing down. If anything, it’s picking up!
#2 - Being versatile helps you get better at your favorite style.
Even if you only want to perform one particular style, taking class in different styles might help your main style become richer and more nuanced. For example, if you are a tap dancer who only wants to tap, taking classes in West African and Irish Dancing will certainly help you better understand your tap technique (as tap is said to have grown out of a blend of these two styles back in the late 1800s). A ballet dancer who only wants to perform ballet might do well to take jazz, (learning about quick, athletic movement, and groundedness, which is also useful in ballet). A modern dancer who only wants to perform modern might think about taking acrobatics classes (to help them better understand arm balance, core integration, and to make their floor work more fluid). I could literally go on and on, but I am a firm believer that if you get better at one style, it will only serve to help you understand your body better, which, to a dancer, can never be a bad thing!
#3 - Being versatile might lead you to develop interests you never knew you had!
In the late 80’s and 90’s, when I was growing up, hip hop was not yet mainstream, and improvisation was not nearly as popular as it is today, so I was not exposed to either of these things in my early training. Frankly, I was quite scared of both of them - they seemed foreign and unattainable to me. However, when I started taking hip hop classes in my teens, I found that I really connected with it, to the grooves and isolations and musicality that I was already familiar with from other styles. When I started to study improvisation in college, I was truly bad at it - but the more I studied it, the more I fell in love with the freedom, the creativity, and the logic of improvisation. Now, as a choreographer, my work relies heavily on aspects from both of these dance forms. If you had told me that when I was younger, I never would have believed you!
#4 - Being versatile gives you an appreciation for other people’s talent - and that’s important.
Let me put it this way: I recently began learning how to play drums. Suffice it to say, I am not amazing. I struggle to reprogram my brain and to get my limbs to move independently of one another, all playing different rhythms. Perhaps one day I’ll be a great drummer, but that day is not today. But, what my training has given me is an appreciation for great drummers: now that I understand how hard it is (and specifically how it is hard) to do what these men and women do effortlessly, I enjoy concerts so much more. Because I know I am witnessing something way beyond what I do - something truly spectacular, I leave with a greater appreciation for the music.
The same goes for dance styles. Being informed about house dancing, for example, means that you now have an appreciation for what makes someone good at house dancing, and what separates good from great. This means that A) you can give genuine compliments when compliments are due (which is important) and B) you can hire/collaborate with the best of the best, not the “ok” of the mediocre. As a choreographer, there is no more valuable skill than knowing how to choose smart, talented collaborators who do the things that you can’t do really, really well.
#5 - Being versatile means you’ll sound smart at dinner parties.
In 8th grade, my English class was reading Shakespeare. Because we were typical 8th graders, we were complaining. “Why do we have to read Shakespeare?” we whined. “It’s not like it’s going to be useful in real life. If we need to know what Shakespeare said, we’ll just look it up!”
Instead of giving us a lecture about the beauty of language and the importance of internalizing art (which she very well could have done) my teacher gave us the most practical possible answer, which sticks with me to this day.
“Imagine you’re at a dinner party,” she said, “and your boss is there, your smart colleagues are there, and the person you have a crush on is across the table. Someone makes a reference to Hamlet, and everyone gets it but you. You feel awkward. Then everyone starts talking about Shakespeare and someone asks your opinion of Macbeth and you end up looking like an idiot in front of all these people you want to impress because you’ve never read Shakespeare and you can’t talk intelligently about something people have been discussing for hundreds of years.”
As you can imagine, that shut us up.
Shoutout to Mrs. McGlinchy.
But honestly, when is being more informed about something, especially when it pertains to the field you work in, ever a bad thing? Knowing more about different dance styles means you can have an intelligent discussion about said styles, with the practitioners of said styles, which may very well lead to a collaboration. Or a job. Or a successful dinner party.
As writer and sociologist Malcolm Gladwell postulates, it takes 10,000 hours to become a “master” of any kind of skill. That’s a lot of hours, especially if you multiply that number by all the different dance styles out there. But, I’m not necessarily saying you need to be a “master” of every style you attempt (though that would be nice) because it would leave you almost no time for sleeping or eating. What I am advocating for, however, is exposing yourself to as many styles as you possibly can, whenever you can. Rack up those hours in each style as much as possible, so that in the end, you get good at the majority of styles, excellent at others, and impeccable at a select few.
Or, to put it another way:
“Jack of all trades, master of some.”
Ashley is a dancer and choreographer based in NYC. She recently performed on the runway at Fashion Week NYC, did a commercial for Tullamore Dew, choreographed a benefit performance for Leg Up On Life and Associate Choreographed/performed in “An American in Paris”, (which was recently nominated for 11 IRNE Awards). She is currently working on a new show called “The Hoofer’s Project”, teaching at Peridance NYC, and playing Cha Cha in Grease at Pioneer Theater in April.