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As a viewer of competitive dance, you may have noticed an increase in the use of tricks in competitive choreography in recent years. But do dancers need tricks to win at competition? What about beautiful technique? Are they one in the same or completely separate? On Episode 53 of Making the Impact, Courtney and Lesley chatted with IDA Judge Troy Haywood and owner of top competitive studio Expresssenz Dance Center in Indianapolis, Karla Curatolo, to tackle these questions, among others.
First, it’s helpful to define what technique means to the hosts and guests. Lesley notes the dictionary definition, part of which includes “a skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something.” Troy mentions that technique isn’t unique to dance and that everything we do has a basis or foundation, whether it’s dancing, driving a car, or even spinning spaghetti on a fork. Technique is essentially how we do things, and in dance, it’s designed to facilitate ease, efficiency, and safety. When dancers utilize proper technique, they ensure the safety of their bodies and, as a result, longevity of their careers.
A lot of dance techniques, especially in competitive dance which tends to be rooted in Western concert dance forms (i.e. contemporary, lyrical, musical theater, and jazz when performed in competitive settings) are rooted in ballet, but do we need ballet for hip-hop, tap, or other world dance forms? Karla is a proponent of ballet class for all dancers because she feels that the best dancers are the ones who can do everything, whether their strong point is in balletic forms or in tap or hip hop. Troy agrees but also makes clear that ballet is "A" foundation as opposed to "THE" foundation, explaining that ballet helped him to understand his body more fully. We have to know our full capacity for movement to be able to access that range, so understanding the lifted sensation of ballet, for example, can help dancers to comprehend the opposite, grounded feelings of hip hop. Ballet class is also designed in such a way that the exercises build on one another and encourage repetition, which is hugely beneficial for dancers in all styles. Recently there’s been criticism around crediting ballet as the foundation of dance. Lesley points out that ballet isn’t the foundation of all dance, but that it can’t hurt, just like any style. Harkening back to Karla’s note on versatility, it’s important to remember that learning different techniques isn’t ever going to hurt you. Instead, it’s going to inform and, usually, enhance what you’re already doing!
To keep dancers interested in ballet, it’s important that they understand the history and value of it. Karla mentions that her studio does a full-length Nutcracker every year, which not only gives students an additional performance opportunity, but also creates a competition for the leading roles--this keeps her competitive students engaged. She also has some students who will compete at Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), which is a prestigious, ballet-only competition.
So where do tricks fit into this conversation? Karla uses a "cake and sprinkles" analogy to describe the relationship between tricks and technique. For her, technique is the cake, which is the foundation, and tricks are the sprinkles which can certainly add some fun to the cake: they add flavor, texture, and color. But a cake can still be delicious without sprinkles and you probably wouldn’t eat sprinkles alone. Essentially, without proper technique, you shouldn’t be executing tricks. Tricks aren’t bad but they’re not necessary; they don’t add anything if not done with proper technique. In fact, poorly executed tricks at competition are going to cost you more points than not having any tricks at all.
At the same time, if you have the technique to back up your tricks, it’s great to have some up your sleeve. You never know what someone might ask you to do in an audition or even once hired on a gig! But, again, it’s crucial that the execution is technically correct. Karla encourages dancers to focus on the technical training before diving into attempting tricks because the dancers with the solid technique tend to be the ones who can do the tricks properly.
So keep focusing on building a solid technical foundation to prepare yourself for tricks, and teachers, be sure to help focus your students on their training instead of attempting to execute what they see on social media. This approach will help to ensure good habits and long, strong dancing careers!