In my career as an educator and artist, I've spent years developing my own artistic voice and helping others develop theirs. There are nine major elements I integrate into my practice that help dancers clearly express their unique perspective.
The Nine Elements:
Carving Through Three-Dimensional Space
Reflectivity Throughout the Learning Process
Somatic awareness is a person's internal awareness of their body and its movement. This is a broad field and includes proprioception, kinesthesia, awareness of breathing patterns, and specific modalities such as Feldenkrais, Pilates, etc.
Developing somatic awareness is key for dancers. This internal awareness helps dancers discern how their body can best perform a movement. Each dancer must learn for themselves how their body can use technique to facilitate expression and movement. By gaining somatic awareness, the dancer moves beyond the myth of the idealized body and gains an appreciation for their own body instrument.
When a dancer understands their body and how it relates to classical ballet technique, they develop freedom in their movement and place less stress on their body. As they become aware of how their body feels throughout movement, dancers also learn to integrate their body and mind. They begin dancing as a whole person.
Dynamics is both the quality of a movement and the potential for that quality to change. Dynamics is what takes choreography from the black-and-white of classical vocabulary to the technicolor possibilities that make ballet such a rich language for communication.
When the dynamics in class exercises are not explored and varied, dancers are at a disadvantage when they begin preparing for performances. If, for example, the dancer's teacher has always taught fondu as a crisply placed tango, they will have difficulty creating the stretched and sustained quality needed to be Queen of the Dryads. We need to play with dynamics on a regular basis in the classroom so that dance artists have a broad experience to draw from as they prepare for the stage.
Breath is more than just keeping oxygen levels high enough. As dancers use their breath to enhance their artistry, they must develop an awareness of their breath throughout movement. Breath can help or hinder dance. The most common misuse of breath in dance is holding the breath. This tension restricts movement as well as emotional expression.
Many movement practices already incorporate breath into movement, and ballet would do well to learn from these methods. It isn't that there are rules for effectively using breath--in fact, the opposite is true. There are only ideas to experiment with. The dancer needs time in class to explore what breathing principles do and do not work for them. They can then integrate that knowledge into how they approach each movement. When a dancer knows how to use breath to support their work, the work becomes less forced and the dancer is more free to explore their potential.
The idea of line seems easy enough--it's the visual lines the body makes, right? Yes and no. Yes, the visual lines made by bodies are an integral part of dance as a visual medium, but lines are best appreciated in snapshots and poses while dance is movement.
A dancer's line is the summation of an immaculately placed position (primarily developed through years dedicated to establishing technique) and the potential for and anticipation of further movement. Developing the ability to convince the audience that there is something more coming, even in moments of stillness, requires the dancer to reimagine their body. Arabesque does not begin at the hip joint. Arm positions do not begin at the shoulder joint. When all of the body's lines originate from the core or heart, that is when the lines take on that ever-stretching quality so often called line. Lines bring life to a performance. The arabesque or tilt becomes more than a contortion; it is a tool to help the performer express something larger.
Carving Through Three-Dimensional Space
Bodies are three-dimensional, and so is the space they move through. However, sometimes ballet is taught from an almost two-dimensional point of view. When the focus on perfect turnout and always keeping your front to the audience (historically rooted, of course, to avoid turning your back on royalty) is not balanced with an awareness of the sides and back of the body, dancers begin to resemble paper dolls. They look gorgeous from the front and utterly unremarkable from any other angle.
This hyper-focus on the front body limits a dancer's movement potential. How can a dancer develop their best potential in their rotator muscles (located in the back of the body) if 90% of their focus in class is on the front of their body? They will naturally begin using front body muscles instead of their whole body. Range of motion, quality of motion, and ease of performance are all negatively affected.
Ignoring a dancer's three-dimensional potential can also have negative emotional impacts. Many dancers struggle with body image issues, and some will misinterpret an imbalanced focus on the front of the body as a message that the back of their body is somehow "bad." This misunderstanding can fuel unhealthy habits. Other dancers will simply begin ignoring their back bodies. When a dancer's training incorporates an exploration of their whole body and all the space they work within, they are better able to integrate their body image with their real body. Dancers who feel comfortable dancing with their whole body are far more compelling performers to watch because they bring a sense of realness and vulnerability that connects with viewers on a deep level.
Body Language & Posture
Yes, there is near-universal body language but it isn't as common as we once imagined. There are plenty of books in the library promising to teach you how to decipher what anyone, any where really means. But as we become less ethnocentric we are learning that a lot of what we once thought was universal is actually very culturally-dependent. So what nonverbal communication do we share across most of the planet? Posture.
Incorporating postural awareness as a tool to enhance artistry and expression can be daunting for a dancer. So much of their body movement is decided by a choreographer, and dancers--especially in the corps de ballet--don't always get an opportunity to offer their opinion during the creation and rehearsal process. But postural communication can be very subtle and a dancer who becomes fluent in this language can add nuance to their performance while still remaining perfectly true to the choreographer's work.
Where the eyes go, the body follows. This is why if a dancer spots the floor, they will fall out of their turn. In fact, connecting effective use of eye-line to improving a dancer's technique is one of the easier ways to convince a dancer that eye-line matters. But the potential held in the eyes is so much more than a way to keep from falling down.
Dance is movement, and eyeballs don't really move that much so it can be difficult to convince dancers that their eye-line really makes a difference for the audience. But eye-line can be used to enhance and extend body lines, direct the audience's attention to an action, and create emotional connections. In Western audiences, eyes will be the first thing the audience notices--no matter how remarkable a dancer's technique is. Dancers who learn to use their eye-line to enhance their work are often described as "magnetic" or "having something special."
Reflectivity Throughout the Learning Process
There is no denying the impact that a remarkable teacher can have on a dancer's life (and career). But eventually all students leave the studio. The key question to ask, whether you are the teacher, the parent of a dancer, or the dancer is "are the students leaving this training prepared to successfully transition into futures as dance artists?"
No element of artistry prepares students for the expectations of collegiate or professional life better than reflective pedagogy. A dancer can have impeccable technique and be fluent in all the nuances of movement and communication but unless they have internalized the process of reflective learning they will always be dependent on someone else to direct their performance. Dancers who are trained to be continually engaged in John Dewey's reflective process are prepared to take initiative and responsibility in their artistry. They are the dancers who move beyond technique and bring their full selves to rehearsal and performances. These artists are prepared to evaluate their own work. They remain open to the guidance of their artistic directors, choreographers, rehearsal directors, and peers, but they are also able to internally identify areas they would like to experiment with and refine. They are not dependent on external feedback to continue their growth.
Reflective pedagogy is not reserved for advanced dancers. It absolutely should be incorporated throughout all levels of dance training. I feel so passionately about this that I wrote an article for the Journal of Dance Education that models this integration.
Transfer of Responsibilities to the Student
As teachers and mentors, we want to do everything we can to help our student succeed. But the truth is that we cannot be all things to all people, or even all things to one person. Students need to eventually take full responsibility for their growth as artists. The transition from total beginner to mature artist happens in small steps throughout the training process.
Traditional ballet teaching techniques do not include many opportunities for students to take responsibility for their own learning and/or artistic development, partly because there is so much technique to cover and carving out time to practice decision making takes up, well, time. But with practice, teachers can learn to integrate these moments more seamlessly and to space them appropriately throughout training. Some days will look more teacher-directed than others, and that's perfectly fine. Directing the training of a dancer requires judgement and a balancing of many elements. Just as there are resources to help teachers break down classical vocabulary into step-by-step pieces, there are also resources to help teachers understand graduated ways to help students practice being responsible for their artistic choices.
I teach workshops and master classes about each of these nine elements. I offer classes for students and teachers. I am always interested in learning how other Teaching Artists help their students reach their potential. I hope to hear from you soon!