What Are We Really Learning In Dance Classes?

I recently participated in a jazz class in London and was shocked to find out that it was a legitimate technique class!

Over the last several years, I have been overwhelmingly disappointed when I have gone to take professional level classes in various cities in the US and UK. My expectation is that I will receive a proper warm up that requires technical skill and finesse (i.e. plies, tendus, balances, etc) followed by a combination that is designed to be fun, challenging, and fits into the genre of the class.

Well, let me tell you about my experience:

So many classes that call themselves jazz or even modern are this new brand of contemporary that’s a bit of modern thrown in with a lot of acrobatics and scary tricks that look sort of cool, but will land most of us in the hospital with knee problems sooner rather than later.

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So I have asked myself, what happened to class!?

What happened to teachers that give you a full center barre with an adequate stretch (more than an 8 count in each position)? In my experience, many classes ‘warm up’ for approximately 10 minutes out of 60 and then dive into a crazy combination that requires limbs flying everywhere and a whole lot of flailing about.

I had begun to convince myself that I must be too old to go to class, and that I should stick to ballet if I wanted to get a decent work out that allowed me to focus on technique as well as artistry.

What I discovered upon further thought and exploration is that it might just be a generational difference. Do most people want to spend the majority of the class on a combination and forego technique?

Perhaps I go to class for a different reason than other dancers.

For me, I want it all, and always have. I am 31 and my body needs to be warmed up properly, but it also wants to be warmed up and technically challenged.

I love working on extensions, balance, control, and technical precision. These are the elements that keep dancing bodies strong for a long career. These are also the elements and exercises that keep bodies safe during class and rehearsal.

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As I stood in class yesterday, I saw a number of other students (seemingly new drop ins) scowling and looking bored and frustrated that 30 minutes into our 90 minute class we were still in the center and getting ready for progressions. I noticed that these students seemed to be in their early 20’s.

I have noted the exact opposite in classes that skip technique and opt for short warm ups. In these classes, the young dancers are excited and older dancers, such as myself, move to the back to continue warming up.

Perhaps this is simply because younger bodies feel ready for big movement sooner, but I think it is more than that. I think that the new generation of dancers has low tolerance for the repetition and concentrated demand that technical work requires, unless they are in ballet class.

Has Dance Class Lost It’s Roots?

In my experience, jazz, modern, and even contemporary classes include elements from ballet barre in their warm up. These elements are stylized for the genre, but nonetheless are a staple in the warm up, or so I thought.

As it turns out, classes that teach a technical warm up with clearly identified roots in their genre such as Graham’s contractions or Luigi’s rhythm of the body seem to be taught by older teachers and loved by older dancers. Likewise, classes that have short warm ups of seemingly no technical origin tend to be taught by younger teachers and loved by younger dancers.

I fear that technique is becoming less important and exhibitionism is the new way.

Our bodies are designed to move in certain ways and dancers ask the body to go above and beyond. Without the proper training and base of knowledge, it is very easy to cause permanent injury to your body.

I fear that we will:

  • Foster a generation of dancers who can kick the back of their heads, but cannot properly execute a single pirouette.
  • Forget to teach them where our roots are, and why dance has progressed so much over the generations.
  • Dancers will be unable to teach the future generation a proper tilt or grande jete without the flick of the head and lack of control that television has popularized.

Where are we now?

I continue to ask myself is it simply a generational gap?

In a society where we want everything faster, bigger, and better, are dancers forgetting to train and safely utilize their instrument in order to attempt feats of acrobatic fancy? What is it about the ritual of class that feels so welcoming and natural for me that the younger generation is missing out on?

I hope I am not alone in this conversation and welcome your feedback and observations. Perhaps we are all caught in the middle of two very different generations of dancers.

Photo credits: Edson HongCabrera Photo

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