Dance is a Risky Business

If you’ve ever taken a tap class, you know the basic exercises: shuffles, flaps, toe heels. To the front, to the side, to the back. Eight times, then four, then two. And so on and so forth. Earlier this year, I was in tap class and I wasn’t doing any of that. I was growling, spitting, sneering and smirking.

Before you worry that I had officially lost my mind or my passion for tap, or both, rest assured: it was all intentional. I was learning a piece of choreography from master tap dancer Jeannie Hill, a collaboration between her and Jump Rhythm Jazz Project’s Artistic Director Billy Siegenfeld, in which I play one half of a cynical duet set to Diana Krall’s sultry rendition of “Broadway.” My character, draped in a black trench coat and donning dark sunglasses, storms across the stage, his feet spitting rapid, angry rhythms.

Dancers, especially tap dancers, like to repeat the mantra, “It’s not about the steps.” But what does that really mean? If it’s not about the steps, then why do we go to tap class and drill them? Why do we typically think of choreography as broken down into steps? Why is one of the largest tap studios in New York City called Steps on Broadway?

I can’t get that step.
That step is hard.
What’s the next step?

It’s about the heart, people say. The emotion. But what does that mean? How do we convincingly – not disingenuously or in an overly performative way – reveal the character(s) and emotion(s) that our dancing is crafted to convey? This is an especially good question for tap dancers.

With “Broadway,” the dance was all about the character. I had to forget about the steps. I had to run the entire dance while growling and snarling ferociously from beginning to end. I had to practice spitting – actually spitting – at just the right angle, for just the right amount of time, at the right point in the music. I had to make weird faces to the mirror and to my partner until I looked sufficiently sarcastic for the role.

Needless to say, it was awful. It was uncomfortable. It was terrifying. It was one of my first true character roles as a tap dancer, and it was a personality so radically different from my own that I found it almost impossible to play. I worked on it in the studio every day for a week. I practiced my mean faces in the bathroom mirror each morning. I came home every night feeling sore in new places and ready to cry with frustration.

And then I got up the next morning and flew to Miami for YoungArts.

YoungArts, the core program for the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, is a scholarship program/competition that annually selects about 150 gifted high school seniors in the arts – dance, writing, voice, jazz, cinematic arts, visual arts, theatre, photography and music – and brings them to Miami for one week in January for the experience of a lifetime: a chance to network with each other, study with master teachers, perform for the public, and compete for cash prizes up to $10,000. I graduated from the program in 2009 and remain connected with everyone there – writing for their blog, performing at their events and serving as a Resident Advisor during Arts Week.

After rehearsing every day the previous week, I didn’t dance at all during Arts Week – but I had the privilege of being a R.A. with the dancers, after my prior experience working with the voice program. I soon realized, although they weren’t spitting or snarling, how many of them were in the same position that I had just experienced. On the first day, when they hardly knew each other, they had to show both of their solos to everyone, including the panelists and mentors. For some, it was the first time they were showcasing their own choreography. In the days that followed, they worked intensively with their master teachers, drilling their weak spots, experimenting with new ideas, allowing themselves to be vulnerable in front of their peers and panelists.

When the sole dancer representing Mexican folk dance, presented one of his solos for everyone, he was challenged to show more character by “flirting” with two of the girls, who had to stand on the side of the dance floor, waving seductively and blowing kisses at him. As one of the tap dancers worked on utilizing all the space and facing all sides of the audience, her fellow tappers moved around the floor with her, forcing her to keep changing her focus and direction. One modern dancer let herself cry as master teacher Aubrey Lynch worked with her on the emotions of her piece. The classical Indian dancers presented choreography that told a story not just with their footwork or arm gestures, but especially with their exaggerated facial expressions and their eyes.

The great challenge of performing is being someone other than who you are and finding a natural impetus to make you feel that way onstage. I had been having trouble the previous week not only finding an excuse to be mean and cynical and to make weird faces, but to do so in front of my dance teachers, my friends and my students. And then I came to Arts Week and saw how the dancers I was working with were fearless. They let everyone see their process, their mistakes, their trials and errors. They let down their guards and, most of all, supported each other unequivocally all week.

On their last day together at Miami City Ballet, each of the master teachers led a short class in his or her respective style. The ballerinas practiced shaking their butts. The tappers learned traditional classical Indian gestures. The modern dancers got a taste of tap rhythms. Everyone took risks learning new styles and looking foolish – and everyone kept a positive attitude and laughed with, not at, each other.

I witnessed even more risk-taking at the Theatre performance at the New World Center, where finalists masqueraded as everyone from Malvolio to Torvald Helmer, Jo March to Princess Winnifred. I realized just how brave these young artists are – how willing, how passionate, how dedicated. And I saw, too, how enthusiastically their peers responded. The kids that took the greatest risks – played the zaniest characters, revealed the most emotion, belted the highest notes – got the greatest payoff.

While I was digesting all of the information I had imbibed and beginning to think about how I could apply it to my own work, master teacher Bill T. Jones connected the proverbial dots for me. In his discussion with all of this year’s finalists, the legendary dancer/choreographer asked:

“How does chance work in your life? How does chance work in the work that you make? Do you think that you can actually figure everything out? Right down to what the audience will get from it? A lot of the art that is made now in Hollywood, on Broadway, is designed to take all of the chance out of it -- all of the risk out of it. How does risk fit into your life? How does risk fit into the art that you make? Or that you pursue?”

Discussing his new show, “Story/Time,” he continued, “I'm scared to death about [it]. I've won two Tonys. I have a dance company. I have a budget that is 5.2 million dollars to make every year. And I'm gonna do a work that every day we do it, we spin on random the order of the music, what the dancers do on stage. It is all about change and being out of control.”

I realized that the problem I had encountered with the new routine I’d learned was that I was not taking enough risks. My faces weren’t crazy enough. My energy wasn’t cynical enough. I was only peeking out occasionally from my comfort zone instead of smashing my way out of it. As Aubrey Lynch reminded the dancers, the studio is our safest place, the place to make mistakes without being judged. Learning Jeannie and Billy’s choreography has made clear for me the true meaning of, “It’s not about the steps.” The dance has no meaning without the character, intention and attitude of the dancers and the ironic interpretation of the song. The steps could be completely changed and the dance would still resonate as long as the artistic elements remained in play.

I rationalized that if someone with the talent and reputation of Bill T. Jones was scared to death about his work, then I could afford to be that way, too. Maybe it’s okay to take a big risk and be fearful of making a fool of myself in this dance. If the dance finalists taught me anything, it’s that those risks lead to personal progress, positive feedback and a whole lot of fun.

My new resolution for 2012 is to take more risks in my life and my art. What risks are you going to take this year?

1 comment:

vargosdance said...

I think that i've experienced growing pains in dancing art. First i was just trying to survive in this art. There is always very though to survive in every season, in every season i think that i am going to hit the maximum number, But now i feel it's always the same pressure in every season :(.

Geneva dance


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