The Meaning of Mentorship

One of jazz tap artist Katherine Kramer’s favorite tools – besides her tap shoes, of course – is a large pad of paper, the kind you might see on an easel in a classroom, and a bunch of markers. While she’s in her car (which, as someone who divides her time between Florida and Montana, she often is), listening to music and choreographing in her head, the paper rests on the passenger seat so she can pick up a marker and scribble thoughts and drawings even while driving.

            Naturally, when I went to Miami in June to work with her on new solo material, she got me hooked on the same process.

            I initially met and worked with Katherine, the YoungArts Tap mentor for the Dance discipline, when I was a finalist in 2009. Kismet had conspired in our encounter, for several years earlier, my plans to attend her Rhythm Explosion festival in Bozeman, Montana had been thwarted by an airline problem.

            Our experience together was so successful – it was the solo I presented in that year’s Dance & Cinematic Arts showcase, a product of her coaching, that I used as my audition for “So You Think You Can Dance,” which aired that fall – that we kept in touch and vowed to collaborate again.

            Earlier this year, as I contemplated what dance opportunities I would undertake for the summer, I thought about her. I thought about the new suite of solo material I was developing for the fall, and how I wanted someone’s advice, guidance and ideas. And I looked at my calendar, sent her an email and booked a flight to Miami.

            One of the many great aspects of the Dance discipline during YoungArts Week is that all of the dancers get to work with mentors in their respective styles. This format differs from the other disciplines, where the finalists work directly with their panelists. Instead, the Dance panelists observe the finalists as they are coached by their mentors.

            Coaching, a term perhaps more commonly affiliated with sports or acting, is a critical portion of the dance finalists’ experience at YoungArts Week. The coaches/mentors are not teachers – though they may, as part of the day’s work, lead a warm-up, as a dance instructor would do, or teach an exercise or short combination to his or her student(s) that addresses a particular skill or concept related to what the student(s) is working on.

            Instead, the coaches watch the dancers’ solos and offer new ways to approach and modify their performances. Rather than simply give technical notes, they may ask a dancer to run his or her piece again while thinking about a particular emotion or idea, or without using their arms, or while making eye contact with everyone in the room. They give dancers ideas to experiment with and challenges to undertake with their routines. They talk to the dancer about the intention(s) behind the piece, or the movement choices, or the staging, and discuss their effects and consider other possibilities. And throughout this process, when the mentors work with one dancer at a time, the other dancers in that discipline are watching and learning from all that is happening. Everyone makes progress by observing each other’s progress.

            This process was prominent during this year’s YoungArts week, as I wrote in one of my previous blog posts: 

            When Hanss Mujica, 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 Kristen Ramirez, a tap dancer, 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.

            When developing new solo material with Katherine, we began, of course, with the jumbo pad of paper. Using one sheet to make a storyboard of the piece, we outlined it like a comic strip, filling each box with details of each dance, writing down the images, concepts and song ideas I had in mind.

            “Quirky hubcap,” reads one cryptic entry, the dominant image. “Weights – drop – splats. Lines to connect. Focus up and down.”

            Another sheet was designated for notes, which we kept as a running diary of our work together – what we did, what we thought about it, and what I could continue to work on.

            “(Dis)advantages of being tall,” I wrote, with several diagrams of my body. “Reactions to movement. Start small, get bigger? Move down body – explore all options. Sharper focus.”

            Yet another sheet we reserved for notating music. After selecting a piece of music for one of my solos, we counted it out musically, transcribing the arrangement – easier said than done – and the movement ideas we had for each section of piece.

            And this was just what we did when we weren’t dancing!


            Once we had a concept for the first solo, an ironic piece set to Shel Silverstein’s witty poem “One Inch Tall,” the coaching began.

            I improvised with the poem and my taps in different ways. First, I danced across the stage taking only one-inch steps. Then I added my body, making small movements beginning with my head and progressing down to my knees. Next, I toyed with my reaction to the movements: Deadpan? Surprised? Amused? Then I tried moving on other planes and seeing how that changed my movements, my focus and my reactions.

            For another incarnation of the piece, as a way of working specifically on my reactions and thus honing my acting abilities, I shuffled around the room, taking one-inch steps in a spiraling path toward the center, acting out the entire story with hand gestures, facial expressions and other body movements, much like I had seen the classical Indian dance finalists do.

            For the second solo, we worked conceptually and visually. I practiced directed improvisation, whereby I improvised to the music while thinking each time of certain images that Katherine would call out to me. I played with the idea of being a graceful canoe. Then, after her feedback, I developed the movement by thinking of being in or on water, which led to certain moves that I wanted to keep. Thinking of each section of the song in relation to a particular image, and letting the music and imagery guide me simultaneously, was a helpful way to structure the piece.

            In just three days together, we finished two new solos, and I had the great opportunity to present one of them as a work-in-progress at an open choreography showing at inkub8, a studio-laboratory-performance space in the Wynwood Art District. It was very well-received by the small audience that had assembled to see what we had been working on!

            Just like during YoungArts Week, my time with Katherine pushed me artistically out of my comfort zone and made me think hard about what I was creating. (Of famed composer John Cage’s “10 Rules for Students and Teachers,” #8 is: “Do not try to create & analyze at the same time. They are different processes.”)

            The kind of coaching she provided – that all of the mentors for the Dance finalists offer – was individualized and sophisticated. It wasn’t about working on my technique, or learning or setting steps, or trying out fancy moves. It was about digging deeper into my artistry and into myself.  It was about experimenting with different ways of moving, thinking and performing. It was about creating new work that was an honest reflection of who I am – and, therefore, a bit of a self-discovery process. It was about letting my instincts guide me (How else do you choreograph a full solo – two of them! – in three days?) and trusting what came out of my mind and my body.

            A beloved high school English teacher of mine had, as a coda to her syllabus, this pithy reminder: “All academic inquiry takes places within a community.”

            That epigram has often recurred to me because I think it resonates just as soundly with artistic inquiry, as well. As I write this post, I am sitting by myself at a table in a quiet corner of my local Starbucks. When I’m done, I will go to the dance studio and choreograph alone. And then I’ll drive home and, from the privacy of my bedroom, edit music and upload the videos I made of whatever I worked on at the studio. I suppose it should be no surprise that working on a one-man show is mostly, well, a one-man job, but what happens when I need feedback on this choreography or that music or those videos?

            That’s where mentorship comes in. Plato had Socrates. T.S. Eliot had Ezra Pound. The role of a mentor in an artist’s life, or simply the development of a work, is crucial. The mentor-mentee relationship is a catalyst within the artistic community, in which inquiry is necessary for growth and progress. I am lucky to have Katherine as one of my mentors – someone who can see me at my most vulnerable, guide me through the process of inquiry and experimentation and creation and cheer me along as I continue developing my work and refining my voice.

            I hope all artists, and particularly all past and future YoungArts finalists and winners in Dance, take a moment to appreciate the mentors they have, or soon will have, in their lives. We all need great mentors to help us develop our work, develop ourselves and develop lasting friendships.

Photo Credits - Top: Natasha Williams; Middle: Kristin Ramirez; Bottom: Natasha Williams

*** You can see the fruits of my labor with Katherine at Monkeyhouse's "Against the Odds" Festival this fall at Springstep! Stay tuned for more details. ***

1 comment:

Monkeyhouse said...

Yet another fabulous and articlate post. I truly appreciate how much you value your teachers and mentors, Ryan. I am certain that they enjoy watching your growth. So looking forward to seeing this new piece too!


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