Training VS. Education: Why they go hand in hand

So after another competition season over, I’m left with a deep feeling of unease regarding the future of our art form. Not because I feel as though we’re doing a BAD job TRAINING the next generation, but because I feel as though we’re not doing a THOROUGH job EDUCATING them.  What is the difference you may ask?  Think about history.  If all they did in history was made you memorize the dates on which events took place, they would be TRAINING you to memorize those dates and events.  If they explained what happened, what caused it to happen and how it has effected our lives today, then they are EDUCATING you to ensure that you actually learn from the choices and events of the past.  I hope you can all see the innate value of the latter and why it is SO IMPORTANT to educate our dancers rather than just train them…but back to competition.  I’m going to break this down into a few parts so that you can start to approach your work with focus and the purpose of not just training your dancers, but educating them so that it sticks.  I apologize in advance as I do have a tendency to go on tangents, but hopefully they won’t stray too far from the mark.

CHOREOGRAPHY

As I watch competition these days I often see the same dancer doing 3 or 4 solos doing the exact same turn or leap series in all of them.  The movement rarely changes in style or vocabulary and the emotional context of the piece changes very little from one piece to the next.  Nor am I seeing a consistent attention to transitions or any kind of movement vocabulary moving through space and engaging footwork in the musicality of the piece.  The perceived value has become in how well can you execute the tricks.  Well sure…they give us something concrete with which to deduct points if not executed properly.  
Notice I said DEDUCT…not add.  Keep in mind that you start each routine with a perfect score.  With each flawed attempt, you actually lose points for not executing something perfectly.  As you tire out from trying to execute 60 tricks in 2.5 minutes, your score diminishes to something almost embarrassing at times and you feel your dancer deserves more.  Not to mention, it’s virtually impossible to make anyone feel anything while executing 15 fouette turns.  
Believe it or not, the reason we give those babies that diamond or platinum or whatever high medal they get is because they are adorable, make us laugh or whatever.  They make us feel something.  If you can take a song, costume it appropriately to compliment the character of the piece (we’ll get to this next) and live through it rather than just execute tricks, you will find a deeper understanding of the art form.  Communicate something.  Have something to say with each piece. Even if it’s just about having fun, create MOVEMENT that communicates something so that you can connect with your audience and find a deeper fulfillment in your own creativity.  
Here’s a big one for me. If your movement is inappropriate for the age of the dancer, you WILL LOSE POINTS!  There is no reason for an 8 year old to bend over and bring her hands up her legs while giving me the eye.  There is a vast movement vocabulary out there that allows young dancers to discover their movement capability without over sexualizing them.  If you’d like more information about the sexualization of young dancers in the industry, (which in my opinion is a HUGE issue) I suggest you visit https://www.ypad4change.org/  They are doing amazing things to protect young dancers within their training and I hope you will read and take seriously what they discuss. 

COSTUMING

While I can see that many studios are paying large sums of money for unique and custom designed costumes, I do not see how it adds to a dance to put a 4 year old in a bra and underwear with rhinestones and have her strut around without tights on.  How is this beautiful design creating a mood or pulling us into the world of the piece?  How does it contribute to the movement?  Does it inspire you or help you make new and exciting movement choices or is it simply pretty?  Did you consider ALL body types in the class before choosing the design?  How do the dancers feel in the costume?  When they try it on, are they trying to cover up because they feel uncomfortable?  One of the most interesting pieces I saw this season was a simple black leotard with a long red skirt.  The skirt was used in so many ways.  It was moved up to the neck to make it look like a dress and it was taken off to be used as a prop and put back on but all choreographed beautifully and seamlessly.  The costume supported the movement and the concept and yet was appropriate for the dancers.
Here’s is another point to consider:  While you may feel as though the competition room is a controlled environment, most of them don’t require any kind of entry fee or verification of relation to be there.  So you just don’t know who is in the room or why. How do you want your children to be seen?  As a father to be, I know that I want my daughter to be seen as a little girl and to find confidence in the human being she is, not by displaying herself as an over sexualized adolescent before she even understands what that means.
Another issue we run into is that quite often these costumes are built in September and, as kids are want to do, they grow and by the time competition season rolls around they don’t fit properly anymore.  Last weekend alone, 3 girls almost came out of their bra tops.  The simple solution?  Add material above and below, even if it’s a nude mesh, and it will help to keep the costume in place as well as cover up gratuitous wardrobe malfunctions.
Next, I have to mention the trunks no tights trend.  With all of those heel stretches and tilts angled right toward us, I felt like I was watching an adult film. Tights…PLEASE!  Also, angle those tilts* and heel stretches so their torso and pelvis are flat to the audience with pelvis in alignment (no tucking the pelvis under) or angled slightly upstage downstage (head and torso downstage) so we can see the alignment and not their pelvic region.
 *TECHNICAL NOTE: When executing a tilt, the dancer should feel as though the leg is coming to their ear, not their eye.  If it’s coming forward to the front of their face, they are tucking the pelvis.  This puts unnecessary stress on the hip flexors which then causes them to tighten and shorten causing the dancer to lose flexibility and in many cases contributes to injuries down the line.

TECHNIQUE

This is where the “Why” comes in.  I felt like I spent the past 6 weeks watching jump after kick after turn after bad tilt after parallel supporting leg heel stretch in second etc etc etc. I saw very little dancing and a whole lot of tricking. I believe in my heart the teachers have said turn out, use your plie, align your pelvis etc etc etc…however if it’s not sticking, I have to believe it’s because they are not being educated in the WHY they must focus on these things.  Good technique has been developed over centuries of training not just for aesthetics, but because it supports the health and well-being of the dancer’s body.  It lengthens their dance life span.  The focus on technique should be about preventing injury as well as helping them to execute those cool tricks they want to learn.  Muscling through something is rarely the right approach, especially if it becomes a habit that could lead to a serious, career ending, injury.  For example:
That lovely tilt I mentioned above.  The supporting leg should be turned out before ever engaging the extension.  Why?  First and foremost is the health of the knee on the supporting leg.  Think about where the energy is going when they execute that extension.  It heads straight to the pelvis.  Because of how the legs are being stretched, the pelvis is being pressed through between the legs to increase the level of extension.  This causes the energy of the supporting leg to move in that direction.  If the leg is in parallel, the stress of that goes right to the inside of the knee; stretching the ligaments that keep it in place.  Eventually, there is likelihood of a tear or just severe instability from over stretching all of the ligaments that hold the joint in place.  When you turn the leg out, you are simply stretching the hamstring of the supporting leg in opposition of the hamstring in the working leg.  You maintain stability by sending energy down through the supporting leg and out through the top of the spine opposite the energy you are sending out through the pelvis.
I could give several more examples, but that is for another post.  My goal here is to help you as teachers understand WHY it is important to educate your dancers rather than just train them; and WHY it is important to focus on the details.  It is the dancer’s health and future in your hands.

VERSATILITY

Very few groups came on stage and demonstrated a well rounded dance education.  They had one style of one genre (and yes style and genre are different things) that they did very well, and everything else was barely adequate or below average.  This is somewhat of a paradox to me because parents consistently say to us that they put their kids in so many different activities because they want them to be well-rounded; so I ask, for those kids whose focus is on dance, why are we not helping them to be well-rounded within the context of their passion?  Why are we holding on to them so tightly and forcing them to train in one place where, while they might get amazing contemporary training, the tap and ballet may not be so strong.  So why wouldn’t we want them to have a strong ballet background?  It can only make them a better dancer more capable of executing our contemporary work.  Getting a good solid tap foundation can only increase the dexterity of their footwork as well as deepen and perfect their musicality.  Why shouldn’t we want them to get the best they can get in our region; even if we can’t provide it.
Our job as teachers is to guide our students to the best possible future we can offer them, even if we can’t provide it to them.  We must let go of our own ego, pride and fear and push them in the direction that is best for them.  One day, they will thank us.  One day they will think back to the tipping point; that one decision that set them on the right path, and they will remember that we  were a part of it.
Jason Marquette
Director
MPower Dance workshops
Passion for Dance, Technique for Life
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