Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dancer Tip: Proper Stretching Techniques to Avoid Injury

Dancers sometimes stretch to the point of contortion to improve their flexibility. But painful forced stretches can cause micro-muscle tears or pulls. Even seemingly harmless ones can do damage. Here are some popular stretches that physical therapists caution can strain muscles, plus some tips on smart ways to stretch.

The Frog: Turnout Without Tears
In this stretch, the dancer lies on her stomach and rotates her legs externally with her feet pressed together to create a diamond shape. The thighs, knees, and pelvis lie flush with the floor, while she attempts to bring the feet as close to the floor as possible. “For hypermobile dancers, this can needlessly strain joints,” explains Liz Henry, a physical therapist with Westside Dance Physical Therapy in New York. “It puts pressure on the sacroiliac pelvis joint, the lumbar vertebral segments, and the hip joint.”

Henry recommends an isometric approach: Lie on your back parallel to a wall, feet flat on the floor with knees bent towards the ceiling. Let the leg closer to the wall turn out so the knee touches the wall, making a half-diamond shape. Gently press the knee against the wall for about six seconds. Relax, then repeat six times and switch to the other leg. After each sustained contraction the muscles elongate, allowing the leg to release further in the hip socket. Be careful to maintain alignment by keeping the outside hip pressed into the floor.

Forced Feet: Don’t Sit Tight
Dancers sometimes use gadgets or extreme pressure to achieve well-arched feet. Some ask a partner to push their toes toward the ground when they are sitting on the floor with their legs extended, or have them sit on their feet while pointed. Needless to say, these tactics put the entire ankle and foot in jeopardy.

“That kind of force can stretch the wrong joint,” says Henry. “Pointing the foot requires mobility in the ankle and foot joint, and the amount of give needed at each joint is different for every dancer.” If you’re not satisfied with your arch, have a physical therapist recommend exercises that are tailored to your particular feet. Henry says stiffness in the front of the ankle is the most common complaint she hears. To help release the ankle, she suggests sitting on your heels in a kneeling position, keeping your spine long to apply low-level pressure.

Over-Splits: Don’t Get Hung Up
As choreographers wow audiences with extended split leaps and side tilts, dancers have been inspired to try a new generation of super-split stretches. To increase their front split, dancers prop a foot up on a block and then sink into a spread that exceeds 180 degrees. Making matters worse, they may “hang out” there for several minutes.

Rather than creating a healthy hamstring stretch, Henry says this move strains the back of the knee, causing hyperextension. Too much hyperextension can accelerate arthritic breakdown, or throw off a dancer’s alignment and cause them to be more prone to injury.

Julie O’Connell, director of performing arts rehabilitation for AthletiCo in Chicago, who works with dancers from Joffrey, Hubbard Street, and Giordano, recommends alternating stretching with strengthening. Lie on your back with feet flat on the floor, knees bent, and slowly push the pelvis up towards the ceiling. Hold for about 10 seconds. Lower it, straighten one leg on the floor and point the other straight up, pulling gently towards your body. Repeat the cycle six to eight times. This active warm-up will strengthen and lengthen the hamstrings and gluteals rather than straining knees.

Feeling your way
There’s no definitive guide to how long to hold a stretch. Henry, for instance, recommends staying there anywhere from 30 to 120 seconds. “Prolonged, end-range stretches increase the muscles’ give and lengthen them over time,” she says. Longer, however, can actually overstretch the muscle, causing weakness or instability.

Stretching cold muscles requires caution. “I tell dancers to break a sweat before they stretch,” says O’Connell. “It’s important to have blood flow in the muscles so they become pliable.” Try doing some cardio to warm up.

Keep in mind that any movement that’s painful will not stretch muscles. “Our bodies are wired to protect us. Receptors pick up pain signals, causing the muscles to tighten,” says Henry. Your body has a stopping point: Is the joint too stiff or is the muscle too tight? You want to feel your stretches in the muscles, not the joints.

Every body has different degrees of flexibility. “Work within your own facility, and strengthen within your length,” says O’Connell. Being a smart stretcher improves your facility now and lengthens your dance career in the future.

Written Jen Thompson Peters, Dance Magazine, November 2008
Jennifer Thompson Peters is a New York dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works.

Turnout: What's the Big Deal?

The dancer's quest to improve turnout can be a lifelong pursuit. Since the days of Louis XIV, a turned-out aesthetic has been the ideal for ballet dancers. But when it comes to how to approach leg rotation, a lot has evolved since the 17th century. "Turnout facilitates movement and the beauty of your line," says Daniel Duell, artistic director of Ballet Chicago. "It's not just a goal unto itself. It contributes to function." That function includes the balance, strength, agility, and speed essential to the performance of every step in the classical vocabulary.

Like everything in ballet, turnout begins at the barre. From the first combination, dancers should focus on rotating both legs equally, without compromising alignment. "Think of wrapping your muscles around your bones to turn them out, rather than trying to force your bones unduly," says Duell. "It's like taking clay and wrapping it around a pole so the clay spirals around it."

Align your knees over the middle toes with the weight more toward the balls of the feet than the heels, which will make it easier to translate your turnout at the barre into the center.

Proper turnout also helps extension, says Sharon Story, dean of the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education. "In class I use my shoulder socket to show that if you turn your arm in, the arm doesn't go as high as when it's turned out. The hip sockets work the same way."

In order to apply your work at the barre to the center, don't rely on the barre itself to hold your placement. Use it as a reference rather than a crutch. This will strengthen turnout muscles: the adductors (inner-thigh muscles), the deepest abdominal muscle known as the transversus abdominis, and the pelvic floor. Test your balance by occasionally letting go of the barre.

Never contort your body to give the impression that you're more turned out than you really are. Turnout begins at the hips. "If you take the turnout from the ankles and knees," says Story, "you can get bunions, tendinitis, and serious injuries."

However, you should push your turnout to its natural limit in order to build strength. "A lot of the recent training doesn't stress fifth position so that your knees will be safe and you won't hurt your hips," says renowned New York teacher Nancy Bielski. "That's a major crime. If you strive for a healthy way of turning out, you won't get injured. Usually it's when you're turned out incorrectly that you get injured."

Everyone's degree of rotation is different, and many experts believe it can't be increased because it's a matter of bones. Still, there is more to turnout than genetics. It also takes strength--and that's something any dancer can improve.

Most dancers have a maximum rotation of 55 degrees in their hips, according to Gayanne Grossman, associate professor of anatomy and kinesiology at Temple University. (The rest comes from rotation of the shin bones, but this is fixed--it can't be actively rotated like the hips.)

Your natural turnout may be greater than what you have the strength to hold. "Muscles tend to be weakest in their end ranges," says Grossman. "This is problematic for dancers because end-range turnout is precisely where they stand."

These muscle weaknesses make it difficult to control turnout. "Many dancers cannot isolate or properly use the six deep rotators, so they over recruit the gluteus maximus," says Grossman, whose research will appear in a turnout-themed issue of the Journal of Dance Medicine Science later this year. (See

While it may be tempting, never use your gluteal muscles or quadriceps to turn out. Instead of squeezing, feel a sense of elongation and stretch in your body, with the feet pushing down into the floor and the hips lifting up away from the floor. Think of lengthening your quadriceps to keep your knees straight, rather than gripping turnout.

There are a number of exercises to improve your turnout. Duell recommends standing on a rotation disc in parallel and rotating your legs outward into first position. Bielski suggests lying on your back with the soles of your feet together and opening your knees into a frog position. Ask a friend to gently push against your knees while you resist the pushing. Hold for 20 seconds and release, allowing your knees to drift toward the ground. Grossman recommends Pilates, specifically the side kick series.

Whether or not you have 180-degree turnout, you can push it to its anatomical limit. Always keep the image of good turnout in mind. Says Story, "Make sure you're presenting your feet and lower legs with the best possible turnout. It makes for a finished, professional dancer."

Written by Kristin Lewis "Improving Turnout", Dance Magazine August 2008

Saturday, February 20, 2010

More on Merce - His Company's Legacy Tour

Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Merce Cunningham Dance Company Member Dylan Crossman Talks About The Company's Legacy Tour
By Katie Rolnick | February 10, 2010

When 25-year-old Dylan Crossman joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company last June, he had no idea he was about to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime journey. This February, MCDC begins The Legacy Tour, a two-year-long trip around the world presenting the work of company founder and groundbreaking choreographer Merce Cunningham, who passed away last July. After the final performance in 2011, the company will close. Crossman, who was a member of the company's Repertory Understudy Group for two years before joining MCDC, took some time to talk to DS about his experiences with the company.

Dance Spirit: How does it feel to be part of The Legacy Tour?
Dylan Crossman: I don't realize that it's happening yet. Having just joined 6 months ago, even realizing that I'm in the company is intense because it's something I wanted for such a long time. To finally be in the company, especially at a time that's so special, makes me glad I stuck it out.

DS: Do you have a favorite piece that's part of the tour?
DC: Nearly 90 and Nearly 90² are special because that was a choreographic process when the understudies got to work with Merce a lot. He gave us all of his attention and all of his trust. Even though we were still training, it always felt like we were good enough for him. Everything about those pieces reminds me of working with Merce.

DS: What was it like to work and train with Merce Cunningham?
DC: It was very rewarding. He would always be looking at us, paying attention, but at the same time he was also discreet; he would let us do our thing. At the end of his life he was in a wheelchair, so most of the communication was done orally. He could show us arms or demonstrate rhythms with his feet--that was something that was very Merce. He used to be a tap dancer, so he would say, "Look," and tap the rhythm with his feet. But using words creates more flexibility in the choices you can make. Sometimes I think he was vague on purpose to see what each dancer would come up with. He would say, "Step forward," and one of us would lunge and one of us would step on straight legs and one of us would step on bent legs. He would have a palette of choices in front of him.

DS: What do you like most about the Cunningham technique?
DC: It's very rigorous and also very freeing. The whole beginning of the class is set, so you can focus on your body and how it feels because your brain doesn't have to work hard. Everything we do is so extreme, pushing the limits of the body, so it's important to know where your body is each day.

DS: How does it feel to know that when this tour concludes, the company will close?
DC: We try to take it day by day. For me, because I just joined, I don't want to think about the end yet. I'm so happy and pleased and honored to be part of this--I just want to enjoy what's happening right now.

Dance History: Remembering Great Moments of 2009

Do you know much about Merce Cunningham or Nina Ananiashvili? Well, here's your chance to be in the know - the New York Times has a slide show commemorating events and people in dance from 2009. Check it out to see pictures of the late legendary choreographer, Merce Cunningham, and of American Ballet Theater ballerina, Nina Ananiashvili, who retired last year.

Nina Ananiashvili

Nina Ananiashvili was born in Tblisi, Georgia, in 1964 and started ballet school in Georgia in 1973. She moved to Moscow in 1977 and made debut in 1980 in a school production of Coppelia. In 1981, she graduated into the Bolshoi Ballet as a soloist. In 1988 she and Andris Liepa were the first Soviet dancers to appear as guest artists with the New York City Ballet. She became principal with the American Ballet Theatre in 1993 and retired in 2009. (A more extensive bio of Nina can be found on ABT's website. Additional pictures of Nina, spanning her entire career, can be found at

Merce Cunningham

Merce Cunningham, born in 1919 and died July 2009, he was an American dancer and choreographer who was at the forefront of the American avant garde for more than fifty years. Throughout much of his life, Cunningham was considered one of the greatest creative forces in American dance. As a choreographer, teacher, and leader of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Cunningham had a profound influence on modern dance.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dancer Tip: Perfecting Your Penchée

The penchée is one of the hardest movements to master in ballet. It takes an incredible amount of balance, strength, turnout and flexibility to get that perfect 180. It may seem like an impossible task, but with a few tips from a ballerina, you might be well on your way!
In Dance Spirit Magazine, Pennsylvania Ballet principle dancer Julie Diana dishes on how to improve your penchée.

First of all, remember that a penchée is really an extended arabesque—and an arabesque should come from your back, not your extremities. You want to maintain the connection between your upper back and your leg, constantly forcing the two against each other.

Stretch the front of your hips and your hamstrings, emphasizing length and freedom of movement. Strengthening exercises will help stabilize your standing leg, which will help you control the depth of the penchée without losing your balance or showing strain.

Stand on one leg in parallel without the barre, and simply plié, straighten and relevé to focus on alignment and smooth transitions. (The other leg is gently bent.) Repeat this exercise turned out and then do the other side.

A good preparatory barre exercise is to tendu arabesque and combré back. Imagine there’s a string connecting your bun to your foot and lift your toe to arabesque without breaking that string. Continue into penchée, holding that connection and resist the urge to nosedive—you want to avoid looking like an ironing board. Then, reverse the motion and come back to arabesque, keeping your leg up as high as possible. This will strengthen your back and encourage the correct aesthetic line. Remember to keep your knees straight, shoulders square and weight on the ball of your standing foot.

In center, I imagine that someone is partnering me—supporting me by my back wrist and lifting me away from the floor as I extend into a deep arabesque. Check out Susan Jaffe demonstrating a penchée at She’s classically picture-perfect.

Julie Diana is a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet.

Choreographer's Tip - Beating Choreographer's Block

Here's a great article from Dance Teacher Magazine on beating choreographer's block. When you're teaching a ton of classes and have to choreograph something new and fresh every year for recital, this article can really help to push you out of a rut and into a new realm of creativity!

Your spring show is three months away, Regionals are around the corner, and you have dozens of numbers to choreograph. But you’re stuck. If this sounds familiar, don’t worry—you are not alone. Some of today’s most high-profile dancemakers are no strangers to choreographer’s block. Next time, try these strategies to get yourself back on track. 

1. Take a break. “Take personal time, even if it’s just 20 minutes,” says teacher and choreographer Rhonda Miller. “Have dinner, read a book, get a cup of coffee—anything that has nothing to do with dance.” A few minutes elsewhere will give your brain a chance to rest and regroup.

2. Change your music. Using the same kind of music each year can make it difficult to find fresh ideas. So don’t be afraid to throw out your music, even if you like it. Michelle Latimer, director of Michelle Latimer Dance Academy in Greenwood Village, Colorado, chose a piece of music she loved. But after two weeks, she realized the choreography was too similar to some of her previous numbers. “I couldn’t go any further,” Latimer recalls. “When I went back the next week [with different music], everything opened up and started to flow.”  

3. Get in the mindset. Talk to kids in the age group for which you’re choreographing. Check out what TV shows, music, music videos and movies they like. “Find out what they dig, what they’re into,” says Miller. Getting in the mindset of your students can kickstart your imagination.

4. Let it go—for now. If you’re stuck on a certain section, put steps together as a placeholder that will get students from point A to point B. “You can come back to it later and fix it,” says Miller. Keep a notepad of sections you need to revise. Chances are, inspiration will strike after you finish the piece. 

5. Work during your most prolific time of day. Every artist is different. For some, the most creative hours are early in the morning. Others find that late at night is the golden time. Know your own habits, and schedule your life so that you can be in the studio when you’re at your best. 

6. Use an assistant choreographer. Ask an advanced dancer to assist you. “Pick a student you think is a creative mover—maybe a student who is great at improvisation,” says Latimer. Give the dancer a movement phrase, with instructions to put his or her own spin on it. Working side-by-side with a younger dancer can reveal new possibilities. 

7. Don’t pre-choreograph. Latimer has found that choreographing before she gets into the studio makes her overthink. “If I think too much, I’m frozen,” she says. “I usually pick a song, listen to it a few times and get a concept in my mind. Then I start from square one with my students. When you have the bodies there, your idea will shift dramatically because they move differently or can do more than you thought.”  

8. Focus on the narrative. Choose a central idea or storyline for each piece, and remind yourself of it when you’re blocked. “You need something to take you through the number,” says Robin Dawn Ryan, director of the Robin Dawn Academy of Performing Arts in Cape Coral, Florida. “If you just put the song on and choreograph, there’s no connection to why you’re choreographing.” 

9. Stay true to your style. A creative block can happen if you’re trying to choreograph according to what you think the judges want to see or in the style of another choreographer. “One year I tried to choreograph in a way that wasn’t me. It was the worst year I ever had,” says Ryan. “When we try to be that other choreographer, the work won’t feel good to our kids or to us.” 

10. Delegate. Like it or not, sometimes you can’t do it all. Asking for help will do more than de-stress your life—it will make your dancers better. For instance, “if you have a unique style, everything can start looking the same. You don’t want your kids to get bored,” says Latimer. Mix it up by relying on faculty members and guest artists. Observing others in action can reinvigorate your own choreographic process and improve your students’ versatility. 

11. Trust your instincts. For Miller, the primary cause of choreographer’s block is perfectionism. “I want it to be so good that I get in my own way,” she says. “As teachers, we need to be reminded: Trust your ideas and your beliefs in the student or project. Don’t doubt your artistic vision. Believe in yourself!”

Kristin Lewis is a freelance writer in New York City.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Cool Website - The Ballerina Gallery

Julie Kent's portrait from

This is one of my favorite websites to view pictures and videos of my favorite ballerinas. You can also read their bios and learn some cool trivia. Check it out!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Rehearsing Romeo and Juliet - The Royal Ballet of London

The Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet - Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta

Here is another great video of the Royal Ballet's production of Romeo and Juliet, as danced by Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta, one in a three-part series. They talk about their roles and show rehearsals of the famed balcony scene. Tamara is captivating and so believable as Juliet, ever graceful and so childlike, as Shakespeare must have imagined Juliet's character.

Watch the video:

Behind the Scenes - NYCB's Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet - Sterling Hyltin and Robbie Fairchild

With Valentine's Day upon us, it is only fitting to include a post about Romeo and Juliet! Here's a video where we see a different twist on the famous ballet - behind the scenes with New York City Ballet. It is an entire series, but I've chosen one episode where the dancers talk about dancing the lead roles. Enjoy!

Watch the video:

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Dance Tip - The Importance of Musicality and How to Master It

As a teacher, it's been difficult to teach my students musicality in a way that they understand. And as a dancer, I didn't fully understand musicality until I was in my twenties. But once the light bulb went off, I enjoyed dancing more than ever before. I was no longer just doing steps, I was finally dancing! Here are some highlights from an article in Dance Spirit Magazine, "Musicality Matters". I've inserted just the highlights, because it's a very long article! 

...So what exactly is musicality? It’s how a dancer expresses music in his or her body. “Musicality is understanding music on a technical level, and then dropping all of that knowledge so you can sit deep inside the music,” says choreographer and “So You Think You Can Dance” regular Wade Robson. “It’s dancing inside the music, as opposed to floating on top of it.”

A well-developed sense of musicality separates the pros from the amateurs. It also makes you enjoyable to watch—and it’s a more rewarding way to dance!

...Put a musical dancer and a nonmusical dancer side by side and you’ll see why it’s so important to be attuned to the rhythm, melody and mood of a song. Dancers without a keen connection to the music might seem stiff or disconnected—often, they’re hard to watch. “They’re unable to transmit the emotion the musical notes are giving,” Feijóo says. “A strong but nonmusical dancer is like a painting without any colors. I’d rather watch a musical dancer with less extension and not-as-pretty feet.”

Musical dancers, on the other hand, never disregard the music to fit in more tricks. “You can see the effort in a nonmusical dancer—they are often step-driven,” says NYC ballet teacher Deborah Wingert. “Musical dancers don’t just turn until they stop. They turn until they have to move on to the next point in the music. Musical dancers never get so caught up in steps that they ignore the music.”

...To start working on your musicality, “do your barre work in a musically accurate way,” says Oregon Ballet Theatre principal Anne Mueller. “It starts from the moment you begin dancing. Don’t slide through the music in tendu combinations, for instance. Making sure that you’re clear in your execution will give you more options because you’ll be able to take advantage of the still space; musicality can be as much about when you’re not moving as when you are."

...Phrasing Philosophies
If you’ve ever discussed musicality with a teacher or other dancers, you’ve probably heard a lot about “phrasing.” But do you know what it is? Musical phrasing is the way music is organized within measures. Where are the syncopations? The cadences? The accents? Choreographic phrasing is similar—it’s how steps are organized within a musical phrase. Which steps hit on the beat, and which move through the rhythm? Should one step be performed quickly so another can be stretched out?

Sometimes choreographers will specify the way their steps should be phrased, but when it’s allowed, experimenting with phrasing can give you multiple ways to dance a piece. In fact, the better you know a score or song, the more you’ll be able to play with the dynamics and timing of the steps—instead of always dancing right on a square beat, which can make you look repetitive and boring. Perhaps you can hold a développé for an extra moment or change the tempo of your movement to squeeze in another battu. “A dancer must have an excellent sense of rhythm to hold the
audience’s attention,” says Feijóo. “Without getting off the beat, find where you can balance longer or fit one more turn. This is how you translate the mood the music gives you into the steps.”

...Honing Your Ear
Learning to differentiate instruments will help you translate what you hear into movement, which will, in turn, give your dancing shade and texture. If you don’t know the difference between a clarinet and an oboe, start with musical works like Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf or Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, both of which break down each instrument in a symphony so you can learn to distinguish sounds. Another way to hone your ear is to listen to recordings of the same score with different conductors and identify the differences between them.

Robson swears by this exercise, which he picked up from his days dancing with Michael Jackson: Find a song you like and listen to it as you normally would. “Just take it in,” Robson says. Then play it again, but listen only to the drum. Block out every other sound and follow the drum through the entire piece. Does it change? Does it stay the same? Play the song a third time, focusing on another instrument, like the piano. Repeat this exercise until you’ve followed every instrument in the song.

“You might have to listen 20 times, depending on the complexity of the song,” Robson says. “The last time you listen, take in the whole song again. You’ll be able to hear both the instruments individually and the tune as a whole. And you’ll be able to freestyle and dance to rhythms you never heard before. It will change your life as a dancer.”

...Counting on Counts
Some choreographers may not count at all. If you find yourself struggling not to count, look for other musical cues to help guide you.

...The more comfortable you become with the music, the easier it will be not to count, so make it your goal to learn the music well enough to stop counting. “Some ballets you might need to count at first, but after you’re secure, you won’t need that anymore,” Feijóo says. “And that will give you freedom to interpret, because you aren’t just following the beat or the melody.”

Monday, February 8, 2010

Teaching Tip: How to Teach the Martha Graham Contraction

 Marni Thomas and Fanny Gombert at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance

Here is an excellent video and article on how to teach a Martha Graham contraction, taught by one of Martha Graham's former dancers. The contraction is still very prevalent in modern choreography today, and is a skill that must be mastered in order to dance modern and contemporary dance well.

The article that corresponds with the video is below.

Before launching into a demonstration of the Graham contraction and release, Thomas explained that other Graham teachers may have varying approaches to the technique depending on their generation, as Graham herself continued to update and alter her movement vocabulary. “From 1926—when Martha Graham started teaching and choreographing—until now, there have been generations of us teaching her technique, and we’re not all the same,” Thomas says. “So neither the teachers before nor after me are going to do exactly what I do.”

But in spite of any pedagogical deviations, the core message of Graham technique remains. “Martha wanted to create movement that people could use to express how they felt,” Thomas says. “She wanted to get at what goes on inside people; what she called ‘their inner landscape.’” Thomas explains that the contraction and release—the core of Graham’s technique—is an organic way of speaking through movement and breath. “When Graham began working on contraction and release, there were no facial expressions that went along with the movement; emotion was articulated by the torso only.”

In class, Thomas stresses that students find their own contractions—not imitate or mimic another dancer’s movement shapes. A Graham contraction is not a pose that can be built from the outside, in, Thomas says. “It’s an action.” It has to come from the inside, first.

Here, Thomas teaches two Graham contractions: the soft, “Lyric” contraction, and the dramatic, “Percussive” contraction.

Marni Thomas, a member of The Martha Graham Dance Company from 1958 to 1968, was a demonstrator and teaching assistant to Martha Graham for 11 years. She was among the first generation of young women to perform Graham’s original roles. In 1968, Thomas and her husband David Wood established the dance major at the University of California, Berkeley. Thomas later moved back to New York City and directed the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance for four years from 2003 to 2006. Since then, Thomas has continued to set repertory and teaches Graham technique at the Graham School, now directed by Virginie Mécène.

Dancer Fanny Gombert, originally from Rodez, France, is an advanced student at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. She is currently a Graham II company member.
The Lyric Contraction and Release:
  1. Start in an upright, seated position, and inhale. Lifting the base of the lower abdominals, exhale, and begin to curl the lower back and round the pelvis.
  2. Keep an open sense of energy, even as the front of the chest curls. The head should follow the curve to make a full circle. To begin the release, initiate an extension from the base of the pelvis and stretch into an elongated straight line.
  3. Extend through the entire length of the back, stretching into a long diagonal. Keep the head in line with the neck and spine, and do not open or arch the ribs.
Note: Do not allow students to sink when contracting. When students are sitting up, place your hands on their shoulders. As students contract, their shoulders should remain connected to your hands.
The Percussive Contraction and Release:
  1. Sit upright with a straight spine. Inhale.  
  2. Exhale sharply from the lowest abdominals. Energy surges upward and breath is let out through the torso.
  3. It’s as if something sharply strikes the pit of the stomach.
  4. Maintaining the contraction, bring the focus forward and fold over.
  5. As in the Lyric Contraction, begin the release by extending the base of the spine and reach through a long, straight line of the back. Finally, recover to the initial upright position.
Note: Many students mistakenly carry contractions in their upper backs.  Make sure contractions are initiated with their pelvises and are deepest at the base of their spines.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Teaching Tip - How to Introduce Improvisation

I've been working with my teenage advanced dance students lately to strengthen their improv skills. In the past, the word improv was always met with moans and groans and lots of fear. But, the director and I both agree that our most advanced dancers are not dancing with their hearts, and seem to only give about 85% when they are supposed to be dancing full out. They are merely doing the steps, without much passion or energy.

After dancing at a convention two weeks ago, they returned talking about the improv they did. For most of them, it was terrifying and very difficult to let loose. But, they were in awe of some of the dancers who collided during improv, and turned the accident into choreography and continued dancing. I think it clicked for both them and me - improv might be our answer to get them to loosen up, feel the music in their bodies to let it speak to them. The music tells you what to do! Improvising also allows dancers to practice freeing the body from habitual movements.

In response, I've decided to include a time of improv into each lyrical class for the rest of the year. I saw huge improvement in their competition rehearsals after just one time, so I am very encouraged! The first time, I used a passionate song and taught them choreography to the verse (Sarah McLachlan's "Stupid"). They improvised to the chorus and really let loose. I didn't give any guidelines, except to enjoy dancing, like a child would. It worked - they were all over the room, some even fell down because they danced so hard! The fear of improv has diminished and I think they are learning to love it. has a post from a teacher who has some great ideas for structured improvisation in class. has some basic tips on how to introduce improvisation into your class.
- Encourage first-year students to study improv so that their composition skills and technique can develop simultaneously.

- Focus on specific skills to make improv less overwhelming for newcomers.

- Make sure students are aware of other dancers throughout the exercises to avoid collisions.

- Help students expand their movement vocabulary by pointing out movement habits.

- Emphasize that each dancer should be responsible for his or her own body weight.

- Keep the atmosphere open, so that students can speak up if they’re uncomfortable.

- Help students to switch their foci between movement details and larger choreographic patterns.

- Maintain spontaneity through disorientation exercises. Ask students to perform segments of choreography backwards or experiment with inversion (recreating steps as if they’re happening upside down).

- Allow time for written or verbal reflection at the end of each session.

- Encourage an egalitarian environment in which students can learn from one another.
Teachers - I'd love to hear your ideas and experiences teaching improv. Please leave comments!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Dance Photo Ideas from Yuan Yuan Tan

Picture days are just around the corner! Looking to freshen up your old ballet poses? Check out these outtakes from Yuan Yuan Tan's photoshoot with Dance Magazine. She is an alluring dancer with San Fransisco Ballet and has incredible lines and a quality to her poses that I can't quite describe with words - she looks as if she is still moving even when she's posed. It's amazing!

Tip of the Day - How to Lengthen Your Lines

Original article published in Dance Magazine, July 2009. Written by Kristin Lewis
Long lines are more than just a nuance of good technique. They’re one of the most essential qualities a dancer can achieve. A gorgeous line of the body extending in space makes even the most basic steps affecting: Just think of the “Shades” scene from La Bayadère with its series of simple arabesques. If you weren’t blessed with naturally long proportions, don’t worry. There are ways to elongate what you do have, from fine-tuning your full-body awareness to moving bigger in class. Chances are, you have more length in you than you think. Here are some do’s and don’ts to help you find it.

Do be aware of your body in space. Whether moving or standing still, dance as though you were extending in every direction. Lengthen your neck from the base of your skull, keep your shoulders down, and imagine that your limbs can reach the rafters. “Think about the infinite possibilities of the line you are making—not just the physical body but the space around you,” says Arturo Fernandez, ballet master at Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet in San Francisco. “It sounds esoteric, but it’s true––you are as long as you can envision yourself being. Remember that you’re communicating ideas, not just doing steps, and those ideas should be enormous.”

Do play with the geometry of your lines. When dancing on the diagonal, experiment with both sharp and flat angles. In tendu croisé devant, for instance, which angle seems to truncate your limbs? Which adds length? Also pay attention to the parallels your limbs create in space; parallel lines appear longer. For example, in first arabesque, extend the arm in second toward the back to match the working leg, rather than holding it directly out to the side.

Do fully extend your legs. “High-placed legs make everything look longer,” says Melissa Hough, a principal dancer at Boston Ballet. It’s perfectly acceptable to open your hip slightly to achieve a 90-degree (or higher) arabesque. Hough also recommends standing in tendu, rather than B+, when possible. In addition, opt for a more open attitude.

Do keep your chin up. Your head is an extension of your torso, just like your arms and legs. Instead of always dancing in the mirror, which keeps you looking directly at yourself, finish your lines by lifting your chin and upper chest, and focusing your gaze beyond your fingertips.

Don’t slouch, even during moments of stillness. If your shoulders round and your chest caves inward, or you sink into your lower back or tuck your hips, you’ll seem shorter than you really are. Instead, use oppositional forces to create length in your spine: Imagine your body pressing into the floor while simultaneously lifting to the ceiling. “The idea is not to create an illusion, but to explore your own physical capabilities at every moment,” says Mary Lisa Burns, director of education at the Merce Cunningham Studio in NYC. Use the mirror to experiment with how subtle posture changes can lengthen or shorten you.

Don’t bulk up your body. On many body types, bulky muscles shorten lines. If you lift weights, develop longer muscles by opting for less weight and more repetitions. Yoga and Pilates can also help you identify and open up tight areas of your body.

Don’t ignore the transitions between larger movements. Maintain the energy of each phrase by fully dancing every step. As Burns says, “A whole phrase can look less expansive because it’s dying in the middle—dropping its energy, its focus, or its intention.” In other words, creating a lengthened look is not just about a 180-degree split in a jeté. It’s also about the transition steps that take you into the air.

Don’t move small. If you move under yourself, you’ll seem short and timid, so travel as big as you can. “The longer your steps, the better,” says Hough.

Don’t stop short. Finish each position before moving on to the next. Can you lift your leg an inch higher at the last moment? How about extending another inch through your fingertips? These small touches can have a huge effect.