Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Technique Tuesday; A New Way To Think About How Limbs Are Connected. {And Maybe I Unload About The Past, Just A Little...}

How do dancers get that quality in their arms that makes their limbs appear to go on forever? They don't just move through the air, but rather they move the air around them.

One of the keys to employing this quality of movement is to rethink how the arms connect to the body. Yes, the arms are connected to the torso via the shoulders. But what if we think of arm movements originating in the center of the back. Now we are not just aware of the muscles, ligament and tendons of the shoulders, but we have tapped into the power supply provided by the muscles of our backs as well.

To be more specific; the trapezius (connecting shoulder and back), the latissimus dorsi and rhomboideus major.

The shoulders have enough to do, what with the complex structure of the shoulder complex, without having to be the "engine" of sweeping arm movements. The back however, well, just look at the size of those guys (muscles).

I first was introduced to this concept years ago (many, many years ago) at a Summer Intensive Dance Workshop. It was laid out for me in a kind of round about way though. (Cue "doodly, doodly, wavy going back in time" music).

It was back in the mid to late 80's. I was at a Summer Dance Workshop at Westside School Of Ballet in Santa Monica, Ca. Yvonne Mounsey was the founder. In her youth she was a much esteemed ballerina for the father of neo-classical as well as American ballet, George Balanchine.

It is very common at Summer Intensives to bring in guest teachers, as well as using a studio's own talent. This particular summer it was decided to bring in another of Balanchine's Ballerinas. Melissa Hayden. Okay, for starters, there is no question that that lady had credentials (may she rest in piece).  Pretty sane here. Here is a lovely article about her, It is a great tribute to her careers as both a highly esteemed dancer and dance teacher.

I believe all the words of the above article. But I tell you what, she was scary as HELL that summer. Even her friend who had danced with her long ago was taken aback at her approach to teaching students as a guest artist.

Now, I was a pretty shy young dancer. Frequently uncertain of my abilities, and frankly terrified by my own shadow half the time. Boy, I tell ya. She went after that like a dog after a rabbit.

Two incidences that have seared themselves into my memory from her week (2 weeks?) of teaching;

Standing at the barre (did I mention these were very populated classes?), I can't remember what step we were working on. Apparently I was rolling my shoulders in a bit. Okay, I admit it...I was slouching. It was most likely the kind of slouching that attracts bullies to their victims like bees to honey . Not a slouch of disinterest, but lack of confidence. Anyway, she came up to me, fairly close to my face. She proceeded to ask me, "Have you ever known happiness?" (What kind of question is that? and OMG, the guest teacher is talking directly to me!). "Um...yes. I think so", I answered timidly. CLAP!! Right in my face. A loud, invasive clap of thunder, mere centimeters from my nose. Well as you can imagine I did exactly what she wanted me to do. I stood up straight as possible. Chin up. Sternum presented in all its glory, despite my mortification and humiliation. Hey, I get it. Every teacher has their methods for getting their points across. But for frick'en frick's sake, we have a complex language for a reason. Lord knows I've come up with some pretty crazy analogies and metaphors to explain things to dance students. For me though, their intimidation and humiliation  do not serve any purpose to me. I'll let someone else in their life provide them with whatever bullsh*t baggage they are destined to drag along their journey through life. Questioning someone's ability to understand happiness in one's life to teach proper carriage of the torso seems rather personal and inappropriate. Performing arts is greatly comprised of smoke and mirrors anyways. "Pretend you are the happiest you've ever been child. Now never dance another way!" How hard was that? I'm no great scholar or word smith even. That was a great ice-breaker for the mighty leg-hip/arm-shoulder pin-grab-wrestle-wrangle-jam. So violent was she in her minstrations to the placement of my limbs during grand battements (she did not necessarily hurt me and OMG, the guest teacher is grabbing my limbs!), that one of the studio owners pulled me aside an hour later to make sure that I was okay.

I was not alone. Even the top dance students had stress related pains and injuries. I'm pretty sure that, to this day, I have a knot in my upper back with her name on it. Most of the class pianists grew apprehensive to play for her classes, due to her combative nature and abrasive approach to every interaction. She also exhibited some authentic O.G. dance teacher habits like smoking during rehearsals of Balanchine rep. Ah, the good old days...

Okay. Enough whining about the past. Thanks for letting me unload.

Let's get to the positive. Fortunately, somewhere along the way, I innately developed a sense of learning what I could from whatever teacher I happened to be working with. While I don't remember her exact words, Miss Hayden conveyed a very strong sense of moving your limbs, especially your arms, from a place more central to your core than just the limb's connecting joint. I didn't necessarily internalize and utilize this point of technique right away. But as my skills and technique grew, and challenges were presented to me, I would revisit the lessons presented to me.

I suppose I should be grateful for the attention I received from Hayden. In many ways I am. While I wouldn't clap in a student's face, getting an understanding of proper posture and presentation of the torso (carriage) is of the utmost importance to dancers. I prefer, as an instructor, a well constructed verbal instruction combined with gentle physical manipulations. While it felt awkward as hell to have my limbs pulled this way and that in front of my peers (where is that gaping, swallowing  hole in the ground when you need it?), it has contributed greatly to my understandings of body alignment for ballet technique. Here and here. Perhaps most importantly though, how I wish to convey information and ideas to my students.

Thanks for hanging out and reading.

Enjoy the dance that is life!

~Miss Erin

No comments:

Post a Comment