I was taking a particularly good open ballet class from Natalia Charova at Koresh Dance Company's school this morning. I was given a lot of attention and a handful of corrections, when a particular thought crossed my mind. It isn't very frequent that open class teachers give me more than one correction during a class. If a freelancer takes class at a school, they are typically overlooked because it is the teacher's responsibility to give more to their students than a professional. But if a professional dancer only has the option to take open classes, how do they continue to improve themselves as a dancer?
My last week has been extremely busy, from teaching to rehearsals to going up to NYC to audition for Sleep No More. I didn't realize that this topic would become my next post, but I should have seen it coming after class on Wednesday. Most of the classes I have been taking since becoming a full-time freelancer have been open classes. When a professional dancer enters an open class, it can take a while to establish a relationship with the teacher. These open class teachers, in most situations, appear to give dancers space as a gesture of respect and acknowledgement of their time put in and talent. Some dancers like to receive corrections, some are just trying to take a class that is a change from their regular company class, and others just want to be in a safe environment where they can warm up as they wish. As a dancer comes to class more often, teachers tend to test the waters and see how each particular dancer wants to take their open class.
Now, the reason that I should have seen this topic coming is because I went to Steps On Broadway to take a warm up class before my audition. I took from one of my favorite teachers, Nancy Bielski. I have been taking from Nancy since the days I thought I would become a Broadway dancer. This was well before I fell in love with ballet (maybe at the age of 15). I was particularly driven to make it professionally and would push myself to the front of her class, perhaps when I shouldn't have been. I remember her specifically pulling me aside and telling me that there are professionals in class and that I should be more respectful. I am sure she doesn't remember this, as we have only really connected in the past year. But that is besides the point. I was spending a few weeks in NYC this past October doing a gig with Avi Scher & Dancers at the Guggenheim (stay tuned for an experience report in an upcoming blog) and began taking Nancy's class regularly for that time. From day one, she quickly and effectively offered me corrections. After that first class with her in years, she pulled me aside to see who I was and where I danced. Ever since that conversation, I have been greatly impressed by her memory. Each time I have returned to her class, even if it has been months, she remembers my name and keeps on me throughout the entire class. That is one thing that I really appreciate about Nancy. From the start, she doesn't hold back when it comes to correcting dancers. I feel that she realizes how important it is for a dancer to keep growing well beyond their formal training. I walked into class this past Wednesday and, right as class got underway, I was given a direct correction in plies, "Barry...when you are in 4th position you have to pull your left hip back, even with the right." Then, again, in our first tendu combination, she walks up to me and says, "You have to fix this and then I'll leave you alone for a bit." I began to think to myself, "Wow! It has been so long since I have been corrected. I can't believe that I've been doing this on my own. How do I realize what I need to work on if I don't have a set of eyes looking directly at me." And there the basis for this post was created.
As a freelance dancer who doesn't have a regular artistic director/ballet master/teacher that knows who you are and what you need in order to grow as a dancer, how do you make sure that you are continuing to perfect your art? I feel that it really depends on who you are as a dancer. The simple but not always practical answer is to go straight up to the teacher and say, "I like to be corrected." I don't know any dancer that has done that the first or second time they have met a new teacher. I am one of those dancers that enjoys being constructively corrected. When I enter a new classroom, instead of verbally stating this, I imply with my body language that corrections are important to me. I don't hang out in the back for each combination. Instead, I stand as close to the front as possible, in plain sight of the teacher. If the teacher does offer me a correction, I nod my head or verbally acknowledge the note. Then, I try to work on that correction right away so the teacher sees me doing it. This shows the teacher that I am comfortable and accepting of corrections. If I really just want to warm up in a class, I will hang out in the back of the room for combinations and offer others a chance to be in the foreground.
If you aren't lucky enough to find a teacher that is comfortable correcting professionals or if you are giving yourself your own class at times, how do you continue getting better? I've toyed around with this idea a lot in the past few months. I have always approached class with the thought that I shouldn't just be warming up, but I should be bettering my form. When I start class, I usually have a general thought continuously flowing through my head. Something along the lines of, pull my inner thighs together to close any air showing between the legs, or hold my core but leave the natural curve of my lower spine, or reach my limbs as far away from my core as possible without distorting my placement to create a longer line. I take one idea and use that as my focus throughout the entire class. I am not so focused on the idea that I can't analyze other things that need to be fixed. But if I start with that foundation, at least I'm always working on something. Dancers can use this method on their own for a period of time, but eventually they will need to have a set of outside eyes to watch them. Another educated dancer or teacher can give you new ideas to use as your foundation correction for class.
Another important tool that I have utilized as a dancer that often has to rely on myself to continue improving is Youtube. If I need inspiration as a choreographer, I will look at footage of choreography by some of my favorite choreographers. I realized that I can do the same thing if I need to find inspiration to better my skills. I have learned that watching dancers that inspire me offers a new look at my own dancing. If I watch a dancer performing online and see that I am really impressed by the execution of their pirouettes, I'll watch the video multiple times to evaluate how they are performing the feat. The next time I get into a studio, I try to mimic what they have done. Of course, this method requires true knowledge of technique, as a dancer doesn't necessarily want to emulate a choreographically stylized version of a step. But if a dancer doesn't have access to another pair of eyes, they can use other tools to remind themselves of corrections that may not have come to mind while they were working on their own.
There are many ways that dancers can better themselves in an environment that doesn't have a leader to guide you on a path of bettering your technique. The above ideas should be very helpful to any dancer, in a company or freelancing. Of course, there are surely other ways to improve yourself that I haven't listed or explored. So, if you have any other ideas that I have forgotten or haven't thought about, please feel free to share them in the comment box below.