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Stepping Up To Fashion: House of Worth S/S 2011 Haute Couture, ‘Tutus’

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10 notes &

More Than Just Dancing: Dancing Classrooms and Life Exprience

Cindy, a sweet and smiling fifth-grader, shows up several minutes after the rest of her class begins reviewing the basic tango, merengue, foxtrot, and swing moves they’ve been learning. She hasn’t been dawdling. She’s late because she has to take a more circuitous route to the school auditorium in her wheelchair. But she rolls right up to the lip of the stage at P.S. 33 in Manhattan and takes her usual position beside the tape player, slipping easily into the rhythm as Suzanne Perfetto Amidzich—“Miss Suzanne” to the students—calls out the music cues. Cindy is the class DJ, and a perfect example of how Dancing Classrooms, the program made famous in the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom and the Antonio Banderas flick Take the Lead, isn’t just about teaching dance steps.

“It’s a social development program that uses ballroom dances to instill confidence and teamwork and respect in the children,” says Pierre Dulaine, the founder and executive director. So even students who can’t dance—whether for physical, cultural, or religious reasons—are included. “The whole class comes in, and the whole class leaves,” Dulaine says. The operating assumption on the dance floor is that no one is too big or too small, too clumsy or too shy to participate.

 Dulaine, a prize-winning ballroom dancer who began competing as a teenager in England and ended up performing and teaching in New York, founded the American Ballroom Theater Company with his dance partner, Yvonne Marceau, in 1984. Dancing Classrooms was born 10 years later, after Dulaine agreed to teach a one-off ballroom class to a group of New York City fifth-graders. The positive reaction prompted him to develop the basic curriculum that has grown into a worldwide phenomenon. During the last school year, 265 teaching artists worked with 40,500 students in 400 schools. Expanding beyond its original target population in at-risk urban neighborhoods, Dancing Classrooms now serves cities as disparate as Newark, New Jersey, and Geneva, Switzerland—13 in all. In recent months Dulaine has traveled to Jordan and Trinidad and Tobago, preparing to roll out his Dulaine Method in two more countries.

The Dulaine Method, he says, stresses respect. “The most important thing for a teacher is to be present mentally and emotionally, and really speak with the students—not to speak down to them.” He has no use for teachers “standing in the middle, sticking out their hand saying, ‘nah, nah, nah, do this.’ For us, everything is ‘Yes’: OK, that’s one way of doing it. But have you tried doing it like this? Because this way is more elegant.”

To make sure his teachers follow the script, Dulaine personally trains all of Dancing Classrooms’ teaching artists using a 60-hour course he developed. His trainees are not necessarily ballroom dancers, although most have some dance background. They don’t really need it for the simple ballroom routines they pass along to the students. The key element is how they do that. “We teach them how to teach,” he says.

They learn, for example, how to use stealth. To overcome standard fifth-grade inhibitions about touching and being touched, the Dulaine Method introduces a specialized lingo that defuses embarrassment. Hands, for example, become “pancakes.” With “pancakes” up in the air, partners align their forearms to make “peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches.” Before they realize it, the students are in waltz position. A pair of 11-year-olds might feel squeamish about holding hands, but how can they object to putting their pancakes together?

The ease and enthusiasm in Miss Suzanne’s class are evident. At this point—week nine of the 10-week syllabus—the students need no coaxing to pair up as Amizdich calls out, “Escort position, please.” They march onstage and form a circle. The first item for the day is a review of the waltz. Amizdich checks everyone’s position—“Make a beautiful frame!”—and starts the music. She counts the opening beats and says, “Please begin.” The endless stream of not-so-common courtesy is part of Dulaine’s system. “We say, ‘Thank you, partner; hello, new partner,’ ” he says. “We want to instill in the children the idea that they are ladies and gentlemen. At that impressionable age, you can show them things that will be life skills for later on.”

When things in class get a little ragged, Amidzich pauses. But she’s less concerned with the missteps than with the students’ reactions to them. “If your partner is having a hard time,” she admonishes, “this isn’t what he needs to see,” and she mimes huffy, petulant annoyance. “Be patient. He’ll learn what the steps are.” And then, to demonstrate the next move with a partner, she says, “If I could borrow a gentleman…?” There’s no shortage of volunteers. The trick to holding their interest, she says, is not to linger over anything: “Keep rotating partners, keep it moving, keep it fast.”

Tom Kelly, the classroom teacher, is up there too, doing the moves with his students. He’s watched kids blossom over the course of the term. “Their posture changes,” he says. “Kids who might not necessarily be good at academic learning become engaged in ballroom dancing. Some boys in the class have grown to love the program. They always make sure they’re in school on Mondays and Fridays, and that they’ve done all their other work. It begins to affect other outcomes in the classroom.”

Kelly describes one student as “a selective mute” who has never spoken in school, although she speaks at home. Dancing Classrooms, he says, “has given her a forum for expressing herself. When she’s written about it for class, she says dance is her way of communicating.”

American Ballroom Theater provides classroom teachers with informational packets on the social background and history of each of the dances the children will be learning. Kelly assigned his students research projects on the dances they liked best; then they presented what they’d learned in PowerPoint reports. When John Michael, in his crisp striped polo shirt, volunteers that his favorite dance is the merengue, “because I come from the Dominican Republic and that’s where it was made,” he’s not just expressing ethnic pride. He has absorbed a curriculum.


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A Dancer’s Mind: Using Psychology to Improve Physical Performance

A Dancer's Mind
By James Careless

Dancers tend to think in physical terms when it comes to self-improvement, practicing more andeating less and trying to convert their bodies into ideal “dancing machines” through sheer will and perseverance. Often, the result is that dancer psychology gets very little attention; let alone respect. The expectation in the dance culture is that performers should “tough it out” not only physically but emotionally, despite pain, fear, and fatigue.

This macho approach to achieving dance excellence mirrors how things used to be done in sports. But no longer. Top-level professional and amateur athletes have long understood the importance of psychology’s role in attaining peak performance. And now many people in the dance community are adopting the sports-psychology model.

One is Elizabeth Sullivan, a former dancer with Boston Ballet and Cleveland/San Jose Ballet (now Ballet San Jose) and founder of Creative Compass, whose thesis for her MA in arts administration from Columbia University was on pre-professional dancer wellness programs. Sullivan, a certified health coach, nowserves on Dance/USA’s Taskforce for Dancer Health. In 2010 she collaborated with psychologist Elisabeth Morray, PhD, who worked on the Boston Ballet Center for Dance Education’s Wellness Initiative, in designing a wellness curriculum.

In 2011 the two presented an overview of the Creative Compass program to Gelsey Kirkland, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. She embraced the idea, and a pilot program ran at Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in New York City for 16 weeks from January through May 2012.

“The high standards set by the teachers, and indeed the art form itself, pale in comparison to the stress that most young dancers place on themselves to be perfect in form and technique.” —Elizabeth Sullivan

Meeting weekly with students from all three levels for one hour each week, Sullivan introduced the concepts of self-talk, positive visualization, centering, relaxation methods, food preparation, balanced eating, goal setting, and positive coping mechanisms. The discussion-based classes offer students the opportunity to“address the ‘mind side’ of traditional performing arts training, which includes mental and emotional health, as well as techniques for performance success,” as described on the academy’s website, with a focus on self-identity, self-confidence, and the development of the dancer as a whole person.

Asked whether personal experience contributed to her decision to implement the wellness program, Kirkland says, “My experience as a student and as a professional have gradually formed my [thinking] on what training is best for students, both the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’ I would like to think my decisions were formed not as a reaction to the past but more from the increasing clarity of vision that comes with time.”

Paying attention to the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of the Academy’s students is crucial, Kirkland adds, with good communication being key to the health of the students and the school as a whole. “We get to know more about the students and their needs,” she says. “The students get some idea that some of their problems are common to other dancers and in fact to many human beings and do not feel as isolated.”

Sullivan believes thataddressing the psychological challenges of dancing is central to training emotionally robust, artistically confident dancers. And discussion-based classes are important, she says, giving dancers an “opportunity to express themselves verbally, something that traditional dance training has not offered.”

The emotional challenges associated with dancing—relentless practicing even when injured, competition against other highly motivated dancers, body image issues, and demanding teachers—are pervasive, from Moscow to Minnetonka.

“Most of us are well aware of the physical stresses of dance training, ranging from overuse injuries such as Achilles tendonitis to more debilitating ones like stress fractures,” Sullivan says. “Few of us, however, are as aware of the mental stresses that are just as prevalent in the lives of dancers.”

Self-doubt and self-criticism are among the most common mental stresses dance students face. “The high standards set by the teachers, and indeed the art form itself, pale in comparison to the stress that most young dancers place on themselves to be perfect in form and technique,” Sullivan says.

Based on the responses of Kirkland Academy students, the program is making a difference. “The class taught me the importance of positive self-talk,” says student Esmae Gold. “With this knowledge, I’ve been able to change some of my old habits and become a happier and healthier dancer and person.”

“My favorite part about the wellness class is how we all get to share our thoughts and questions,” says student Eden Orion. “It’s comforting to know that your peers are thinking the same things as you.”

Kirkland says, “We have realized the great pain some dancers carry and that the support and knowledge of a professional such as Elizabeth are essential to them. She has eased our burden enormously. We look forward to developing this program so that it is an integral part of [the school’s] daily life.”

Stress in dance

Geoff Greenwood, a UK-based performance psychology consultant, identifies five areas of stress associated with dance: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and technical. His performance psychology practice—which covers business, sports, performing artists, surgeons, and military commanders—focuses on overcoming these stresses to achieve success.The five elements listed below apply to all of these groups.

  • Physical: In addition to experiencing the all-too-common weight and body image problems that can lead to serious eating disorders or poor nutrition, dancers sometimes fail to pay attention to healthy sleep patterns. Add tothat the combination of constant exercise and injury and the stage is set for an operatic set of problems.
  • Mental: Dancers, Greenwood points out, often ignore the mental components of dancing—things like attitude, goals, motivation, intensity, self-confidence, psychological preparation, concentration, emotional control, thought and visual control, mental toughness, and team dynamics and cohesionuntil they get out of hand and get in the way.
  • Emotional: Feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and disappointment are inherent in dance. “Many dancers struggle with understanding and overcoming emotional aspects of their lives and profession when they arise,” Greenwood says. “Again they are not aware of the relationship between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and how to deal with them when they are not supporting their dance. Self-awareness and training in this area can help the performance and even enjoyment of their art.”
  • Spiritual: “When we talk about spiritual aspects of dance we mean the whole reason for being,” says Greenwood,describing dance as “a life choice all leading to a desired outcome that makes life worth living for the person.” Acknowledging the meaning of dance in our lives can make many of its difficulties seem much less daunting.
  • Technical: Although technique is essential, honing it is stressful. “All of the above may be irrelevant if the dancer has no technical ability or the desire to improve in all the technical aspects of their profession,” Greenwood says. He links self-awareness strategies and imagery work in the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual areas into technique-related timeframes: practice, performance, and post-competition. “The concept of deliberate practice is instilled into the dancers [by their teachers],” he adds, “because focusing on the effective areas saves learning time [and decreases] physical demands and burnout.”

Constructive strategies for teachers

Most teachers know that psychological wellness is central to improving a dancer’s physical performance, and they want to help their students become the best dancers and people they can be. But, short of hiring a sports psychologist, how can they do it?

 “I think where teachers sometimes struggle is in how to support their dancers emotionally,” says Chantale Lussier. “I believe most dance teachers care deeply about their students’ physical and mental wellness.” A retired professional dancer and former studio owner, Lussier founded Elysian Insight, an Ontario-based performance consulting company that has worked with Manitoba’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and The School of Dance and Allegro Danceworks in Ottawa, as well as with athletes and other performing artists.

To help the dancers she works with, Lussier uses a two-pronged approach she calls “Quality Mental Recovery.” These are “strategies that will help dancers take a mental break from being at the dance studio, and even thinking and perhaps worrying about dance,” she explains. “I wholeheartedly believe that those who practice mental recovery return to the studio the next day or next week reinspired to enjoy their dancing.”

The first component of Lussier’s Quality Mental Recovery strategy is Quality Solitude, a time for dancers to take much-needed time alone. “All techniques of self-care should be considered, from a bath to reading a good book or napping, to prayer or mediation,” says Lussier. “For example, mindfulness-based practices of meditation and breathing techniques help to facilitate an awareness of the present moment. In doing so, dancers learn to notice all the thoughts and feelings that are on their minds and in their hearts and learn to return to the spacious, peaceful place that is now.”

By contrast, Quality Support means relying on others for help. “Sometimes the best thing we can do to mitigate the negative impact of stress is to get quality support—share and debrief our experiences with a trusted family member, partner, or friend,” says Lussier. “Other times, the best way to recover from stress is by taking time off from thinking about it. In such cases, perhaps a group of dancers who decide to hang out would all agree to no ‘shop talk’ and just enjoy laughing, sharing, and doing a pleasant non-dancing activity together.”

Quality Mental Recovery and the focused self-awareness Greenwood advocates are two ways dance teachers and studio owners can use psychology to help their students to cope better, and improve their physical performance—by teaching them to “get out of their own way.”

Sullivan points to outside resources that can support young performers and relieve physical and emotional stress. “Teachers and schools don’t have to take on that responsibility themselves. They can develop supportive policies internally, and also encourage students to seek support from external resources.” She says initiatives like the wellness program require “a shift in the philosophy of dance education—an understanding that the traditional training model can benefit tremendously from supplemental teachings coming out of the fields of sport and performance psychology and holistic wellness.”

The bottom line: “Dancers tend to be perfectionists,” notes Dr. Kate Hays, performance psychologist and owner of The Performing Edge consultancy. “When they follow this tendency without considering their psychological needs, all sorts of things can and do go wrong for them. At the same time, dancers who tend to the entirety of their being—not just technique, but their state of mind and overall health—can actually move closer to achieving their goals.

“This is what dance teachers need to instruct their students in, and model through their own behaviors and attitudes,” Hays continues. “This may seem quite a stretch for those educated in the ‘tough it out’ tradition, but trust me: this approach is delivering results in sports, and it can do the same in dance at any and all levels.”

84 notes &


This may seem unrelated but really, it’s not. You’ve written before quite movingly about the pairing of Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Meryl Davis on Season 18’s DWTS. What strikes me now, three months after their win, is how many people are still hungry to see them dance together again. Failing that, an astonishing number of people go back to YouTube over and over again: the viewer numbers are incredible.

Now, technically, Meryl does NOT look like a professional dancer. Even I can see that: there’s a difference in her posture, in her leg positions and the way she holds them, obviously in her feet. From the waist up, it’s maybe harder to tell the difference, though I could swear you can see it even in her shoulders and neck.

That’s not to say she’s not a beautiful dancer, because she is. Certain elements she’s brought over from over 17 years on the ice, and I don’t doubt that Maks was an amazingly effective teacher, especially for her, because of the emotional connection they forged early on.

But I have the impression, from my own observations of (admittedly rough) videos from the live performances that were given at Ballroom with a Twist and Sway this summer, as well as older video performances from Maks’s competitive years, or, say, odd things like his dance with Anna Trebunskaya during Val and Zendaya’s Argentine Tango, that people would still rather see Maks dance with Meryl than with a professional partner. And I agree. Yes, I can see more of Maks’s own dance artistry when he is dancing with a pro, and obviously the difficulty is greater, but I don’t get the same FEELING of being engrossed in and emotionally touched by the dance that I get when he and Meryl dance together. Sure, they have “eye-catching” chemistry, as one reporter put it, and I’m sure that has a lot to do with it. But is there something else about Meryl’s dancing, when she dances with Maks (or for that matter his when dancing with her), that I as a layperson (i.e. a non-dancer and not even a very frequent observer of dance) can’t analyze that someone with YOUR insight can better explain?

When I was young I did take “modern dance” lessons from a woman at my town’s Jewish Community Center. She was very good, and I’ll never forget that she said you have succeeded when the audience feels as though it is moving with you—that is the sign that their emotions have been touched, and it’s not necessarily about mime-like facial expressions—it comes from the dancer’s body.

Can you offer any thoughts on this? Thanks, I love your “musings.”

Thank You!

To answer your question, I definitely agree with your teacher’s statement. To me, the best dancers are those that have a combination of technique mixed with a true love of dance, someone who is able to let their emotions tell a story through their dancing. But that magic, or extra spark can’t be taught. It can be discovered and nurtured, but cannot be taught.

In the case of Meryl and Maks, their dancing together had/has a chemistry or magic that can’t be taught. It goes beyond technique, although technique does matter. What you’re describing watching them dance, is their connection with each other, the music, timing, being in perfect sync with each other the mutual enjoyment of what they are doing and the storytelling element that showed their emotions. Maks himself has called her his best dance partner much like Fred Astaire praised Ginger Rogers. Others were technically better but she had that special connection.

That connection with each other, both as people and dancers, are what made Maks and Meryl memorable. Maks and pro dancers will always have beautiful lines and great technique. But that magical connection is what makes a good dance turn into a moving one that touches you.

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Rewarding the Efforts in Dance, Not Just End Results

Dance-related reality TV shows have escorted a new excitement for dance into the American living room. We love to see dance in prime time, with male dancers accepted by a public that’s also getting an education on different styles of dance. Our young dancers have new heroes. Teachers are exposed to exciting new choreography. But still, the dance educator in me sees a problem.

These shows often crown the “favorite” dancer—instead of the one with the best technique—as the winner. Then how do we, as teachers, inspire our students to work hard when popularity seems to trump technique?

Certainly, most of the winners are by no means substandard or lacking in talent. But some judges’ critiques hint that if a dancer doesn’t improve his overall crowd appeal, he will likely go home.

Understandably, the two work hand-in-hand in producing a well-rounded professional dancer. No audience member wants to watch a technician suffer through an uninspired performance. But if some reality-show “dancers” gain fame by being popular and not for mastering their craft,where is the balance? How do we explain what’s important to our students?

Over the past two decades, studios have been greatly influenced by the growth in competitive dancing. Phenomenal dancing can be seen in theaters across the country on any given weekend. Teachers are under tremendous pressure to keep up. Judges are bombarded with elaborate costuming and routine after routine filled with nearly impossible turns and leaps. But what happens to the young student who quietly struggles to develop technique? What if she lacks pizzazz onstage and gets lost in the competition shuffle? Is there a way to keep the still-growing, still-learning students from becoming discouraged? How do we reward them for their diligence and keep them in our studios until they mature into true artists?

Let’s take an honest look at how we relate to our students and teach them on a daily basis—as well as how we handle competition and its pervasive influence:

  • Do we consistently favor one child?
  • Are outgoing children allowed to control the classroom’s social structure?
  • Are the cute or pretty children always in the front line?
  • Do the loudest parents (or the ones who spend the most money) have more of a say than the parents of devoted children who attend class only once a week?
  • Does the same child always lead the class across the floor?
  • Do boys follow the same rules as girls?
  • Are small accomplishments in technique noticed and rewarded?
  • Are routines choreographed so that students progress in their training or to win or score higher than last year?
  • Are all students being used to their maximum capacity, or are select students featured in flashy steps while others do lesser or background choreography?
  • Does a student’s love of dance receive as much attention and praise as the ability to correctly perform a skill?
  • Do costumes reflect the age and maturity of students or are they chosen for the “wow” factor?
  • Is development of good technique taking a backseat to choreographing or rehearsing competition routines?
  • Do we talk about winning or show disappointment when we do not come out on top?
  • Do we question the judges’ opinions in front of students, or bend rules?
  • Are students allowed to compete against each other, or are they taught to compete as a “family” unit that celebrates the accomplishments of all its members?
  • Are winners put on a pedestal?

The true beauty of dance is found in quiet moments of classroom study, watching as a child learns a disciplined art form and finds the artist hidden inside. The sacred trust and special bond between student and teacher should be extended to every child placed in our care. Our utmost goal is to help all children achieve their dance potential.

Some students will naturally excel. Others, like the tortoise in Aesop’s fable, will find the way slowly but surely. Are we offering enough encouragement to keep those “tortoises” trudging down the path? Reality dance shows will continue to crown the hero of the day, but true inspiration comes from a less likely hero—the supportive dance teacher.