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.”
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.
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.
Adorable picture of Maks and a little fan in Hawaii.