Interview by Laura Donnelly
Monika Volkmar, is the creator of the Dance Stronger multi-media strength training resource for dancers. She is a graduate of the Ryerson University dance program and certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) as a strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS). She is also a level 2 NeuroKinetic Therapy practitioner, Functional Movement Screen (FMS) certified, and a Thai massage therapist and teacher. Most recently Monika completed Anatomy in Motion training with Gary Ward.
After a series of injuries forced Monika to stop dancing, she became immersed in strength and conditioning, injury prevention, movement training, and Thai massage. As she studied then explored and incorporated new knowledge into her body, she healed herself. Realizing how much this information would have helped her “dance stronger” and avoid injuries when she was studying dance, Monika created this program to help dancers who want to enhance their technique and physical performance while minimizing soreness and injuries.
I met Monika online. I was searching for information on the necessity of building strength simultaneously with flexibility for my dance students. I found Monika’s article Stretches You Need to Stop Doing. It contained information I used that day in class. It worked so well that I bookmarked her blog and signed up to receive new articles from her.
In the summer of 2015, Monika issued a call for beta-testers for her Dance Stronger Program. She wanted a diverse group of people from current students and dancers, to older dancers, and dance teachers who would document their process as they went through the program. I volunteered and was excited to be part of the group. I’m no longer performing but need to stay strong and healthy to teach well. More importantly, I feel this work allows me to give my dancers information that helps them dance better, longer and with fewer injuries.
I interviewed Monika on Feb. 2, 2016.
LD: On your blog you often share your learning adventures, when you attend a new training, read a good book, or discover something in your own body through your personal movement practice. Please share some of your thoughts about life-long learning.
MV: Personally, what motivates me is always learning something new. Attending seminars reignites passion for what I’m doing. When I’m not learning anything I’m not as motivated by what I’m doing. Also, I think it’s good to keep up with what is on the “cutting edge”, learning what others in the industry are studying to best experiment with what works and what doesn’t.
I first got into this field (strength and conditioning, movement training and injury prevention) to learn how to help myself. Teaching what you’ve learned is a great way to solidify it in yourself. Seeing what I’ve learned applied in other people’s bodies, helps me to understand it for myself and for other people.
If you haven’t experienced something you don’t really know it, you only know what you can feel, and you can only see what you know, which makes it extremely important to first feel in your body what you wish to teach–try to understand it from the inside out to avoid conveying “corrupted” information. You can read all the research on something, and have the theoretical understanding, but you don’t really know that thing until you’ve felt it happen in your own body, and then have applied that to others and seen how it works in their bodies. I like when evidence and scientific research backs up experience.
LD: Will you speak about your commitment to help dancers be stronger and healthier?
MV: What inspired me to create Dance Stronger is that I’ve experienced so many injuries myself.
If I had known “then” what I know now, I think I could have minimized the stuff that I went through. If I had known important concepts like breathing and how it supports your strength, and recovery from injuries it would have been very helpful.
If I had known about how to manage my stress levels and how to recover, and if I had had a teacher that really promoted more biomechanically sound practices and was a bit more encouraging, I think that might have helped.
The biggest issue wasn’t that I was doing things in dance that were unsafe, because generally I didn’t try to do crazy tricks, like some other dancers who do a lot of excessive stretching and risky moves. I was definitely stretching more than I should have been, as many of my injuries were overstretching based, but even with all that, I truly feel that if I’d been in a bit better place mentally, and was a bit more grounded in who I was … I don’t know, there are so many factors correlating to injury in dance.
Definitely, if I’d been wiser in my practices, both in and out of class, it would have minimized my injuries.
LD: I saw from a recent blog post that you have just completed the Anatomy in Motion Immersion course. Please share how you think the AiM work will influence your work.
MV: In both the book portion and the Dance Stronger movement program there are things I want to update. I’d like to find a better way to convey this new information.
For example, I have learned things about foot function and I want to include those.
I hope to add some of the AiM exercises that have the potential to create some impressive differences in your body into the Dance Stronger program.
It’s challenging to figure out how to communicate the Anatomy in Motion concepts in detail without being there in person to ensure that people understand how the movements should feel.
It’s difficult doing this online. I want to give everyone as much information as possible so they can make the best-informed choices, but realize there are limits and challenges working with this medium.
LD: When did you start Dance Stronger?
Find out how this troupe works and what’s coming up this season in our interview with founder and Atlanta Ballet dancer, John Welker…
What first inspired Wabi Sabi?
I took inspiration from many sources, but the main one was an article about the Japanese concept of “Wabi Sabi” and how beauty can be found in the quality of imperfection. For an artist, it’s a liberating concept: to embrace one’s imperfections cannot only be beautiful, but it can be used as a way to create beauty from what makes us unique as individuals.
How are dancers selected for Wabi Sabi?
Atlanta Ballet dancers mainly select themselves for Wabi Sabi. We give them the parameters of the summer and the work we will be doing. Then, they can determine whether it’s something they want to be a part of.
Do Wabi Sabi dancers have other summer jobs as well? Do rehearsal and performance schedules have to work around this?
Yes, oftentimes the dancers do hold other jobs; and I try to work with their summer schedules. Scheduling is the hardest part of my job. Everything has to be coordinated to work efficiently. This includes the dancers, choreographers, costumes designers, musicians, and performance venues, plus the production, marketing, ticketing, and development staff.
Rehearsal of Sean Hilton’s Dormant Gods
How are costumes, props, and other non-dance tasks handled within Wabi Sabi?
Wabi Sabi was built in 2011 under the company umbrella of Atlanta Ballet. This gives us the ability to create and do things with a limited budget that we otherwise couldn’t.
We rely on the support of Atlanta Ballet’s staff for everything non-dance related such as costumes and props. That said, it is wholly a group effort. In large part, Wabi Sabi is able to do what it does because job titles are thrown out the door. You can find dancers doing production work. You can find development staff doing marketing work. Occasionally, we will run into a project where it is necessary to hire outside sources, but it is rare.
How long does it take to plan a season for Wabi Sabi?
Though we operate only in the summer, it takes a year of planning to make it happen.
What’s coming up for Wabi Sabi this summer?
Editor’s note: this series by Karen is targeted specifically to competition dancers and those that work with them, although certainly many others may benefit from the information within!
by Karen Musey
It is a great joy and privilege to be able to encourage and give feedback to each new generation of dancers. It is exciting to see the fantastic talent and passion on stage, and every dancer’s growth over this season definitely needs to be celebrated!
In this digital age, it is becoming the norm to see younger and younger children seeming to grasp difficult tricks/concepts/technique quickly. I think we sometimes forget that learning to be a dancer is, and always will be, a process that takes time and effort. It’s not a one size fits all experience or path.
During a judging season, a dancer who has heard the same corrections repeated multiple times can feel frustrated and defeated. This is a great time to check in with them. If they feel that they are accomplishing what is being asked but they are not achieving the desired result, what can you do to shift their understanding of how they are working through the movement?
It can be helpful for students to put on a “teacher” or “detective” lens and start looking for clues for what looks and feels right (or not). This will help them train their eye and their corrections will improve faster – and better yet – they will start to self correct.
Let’s go over a “classic correction” and discuss some ways you can encourage your students to interpret it in a new way:0
Aloha to All –
We are very pleased to have as our next Dance Wellness guest contributor Judith Lynne Hanna, PhD. Dr. Hanna is a longtime dancer and anthropologist whose work spans many years. Reading reviews of her recently published book, “Learning to Dance: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion, and Movement”, spurred me to contact her to see if she would write an article for us concerning the new research on dancers’ brains, and how growing up in dance really does change us. The new science of Neuroplasticity (also called brain plasticity, is the process in which your brain’s neural synapses and pathways are altered as an effect of environmental, behavioral, and neural changes) is fascinating – and there are now more than 400 studies related to interdisciplinary neuroscience that reveal the hidden value of dance.
Many of us in the dance world have grown up feeling / knowing that we were somehow “different” from non-dancers, but only recently has science been learning how and why. I found Dr. Hanna’s article to be a clear explanation of all this new research, and am so pleased to share it with you.
Enjoy! (and don’t stop dancing–ever!)
Jan Dunn, MS, Dance Wellness Editor
by Judith Lynne Hanna, PhD
At times during their careers, dancers may want to explain what dance is about to family, friends, students, schools, spectators, and the media. After all, knowledge about dance is new and limited compared to the other arts.
My journey toward understanding dance began as a child in 1946, and the odyssey hasn’t stopped. A pediatrician told my parents that ballet would make my feet strong. So I studied ballet. Dancing didn’t do much for my feet, but dancing has made me stronger physically and mentally. Alicia Markova’s experience with flat feet was different than mine. Critic Clement Crisp reports, “The sublime artist Alicia Markova was taken to ballet as a child because her flat little feet left sad imprints in the sand during a seaside holiday. Ballet, said a doctor, would cure that. And it did. She grew into an astounding artist whose ‘intelligent’ feet and legs were the envy of the ballet world.”
Fascination with dance led me beyond ballet to explore other dance genres (e.g., modern, Afro-Caribbean, Latin American, African, flamenco, Middle East, jazz, hip-hop, swing, ballroom, and folk). Curiosity led me to conduct dance research in villages and cities in Africa and then in theaters, school playgrounds and classrooms, and cabarets in the United States.
As an applied anthropologist I study human behavior, including many forms of dance and culture, past and present, and draw upon the work of different disciplines. I was surprised that at the 2008 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, more than 6,800 attendees paid rapt attention to renowned choreographer Mark Morris as he answered questions about the relationship between creativity and dance. Neuroscientists interested in dance? I wanted to know why.
The Attraction of Dance
Scientists are turning to dance because it is a multifaceted activity that can help them demystify how the brain coordinates the body to perform complex, precise movements that express emotion and convey meaning. Dancers possess an extraordinary skill set—coordination of limbs, posture, balance, gesture, facial expression, perception, and action in sequences that create meaning in time and space and with effort. Dancers deal with the relationship between experience and observation.
The brain hides from our sight the wondrously complex operations that underlie the feat of dance. Although there are many secrets to unravel about the power of the brain and dance, advances in technology—29 at my last count, such as brain scanning techniques and the experiments using dancers, dance makers, and dance viewers–reveal to us the unexpected.
Misconceptions that dancers shouldn’t think, just dance, or that dance is merely physical or emotional expression, are challenged by reality. Research shows that dance activity also strongly registers in regions of the brain responsible for cognition. Hidden processes reveal that the brain is choreographer, dancer, and spectator. Dance is what the brain does.
The Choreographing Brain4
If it’s one thing dancers are always thinking about it’s their feet, and with the many hours spent in class and rehearsal, it can help to have a little something that freshens them up a bit.
This 4 oz all-natural foot spray by Aurorae makes for a great addition to your dance bag. Whether you are trying to revitalize some old technique shoes, or you want to deodorize your feet a bit before slipping on some sandals, this little product is a good choice. Made with essential oils such as peppermint, tea tree, eucalyptus and thyme, it has a delightful scent, and because of its size, it is super portable.
The thing I was most impressed with was the pump for this product. Instead of a harsh stream of liquid or a heavy spray, it delivered a light mist which keeps your feet from getting soaked with it. Also, a little bit goes a long way, so you can use a light hand when applying.
All in all, this foot spray makes a nice addition to any dancer’s bag.
You are stepping down as Artistic Director of Atlanta Ballet this month after 21 years. How to describe what your tenure accomplished? How to distill such a career?
I could talk about the numbers. How the budget has nearly tripled since 1994 or the 1200 students enrolled in the school. I could talk about how Atlanta Ballet has transformed in your two decades from a regional dance troupe to a world-class institution. About the exciting collaborations- Big Boi from Outkast, the Indigo Girls. Or about the world premieres- Twyla Tharp’s first full length ballet, Helen Pickett’s Camino Real. I could talk about the tour to China, the opening of a beautiful new building, your own choreography including the record-breaking Nutcracker. I could talk about the cutting-edge choreographers like Ohad Naharin, Alexander Ekman and Jorma Elo that you convinced out of a sheer doggedness and passion for your dancers to come to a city in the Southeast and bring their work to us.
These things are astounding, valid and commendable. But you know all these things already.
And this letter isn’t about what you’ve done for Atlanta Ballet. It’s what you’ve done for me and your dancers. So I’d rather talk about the joy.3
Atlanta Ballet wraps up its 2015-2016 season this weekend with MAYhem: Kissed at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre from May 20-22. The mixed-repertory program will feature the world premiere of Andrea Miller‘s Push, Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s El Beso, and Yuri Possokhov‘s Classical Symphony.
MAYhem: Kissed is Atlanta Ballet’s final performance under John McFall, who has led the company as artistic director since 1994. “As far as my heart, my soul, my mind, I’m always going to have a connection to Atlanta Ballet,” he told The Atlanta Journal Constitution last September.
Push by Andrea Miller “takes the different facets of human relationships and fits them in to a tapestry of movement,” says Atlanta Ballet dancer Devon Joslin.
“Andrea had us all go through these different improv exercises in order to develop each specific emotion in our dancing,” she explains. “It was a simple task, but she has this way of digging things out of you that you didn’t think you had to offer. I have a solo that’s about the shame you feel when you open yourself up to someone wholeheartedly and they don’t reciprocate. I’m not the most confident person in the world so those feelings of shame and embarrassment came more naturally. Push is emotional. It’s human. It conveys things that every person in the audience has felt or will feel at some point in his or her life.”
Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s El Beso, set to Spanish Zarzuela music, was created in 2014 for New York City’s Ballet Hispanico.“This work explores the various kinds of kisses you can have in your life: friendship, family, passion, and social kisses,” says Atlanta Ballet’s Rachel Van Buskirk. “It’s extremely fast and detailed. The movement is so musical that it makes dancing it instinctual. My favorite part is the friendship trio I dance with fellow company members Jackie Nash and Heath Gill. It’s a blast to share this with your close friends. No acting required!”
“El Beso is, in large part, an autobiographical account of the choreographer’s early life and family–and I love that aspect of it,” adds John Welker, who’s danced with Atlanta Ballet for the past 21 seasons. “There’s also a playfulness in the music and movement that’s easy to feel. I enjoy the challenge of making this quick and dense choreography appear easy and articulate. Not an easy task.”
Classical Symphony, an encore performance from last year, was created for San Francisco Ballet in 2010 by the company’s choreographer in residence, Yuri Possokhov. The work received praise from Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times for the “sheer exuberance of its often unorthodox ballet virtuosity.”
Accompanied live by the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra, Classical Symphony is performed to Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1, which debuted in 1918. “It seemed to me that if Haydn had lived into this era, he would have kept his own style while absorbing things from what was new in music,” the composer wrote.”That’s the kind of symphony I wanted to write: a symphony in the Classical style.” (He also later reused the symphony’s third movement in his iconic ballet score for Romeo and Juliet.)
“Classical Symphony is the challenge of the technique, classicism, and stamina of a traditional full-length ballet condensed into roughly a 16-minute piece,” says Jackie Nash. “It also incorporates fun modern flourishes and playful dynamics.”
In Classical Symphony, Nash will revisit a role she danced last May. “In 2015, this was the first principal part I performed, so there were some nerves that came along with the process,” she explains. “But this time around I have really liked getting to relax into the role a bit more. I also love getting to dance with Christian Clark. His skills as a partner are so refined and effortless and it allows me to really indulge in the steps. I feel I am in such good hands–literally.”
Classical Symphony is also notable in that it first brought Gennadi Nedvigin, Atlanta Ballet’s incoming artistic director, to the company when he staged the work on them in 2014. “I was drawn to the sense of community among Atlanta Ballet’s dancers,” he said in April. “And I was proud of their performance.”
Tickets start at $25. Purchase here or call call 404-892-3303.
“Runtime is approximately 2 hours, including 2 intermissions.
*Please note that one of the pieces on this program uses strobe lighting.” (from Atlanta Ballet’s website)