Our guest contributor for this posting is Janet Karin, OAM, currently on the faculty of the Australian Ballet School as Kinetic Educator. Janet is a former principal dancer with The Australian Ballet, and also directed a ballet school / youth dance company in Canberra, Australia. She has a distinguished career not only as a dancer, but also as a well-known dance educator, having developed dance studies courses for the Australian National University School of Music, and other educational institutions. She has worked in many dance-related capacities, such as cultural development, arts funding, safe dance practice (dance medicine) and other initiatives. She is currently Vice-President / President – Elect of IADMS (International Association for Dance Medicine and Science).
Her article “Ballet: How Hard Should It Be?”, provides some valuable perspectives for both dancers / teachers / school and company directors, and we are very pleased she has joined our Guest Contributor roster at 4dancers.org.
- Jan Dunn, MS, Dance Wellness Editor
“You are working hard” – students usually take this as a compliment. People may think you are working hard if your face is red and you are sweating a lot. You may think you are working hard if you are breathing heavily and feeling a lot of muscle tension, possibly even trembling with effort. After years of praise for these signs of “working hard”, students can begin to feel guilty if their work isn’t accompanied by effort and muscle tension. But, is this how you want to dance in the future, possibly as a professional dancer? In fact, really good ballet dancers make dancing appear completely natural and effortless, as if their movements grow out of the music and their emotions. There is no apparent tension or “work” in good dancing.
You get better at doing what you do. If you dance with tension, you’ll get better at dancing with tension, so it makes sense to dance with as little tension as you can. Tension is energy that is not achieving what it wants, rather like water building up in a garden hose with a bend in the middle. Efficient use of energy helps you achieve your goals more easily, making your work look professional, and much more enjoyable for you and for the audience. How do you achieve this?
Firstly, you need to breathe. It sounds so obvious, but most young dancers hold their breath in difficult movements. Focus on breathing out slowly at the back of your lower ribs, especially on bends and difficult movements. You don’t have to think about breathing in – your brain will take care of that because it wants to keep you alive.
Next, imagine all your movements radiating outwards from deep inside your pelvis – energy streaming out the top of your head, your fingers and your toes, like water streaming out of a hose. Let your movements trace enormous circles in space. Feel as if you are expanding from a secure centre.
Thirdly, remember that we are never really static, because there are always small micro-movements throughout your body as it responds your breathing and small changes in weight from limb movements. Dancers are never “still”; their tiny automatic response to changing balance makes them appear to be still. Make sure you don’t “lock” your body into position, especially your spine.
So, what do teachers really want when they ask you to “work hard”? They want you to use energy, not tension. They want you to focus on making your movements as pure and harmonious as possible. They want you to develop your body’s potential without forcing your muscles or distorting your bony alignment. They want you to breathe freely and move like the music, expressing the pleasure of movement in every part of yourself. And in the end, that’s what you want too!
BIO: Guest Contributor Janet Karin OAM
After an early career as a Principal Dancer of The Australian Ballet, Janet Karin directed a ballet school and youth dance company in Canberra, Australia. She devised her own teaching system, training many highly successful dancers and teachers. She wrote and delivered dance studies courses for secondary education and for the Australian National University’s School of Music and also worked in cultural development, arts funding, safe dance and other dance-related initiatives.
Janet Karin returned to The Australian Ballet as Assistant to the Artistic Director, then moved to The Australian Ballet School as Kinetic Educator. In this role she coaches students individually, applying somatic techniques to improve their neuromotor function. She also collaborates with scientists from various universities in dance science research. In 2009 she was awarded an Australian Centre of Clinical Research Excellence Grant to investigate dynamic pelvic stability.
Janet Karin has received the Medal of the Order of Australia and several awards for artistic direction and dance teaching. She is currently Vice-President of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science, and will become its President in October 2013.
We are pleased to welcome back guest contributor Gigi Berardi, dance author and critic, who has written over 150 articles and reviews that have appeared in Dance Magazine, Dance International, The Los Angeles Times, among others. She is also a natural and social scientist currently on the faculty of Western Washington University.
Her academic and background and performing experiences allow her to combine her passion for both dance and science. Her fifth book, “Finding Balance: Fitness and Training for a Lifetime in Dance” is in it’s second printing, and is one I highly recommend especially for younger dancers. Gigi’s master degree thesis in dance, from UCLA, focused on older dancers who were able to continue dancing and performing well past the age when most have to retire because of injuries – i.e, what were they doing differently that kept them actively performing into their 50′s, 60′s,70′s? Her current book project is called “A Cultivated Life” — look for it soon!
- Jan Dunn, MS, Dance Wellness Editor
by Gigi Berardi, MA
To be honest, I don’t like using the term, “older dancer” to describe dancers over 30 or 40 or 50. I’m not exactly sure why (it connotes “less than,” not as compelling?) – although I used it mightily in my Masters thesis at UCLA, developing “Case Studies of Older-aged Dancers and the Factors that Contribute to the Longevity of Their Performing Careers” (UCLA, 1989). But, the “older-aged” part now, for me, is about psychological and emotional staying power in dance, as I describe in “Bill Evans: “Changing the Body and the Geography of Modern Dance” (Dance Magazine, pages 38 – 43, October, 2003) and elsewhere, see: http://myweb.facstaff.wwu.edu/gberardi/performing_articles.shtml.
It seems to me that for most dancers in their 40s and older, the important questions for them are, “do they feel like they can still do what they want to do in a particular role?” and “do they want to?”
Few dancers are being taken off the stage, fighting and kicking, and screaming “Nooooooo…” I think that what happens, over time, is more subtle (and, if you will, nefarious). They begin to have fewer opportunities for lead roles (for whatever reason, but I must say that audience demand for younger, thinner, and those more capable of dizzying pyrotechnics may comprise a sensibility that artistic director are particularly aware of). Further, past injuries may be catching up with them, other conditions in the work place may be undesirable (re: physical space, etc.), and they may have other personal constraints (wanting to raise a family, spending more time with their children) or financial ones (wanting to be financially solvent at the advanced age of 45, say).
From my perspective as a dance critic and using a lens of physicality, as a career progresses, it is nimbleness and stamina that seem to be on the wane. Strength and flexibility, emotional prowess, commitment to conditioning (for me right now, as a “mature” dancer, Thai kick boxing is my passion) and a diet high in good fats and low in sugar – all seem to characterize dancers with staying power. Nimbleness and stamina are the more illusive traits.
What to do, then, for a “lifetime in dance” (the subtitle of both editions of my Finding Balance book)?
- feed that mind with good cholesterol and saturated fat (for more, see my forthcoming book, A Cultivated Life, 2014) that coat the myelin sheaths in and around and of all the parts of the central nervous system,
- get some sun, which helps in all of the above,
- find your passion in conditioning – martial arts or Franklin Method ©, or Pilates, or step aerobics, and above all,
- keep dancing, which is the best way to build character and flexibility and strength and stamina in all that dancers do.
Or, dancers might want to look for a job in Europe where all (above) seems easier. See: “From Dance to Danse: Why so many American Dancers are Heading to Europe” (Dance Magazine, 2009, at website mentioned in this article).
Gigi Berardi holds a MA in dance from UCLA. Her academic background and performing experience allow her to combine her interests in the natural and social sciences with her passion for dance, as both critic and writer. Over 150 articles and reviews by Ms. Berardi have appeared in Dance Magazine, Dance International, the Los Angeles Times, the Anchorage Daily News, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald, and scientific journals such as BioScience, Human Organization, and Ethics, Place, and Environment. Her total work numbers over 400 print and media pieces. Her public radio features (for KSKA, Anchorage) have been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Dance Critics Association, and is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, as well as Book Review editor for The Journal of Dance Medicine & Science. A professor at Western Washington University, she received the university’s Diversity Achievement Award in 2004. Her fifth book, Finding Balance: Fitness and Training for a Lifetime in Dance, is in its second printing. Her current book project is titled A Cultivated Life.
(also known as “What’s happening to my body??!!!!”)
by Jan Dunn, MS
You’re a 12 year old dancer, on the path to a professional career, with daily classes / rehearsals / several performances a year. If you’re a girl, you’re getting really good at knocking off double pirouettes on pointe (sometimes triple!), or if you’re a guy, doing a double (or triple) tour en l’air. And then – you start growing fairly fast, and suddenly you can barely do a single turn – What’s going on??!!!
Well, what’s going on is that you’re starting your Adolescent Growth Spurt – AGS for short. This is the age (usually between 11-14 for girls, a little later for boys) when your body is making very fast changes, and it can be challenging for both you as a dancer, and for your teacher as well. But the good news is that it can be a lot less challenging if everyone knows what’s going on, what to expect –and that things will get better! It’s a phase everyone has to go through, so being knowledgeable and prepared will go a long way towards feeling ok with the changes that are happening.
So here’s what’s going on:
The AGS usually lasts between 18-24 months – it’s very individual, so comparing yourself to your best friend who’s the same age won’t help!
I was given a powerful visual reminder of this at an IADMS conference, when Rachel Rist, head of Dance at Tring Park Arts Educational School in the UK (a very prestigious arts school – call it the Julliard of England!) gave a presentation on AGS, and had 5 of her dancers on stage standing next to each other. Each girl was within a month of being exactly the same age (13), and every one of them looked SO different — one looked like a 10 year old, one like a 17 year old, and all stages in between.
Rachel did that presentation to show us how individual the AGS can be – and to remind teachers that dancers going through this period will vary greatly in what they can do / what their bodies need (in other words, one size does NOT fit all!).
So here are some AGS facts:2
Summer intensives can be hard on the body. Intense training coupled with being away from home in an unfamiliar environment is stressful mentally–and physically. Today we have Jan Dunn, MS, our Dance Wellness Editor with some tips for preparing the body for such a demanding experience…. Catherine
by Jan Dunn, MS
Happy New Year ! It’s January, and it may be cold and chilly where you are, with visions of sugarplums still lingering in your head–but it’s not too early to start thinking about preparing yourself for a summer dance intensive you may be thinking of attending.To get in top shape for a safe summer of dancing, here are some things to think about…
Unfortunately, it’s easy for a dancer to get injured when going to a summer intensive, for a number of reasons–the good news is that injuries in this situation are, for the most part, preventable.Some of the reasons you can unintentionally hurt yourself are:
- Going from a school-year schedule of taking maybe 4-5 classes a week, to suddenly doing 4-5 a day while at a summer intensive….i.e., you’re doing too much too soon.
- Taking classes in a style that you haven’t previously trained in-for example, you take primarily ballet all year, and then suddenly you’re doing jazz and African on a daily basis. You’re now using muscles you haven’t necessarily used in ballet, and it might be easier to get injured, especially if you have muscle imbalances in your legs / torso.
- You may be going to a climate you are unaccustomed to, such as hot and humid, whereas your normal dance environment is in a cooler, dryer clime. The body takes a while to adapt to that new environment, and trying to keep up the heavy schedule of an intensive during that initial adjustment period may lead to an injury.
Knowing the possible risk factors in advance may well help you avoid a summer injury.No one wants to go to an exciting summer intensive and then be laid up with an injury right off the bat! Here are some suggestions that might help:
Happy New Year!
This month one of our guest authors is Donna Krasnow, PhD, a long-time leader and researcher in dance medicine and science. One of her areas of specialization is Motor Learning —i.e, how the body learns movement. There are many aspects to the recent research in this field that are helpful for dancers / teachers to be aware of, so Donna’s article is a welcome addition to our growing list of topics to share with you.
As always, if you have any comments / questions, we would love to hear from you! – Jan Dunn, Dance Wellness Editor
Motor Learning In Dance
by Donna Krasnow, PhD
When we look at how dancers move and how they learn to dance, we sometimes call this motor behavior. One area of motor behavior is known as motor development. This answers questions about how we change from birth to our senior years. For example, anyone who has taught young children will know that the 3-4 years olds can gallop and hop, but most cannot skip yet. By the time children are 6 years old, most can skip, as they have developed enough motor control to do this complex task.
Motor control tells us how the brain can plan and direct our movement. One example of this is what we call muscle synergies, or how groups of muscles learn to work together. Some of these synergies are learned through our natural development, such as the easy oppositional swing of the arms to the legs in everyday walking. Some are specific to dance, such as moving through space maintaining turnout, or learning to lift the arms overhead while keeping the shoulders down.
What is motor learning?
Motor learning is the area of study that looks at how the dancer learns new movement, but not just in a single class or practice session. When we use the term motor learning, we are referring to changes that are learned through practice and are permanent, or “remembered” on some level, even if that remembering is not something we are aware of. Simply being able to do something new for a minute in class does not mean it has been learned, as all teachers know!
The learning process
What affects how dancers learn? We know that individuals have different learning styles:
- Some learn visually, and need to see demonstrations to learn well.
- Others need verbal instructions or explanations to do their best.
- Some are what we call “kinesthetic”, and need hands-on information, or touch.
The most effective teachers use a variety of ways to present and instruct, and dancers who can learn how to broaden their learning styles will be able to work with many different teachers and choreographers.
Most dancers, especially beginners, need to see demonstrations of new material, or material they want to improve. With demonstrations, dancers can see how the different body parts organize, how the movement fits rhythmically with the music, how the body orients in space, and many other important aspects of the movement. Often it is best to let the dancers see one or more demonstrations, try the combination first, and then give them additional instructions. We know from the research in motor learning that it is very easy to overload the dancer, especially the beginner, with too much information at the start of learning new material, and this will hinder rather than aid learning.
So what about feedback after material has been seen and attempted? First let’s look at when feedback should be given, and how often. We can give feedback to dancers, usually called corrections, during their movement or after they have done the combination. If feedback is being given while the dancer is moving, it is important that it enhances or adds to what they are already doing, rather than try to get them to completely change their efforts. For example, during a series of leaps, one could say “Yes, stretch your legs even more, and lift up through the top of your head!”
Corrections that are intended to make a shift or change should be saved for the time between attempts. This might include a change in timing, or a change in the positioning of the arms during the movement, or a total shift in spatial direction. It is very difficult for the dancer to make a change in approach or strategy while in motion, as it demands too much attention. This might actually cause a deterioration in the skill.
When it comes to the question of “how often” we should give feedback, the traditional view was “the more the merrier”. We now know that constant feedback is not as useful as giving dancers the opportunity to have time to practice without ongoing information. It allows what we call problem-solving time, and in the long run makes the dancer a better learner and a stronger dancer.
What do we know about the nature of feedback? Should it be about what the dancer is doing wrong, or should we praise what they are doing correctly? The answer to this question is both, but for different reasons! In order to improve, dancers need to hear what they are doing wrong (known as error detection) in order to make changes. More advanced dancers can often figure this out themselves, but beginners need help with this. This does not mean that the teacher’s tone needs to be harsh or insulting or demeaning. Feedback can be given is a supportive and encouraging voice.
On the other side of things, praise and recognition of what is being done correctly is extremely important for motivation. While it will not improve the skill level per se, it will encourage the dancer to continue practicing, and to feel confident about his or her work. And this will, in the end, improve the dancer’s abilities.
A word about video
Does it help dancers see themselves on video? There is a lot of controversy about this process. One thing we do know is that if beginning dancers are going to look at video of their dancing, the instructor needs to be present to point out what the dancers can learn from their observations, and how to improve their next attempts. Seeing video with no educated information is not that useful as a learning tool.
Another important subject that motor learning researchers look at is retention. Since learning is about making new information and skills relatively permanent, how do dancers retain information? Clearly dancers need a great deal of practice, practice, practice. It can take hundreds if not thousands of hours to learn a body of dance skills. However, a few boundaries should be observed.
First, constant practice without feedback can be detrimental. If the dancer is practicing something incorrectly, then this error will become permanently imbedded in the skill! We hope to guide the dancer towards more effective execution with each practice.
Second, practice should never be pushed to the point of fatigue and injury. Rest is an important part of the big picture, and we know that even during sleep, the brain continues to process new information and learn.
Third, practice needs variety. Try doing the skill at different speeds, with changes in the space, with different arm or leg gestures, and even with different emotional intention. Variety challenges the motor system. Although it may seem that practicing a skill the same way over and over leads to the best learning, this is a myth. Varying the skill may at first look awkward and confused, but in the long run, it results in better learning. And let’s not forget that variety is a great way to avoid boredom and keep the dancer attentive. Without attention, there is no learning.
Learning on right or left?
Another issue that has come up in the study of dance and motor learning is the question of laterality, or on what side should we be learning new material, right or left? Recent articles in dance have suggested that we should be learning on the left (non-dominant) side first, at least some of the time. Interestingly, when we look at the research on this in other fields, what we know is this: First, there is learning transfer, so if you learn something on the right, some of that information is automatically learned on the left, and vice versa. Second, that transfer is stronger when you learn on the dominant (right for most) side first. This seems to contradict what the dance writers are saying.
I would suggest that the problem is not that we learn on the right side first, but that due to class procedure, this gives the dancers far more practice on the first side. Often the teacher will demonstrate on the first side (while many dancers are following along), then give verbal information (while dancers practice), then mark it on the first side, then finally do it full out on the first side. Then the dancers might do a quick mark on the second side, and do the combination. This process is biased towards much more repetition on the first side. Teachers need to ensure that there are extra attempts on the second side, to even out the practice.
One other learning tool that is fairly universal in dance is the use of mirrors. Again, this is an area of controversy. What do we actually know? There is some research that suggests that learning is faster using mirrors, but less is retained or remembered the next day, or in future days. More importantly, learning with the mirror may actually be detrimental to kinesthetic learning, that is, the dancer knowing from “feel” how to do something. In a study with athletes who worked with mirrors, they were practicing how to keep the knee aligned with the foot to prevent injury (sound familiar?). When they turned away from the mirror, their errors (knee going off the correct line) increased by 50%. Ouch.
A final word
The last controversial topic I will mention is how we use language to give instruction. As tempting as it is, bringing dancers’ attention to a specific muscle while they are dancing is generally not a useful approach. It is better to describe movement outcomes or goals, and let the brain select the muscles. This can be done in a variety of ways, including describing movement shaping (draw a large arch on the floor with your foot as your body lengthens vertically), or using metaphor (lift up your chest and eyes as you open your arms as if you want the sun to warm your upper body), or anatomical imagery (imagine your shoulder blades sliding down your back like they are melting as your arms are going up to 5th position).
Teachers are creative artists who can draw on their years of expertise and imagination to create a class that draws on all of the current motor learning ideas while maintaining the beautiful traditions of our art form.
BIO: Donna Krasnow, PhD, is a Full Professor in the Department of Dance at York University in Toronto, and a lecturer at California State University, Northridge, and California Institute of the Arts. For the past thirty years she has worked professionally as a choreographer, performer, dance educator, and researcher. She was founding Artistic Director for Möbius Dance Company in San Francisco, and has performed and taught extensively in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan. Donna has performed with Footloose Dance Company (San Francisco), Daniel Lewis Repertory Dance Company (New York), Northern Lights Dance Company (Toronto) and as performing as a guest artist with Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company in its 1990 Toronto season. She is noted for her teaching of the José Limón technique and has taught for the José Limón Dance Institute in New York. Donna was head of the modern division at the Canadian Children’s Dance Theatre in Toronto from 1988-2007, where she has developed a curriculum for young dancers (10-18 years old) integrating Limón technique, improvisation and composition.
Donna specializes in dance science research, concentrating on dance kinesiology, injury prevention and care, conditioning for dancers, and motor learning and motor control, with a special emphasis on the young dancer. She was the Conference Director for the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science from 2004-2008, and served on the IADMS Board of Directors from 1996-2008. She has also served on the Board of Directors of the Performing Arts Medicine Association, and was a founding member of Healthy Dancer Canada. Donna conducts workshops for professional dance teachers in alignment and healthy practices for dancers, including the Teachers Day Seminars at York University, Arts Umbrella in Vancouver, and a nine-time resident guest artist at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, Australia. She has been a keynote speaker for professional dance associations such as Cecchetti Australia, and an invited speaker for A Day for Teachers, sponsored by IADMS, on several occasions. She regularly consults on curriculum development for various colleges and universities. In addition to being a GYROTONIC trainer since 2005, Donna has created a specialized body conditioning system for dancers called C-I Training™ (conditioning with imagery). She has produced a DVD series of this work, and in 2010 published the book Conditioning with Imagery for Dancers with co-author Jordana Deveau. Information about the dvds and the book can be found at www.citraining.com. ; She has also published extensively in the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, Medical Problems of Performing Artists, and Journal of Dance Education, as well as invited author for three resource papers for IADMS, in collaboration with Dr. Virginia Wilmerding. Donna completed her PhD in 2012 doing biomechanics research on dancers through the University of Wolverhampton in the UK, and is currently working on a new book on Motor Learning for Dancers with Dr. Virginia Wilmerding for Human Kinetics.0