“Tricks” vs. “Technique”

by admin on March 7, 2016

Similar to dancers, as teachers and choreographers we also have to develop a pretty thick skin.  Each year as our dancers hit the competition stage we place our bare naked creativity out to be scrutinized by our contemporaries.  We place the very lives we live under the microscope.  Our dancers, our dances – our everything. Personally, I get much more nervous on this side of the business than I ever did as a performer.  Criticize my body, my technique, my ability to perform – I can handle that.  Criticize my creativity, my ability to train, my CHILDREN – that brings out a whole new beast!

For the most part, the critiques and even criticism I receive from competition judges is constructive.  Many times I have to chuckle and roll my eyes at the judges comments that echo what I have been telling my sweet dancers for MONTHS! However, one critique has been eating at me for over a year, and it’s high time I settle the score.

It was given to one of the most talented teen dancers with whom I have ever worked.  Her solo was contemporary.  Not contempyrical – straight contemporary with artistic risks that I knew some judging panels may not fully appreciate.  We knew this going into the choreo, and we were both willing to take the risk.  Much to our delight – the solo competed very well and most judges loved the piece… but there was the one.  The one comment that repeats in my mind every 4 days or so.  It went something like this:

“She is a really great dancer, and I want to score her high.  However, there is just not enough technique in her solo to receive a high score from me.”

A-HEM. What was that?  Not enough technique?  I literally rewound that phrase 6 times to make sure I heard her correctly.

I quickly realized that what that judge meant to say was “there aren’t enough tricks in her solo” – which got me thinking… are competition dancers taught that “technique” and “tricks” are one in the same? Yikes.  Let’s clear this up.

11698829_467065213475413_4972048833391415993_n Technique: “A way of carrying out a particular task, especially the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure. Skill or ability in a particular field. A skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something.”

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Trick: “A clever and skillful action that someone performs to entertain or amuse people.”

The technique of a dancer should be seen in the way she walks on stage.  The way he works through his feet as he chassés. The way the shoulders pull down through the back muscles, elongating the neck. The energy exchange between the dancer and the dance floor to create a stable foundation.  The slight wing of the ankle in derrière. A coupé turned out from the hip.  A tailbone positioned toward the floor in plié.  An open chest coupled with a closed rib cage.  A great technician is even allowed to “throw away” some of this technique in moments of artistic choice because they know just how to use that technique to thread into and out of those moments seamlessly.

Tricks, on the other hand, are an act that take place within a dance – usually a skill that is deemed difficult or given worth through the technique it takes to execute it well.  Things like jumps, turns, tumbling, and extensions can be found in this category.  When done WITH great technique – tricks can certainly have their place in a routine… but the lack of “tricks” in a dance certainly does not imply lack of technique.

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When are each necessary?  In my opinion, technique is constant.  It has always been important, it will continue to be important; great technique will never go out of style.  There are no types of dance that aren’t enhanced by great technique (though the proper technique for different styles may differ.)  Each and every piece of art you create is going to look it’s best when executed with sound technique.  Tricks, on the other hand, depend on the choreography, style/genre/feel, and the general goals of the piece.  For my personal choreographic style, I do not see a need for a lot of “tricks”.  I love to create based on storyline or even just a certain feel or type of phrase.  However, last fall when I chose to do an 80’s throwback jazz for a production number, you better believe I put lots of good “tricks” in there!

There are three main problems that I would love to see less of – things that I see as a judge weekend after weekend:

  1. “Tricks” performed by dancers who haven’t reached a level of technical readiness.  I love a great pirouette as much as the next judge. However, when it’s on a flat heel with multiple hops and weak upper body… I have to believe that this performance is valuing the “trick” above the “technique”.  I will speak for judges across the globe in saying, we would rather see a nicely executed single pirouette than to watch your dancer hop and bobble through a triple with a disconnected passé.  My rule of thumb that I share in critiques often is: If the dancer is not nailing the trick with proper technique consistently in rehearsal – then that trick is not stage ready.  It’s time to go back to the basics of technique.  Build upon a SOLID FOUNDATION, rather than feeling the pressure to throw in tricks for which your dancer is just not ready. That isn’t good for your dancer, her scores, or her safety!
  2. Teachers/choreographers feeling that tricks are required to score well.  I can’t tell you how often I judge a beautiful contemporary or modern routine – one that takes me on a journey, building a story, relationships, creating staging, shapes, textures, layers… then 3/4 of the way through when I am chest-deep in LOVING the piece – the dancers abruptly stop the movement to step-prep into a hundred turns in second.  Guys, I don’t mind a well-executed turn in second.  But – why?  What do these tricks do to enhance the art you are creating?  How to they tell your story?  Do we feel obligated to put tricks in our choreography in order to score well?  In my opinion, that may be one of the reasons competition dancers aren’t always taken as seriously.  Let your art be art – and if your dancers are ready, let your tricks be integrated into the art in a meaningful way that serves the purpose of your piece.  If you, like me, run in to the random judge who needs tricks to understand the technique of your dancers… may I kindly suggest you let it roll off your artistic backs and consider taking that competition off your schedule for next year.
  3. Dancers working incorrectly or impatiently in order to achieve the latest “trend trick”.  I feel like, especially since social media and reality television exploded their way into the dance world – there’s now a new “standard” which dancers can measure themselves against.  The problem is that, often dancers are diving into flexibility stunts, pointe work, tumbling or leaps that their body is either not made for, or not ready for.  This is where teachers need to be very smart, and convincing.  Just because so-and-so that has 4 gagillion Instagram followers can do that, doesn’t mean that you are ready for it.  Some of these dancers are L I T E R A L L Y breaking their backs to get that perfect needle for which their body was not designed!  We are responsible to help these dancers understand their bodies, and to know that technique is prerequisite to tricks.  And that there are some tricks that would be unhealthy and unwise for them right now – and maybe always.

Technique is always important.  Tricks have their place when executed with proper technique – but let’s stop using those terms synonymously.  Build a solid foundation of technique, and your skyscraper of tricks will be solid and stage-ready.

Dance on,

Bree

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Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 9.21.20 PMWhat do you say?  Or am I the only one out there getting a little tired of hearing the description “Well, she’s a competition dancer” followed by an audible groan.

I mean, really.  Is it a pride thing?  Is it a stereotype derived from “reality” TV? Or are competition dancers really as shallow and talentless as the reputation they are given suggests?

I’ll admit – as I did here – that I never went to a competition studio while I trained.  I hate to age myself, but competitions just weren’t nearly as prevalent back in the 80’s and 90’s.  But, I have taught at competition studios across the country and let me tell you first hand – for the most part – competition dancers are pretty dang special.  Let me count a few of the reasons why:Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 9.21.08 PM

1. Competition dancers get to perform – lots! If we lived in a more art-appreciated world, say, where people held a draft and paid millions for a dancer’s contract – or the arch of your foot was revered like the size of your chest – just imagine – a world where a season ticket to ABT’s lineup rivaled the cost of one ticket to a Dallas Cowboys’ game… maybe THEN dancers would have performing opportunities thrown at them on the reg.  Sadly, this is not our world.  Dance is not funded the way it should be, and for that reason – most studios, conservatories and companies are not able to hold concerts every two weeks.  Enter, competitions.  Is it the perfect-case scenario to fulfill our artistic performance desires? Maybe not.  But – hey – these dancers are getting regular, valuable stage time, and through that – opportunities to learn how to deal with stage-fright, how to cover mistakes on the fly, how to project and perform, and overall gaining a confident comfort with the stage.  Not to mention, I have had my competition dancers teach ME how to do stage make-up. 😉  These skills can become even more valuable when competition dancers are also able to perform a solo several times a year – a privilege that comes to very few dancers outside the competition world.Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 10.35.06 PM

2. Competition dancers learn to perform a variety of styles.  Because we want to maximize our opportunities at competitions, we enter dances in many different categories.  Most competition dancers I have worked with are proficient in ballet, jazz, tap, lyrical, hip hop, contemporary and more.  You may argue that they are spreading themselves too thin – but quite honestly, I don’t see that being the case.  Sure, most dancers have their favorite style – but they are being trained in all styles!  If they go to a “jazz” audition and are asked if they have any added skills – most competition dancers can whip out their tap shoes and execute a pretty nice time-step.  It brings marketability and diversity to their talent. Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 9.21.58 PM

3. Competition dancers are scored/critiqued.  I understand that this point could be seen as a negative.  However, I would disagree.  These dancers develop a tough skin – and have a tangible consequence for making mistakes or not working hard enough.  The after-high-school dance world is rarely sunshine and rainbows.  Most competition dancers have met disappointment plenty, and have learned how to cope with it.  They also have a pretty nice fire under them to stay motivated.  If Sally gets a high gold for her solo at NYCDA – she has the tangible goal to reach for the platinum next time.  Additionally, judge’s critiques can help Sally get a new perspective on her training and how she can improve.  These give a measurable value to gauge if a dancer is going in the right direction.

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4. Competition dancers always get to keep an eye on what is out there. As a choreographer, competitions are one of my favorite places to be inspired.  Rarely, outside of competitions, can you meet up with multiple different studios and see what is out there.  It gives you an interesting perspective.  You can ask yourself – is my studio giving me the best training available in my area?  What does James from Stage Door‘s solo have that I could learn from?  What is it about Elite Dance that makes me feel something when they perform?  Sitting through a competition, for the dancer with the right mindset, can be incredibly inspiring and educating; telling them more than what they see within the walls of their own studio.

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5. Competition dancers have proven to do well after they graduate.  You know what they say – the proof is in the pudding.  (I honestly have no idea why they say it… but they do!)  Competition dancers are EVERYWHERE!!!  The most prestigious colleges and conservatories, professional companies, commercials, TV shows, movies, music videos… they are all chock-full of past-and-present competition dancers!  These kids are not to be discounted – they know how to dance well, they are trained well, they audition well, they perform well.  They are successful.  So – pray tell – why is it we sigh “competition dancers, ugh“.  Far as I can tell – they are doing pretty well, my friends.

So – that’s my beef today.  If you have pooh-poohed competition dancers in the past, I hope you will pause next time you are tempted to do more poohing. (Oh, get your head out of the toilet for Pete’s sake!) 😛 If you are a competition dancer – I hope you hold your head high and defend your choice to compete.  There are many benefits to what you do – and as long as you see the much deeper meaning beyond the trophy, I would say you are well on your way to greatness.

Dance on,

Bree

 

 

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