Where is Dance Headed?

A question that often creeps into the minds of dancers, choreographers, company directors, dance enthusiasts and supporters is: What is next?

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Photo: The Regional High School Dance Festival at Todd Rosenlieb Dance studios

Looking back, we can look back on dance’s vivid history and track the phases, trends and changing times. We continue to be awed by ballet’s classical style (closely associated with Marius Petipa and the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia). We welcomed Michel Fokine’s curved lines and creative use of the ensemble. We were intrigued when Bolshoi Ballet premiered their dramatic flair, and we fell in love with the purity of The Kirov Ballet. We followed the stories of the Romantic era of ballet with baited breath, and we admired George Balanchine’s neo-classical approach to new lines and allowing the music to dictate a piece of work.

In modern dance, we were shocked into a new understanding of movement with “barefoot” dance appearing on stages by Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Maud Allan. With Ausdruckstanz, we embraced expressionists and interpretive dance. We watched as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Hanya Holm began to dominate the modern dance scene, despite developing in different ways with different ideologies. We also witnessed the welcoming of diversity in dance, as Alvin Ailey, Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus helped break down walls which had previously prevented American blacks from stages.

But what is next?

Nancy Reynolds, director of research for The George Balanchine Foundation, and Malcolm McCormick, former dancer and dance scholar, wrote that after the giants in dance - George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins - died in the 1980s and 1990s, "there was no one mid-career of equivalent stature waiting to replace them."

In 1982, Jack Anderson wrote, "As for totally new {balletic} forms - there aren't any."

Where dance is headed next, may be a mystery; however, we have just returned from The Regional High School Dance Festival hosted in Norfolk, Virginia, by The Governor’s School for the Arts, and we can’t help but feel like we stumbled upon a glimpse of the future: where dance is headed.

Over 1,000 high school dancers came from various cities and states to join together for a complex schedule of classes, performances and lectures. The festival also includes college and University auditions, and recruiters for summer programs. The Regional High School Dance Festival takes place every two years, which is off set from The National High School Dance Festival. It was in this environment, that we were able to observe young dancers in their element, as well as their teachers.

Here are our observations:

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Photo: The Regional High School Dance Festival at Todd Rosenlieb Dance studios

Dance training is blending the best of many methods:

Previously, students of dance would pursue a method or style of dance training. For example, it used to be that a student would seek out a particular school or method of training: Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), Russian method (which includes Vaganova), Cechetti, École Francaise (The French school), Bournonville, and the Balanchine method (which is the School of American Ballet). But as we watched ballet classes, varying in levels from beginning to advanced, we saw a intricate blend of methods coming together to create a complete class. We watched as teachers asked to see certain qualities known for particular methods. They wanted to see strong placement of the back and arms (Vaganova), use of the core twisting in opposition (Cecchetti), while exuding elegance and quick steps in petit allegro (French school). They wanted to see symmetry (RAD), while giving physically demanding combinations requiring strong lines (Balanchine).

We noticed a similar occurrence in the modern classes. No longer are modern teachers married to specific techniques (Humphrey-Weidman, Limon, Hawkins, Cunningham, Horton, Dunham). Instead, we see teachers blending together the important qualities of various techniques to capture their idea of modern. We saw decentralization (Alwin Nikolais), fall and recovery (Humphrey-Weidman), Graham’s falls and hands, Steve Paxton’s contact improvisation. We saw carving and students focused on initiation of movement.

What we hope this means for the future: The training today blends, more than ever, various styles of training. We see the best of every method being used by today’s teachers, which we hope will create stronger, more well-rounded dancers. Some may argue the students are getting watered down versions of each, but we saw the students concentrating on the requests from the teachers, adjusting here and there, reaching further, twisting from inside as they focused on their barre and center floor combinations.

Dance training is taking a wholistic approach:

Not only did the classes available to students include ballet, modern, jazz, tap and hip-hop, it included yoga, Pilates, African, Afro-Modern, Ballet for Modern Dancers, Contemporary Jazz, Modern Partnering, Dance Composition, Theatre Jazz, Improvisation, Barre Fitness, Thai Chi & Martial Arts for Dancers, Salsa, Bartenieff Fundamentals (extension of Laban Movement Analysis), Blind-folded ballet, Variations, Stomp Style Rhythm class and Ball Conditioning. No longer are dance educators focused on accomplishing just strength, or just flexibility. They desire to create a careful balance of strength and flexibility, core and back muscles, inner and outter quad strength.

What we hope this means for the future: Teachers are transitioning from approaching dance as an “outside-in” approach, to an “inside-out” approach. How a dancer feels while working through an exercise and where the energy leads them to a position is now as important as reaching the final destination. We hope this leads to more awareness within dancers, and more knowledge about kinesiology and how their personal body works. All in all, we hope this wholistic training leads to happy, healthier and stronger dancers. The more knowledge and training they have, the less injuries can threaten to stop dancing.

Dance + Public School Education:

It was exciting to see the arts in the form of magnet schools supported by Departments of Education. It sends a positive message to our students that the arts matter, and the arts serve as a catalyst for change in our communities. It helps our students understand important skills like: problem-solving, time management, maturity of practice, working as an individual and within a group.

What we hope this means for the future: That the public will continue to see what an asset magnet programs are to education, and even more importantly, how much we need the arts included in education budgets.

Dance + Academia:

At the college/University fair, dancers rushed to tables of schools they admire. They left with smiles, hands full of pamphlets and heads full of plans. At the festival there were auditions for places into schools or prestigious summer programs. As the world around us changes, we are noticing more and more that students are choosing 4-year dance programs resulting in degrees in dance, before packing a suitcase and moving to New York City. This makes for different experiences and knowledge entering the dance force.

What we hope this means for the future: We hope dance programs will continue to grow. We tend to think having dancers work on skills such as research and writing while learning subjects such as anthropology, history, language and anatomy will only help dancers in their careers. (Fun fact: Modern dancer, Katherine Dunham studied anthropology which led her to pursue dance choreography about the African diaspora). We hope this means that dancers will not be afraid to pursue college, regardless of when they decide to pursue it (before or after a professional dance career). There is an entire academic world out there ready and willing to pursue research and studies on dance, and that is exciting and refreshing for dancers and dance educators every where.

At the end of each day of dancing, dancers exited from buildings at various corners of the city. Dance bags slung over shoulders, hair pulled tightly into buns, sweats guarding tired muscles from the cold. We couldn’t help but feel happy about a few known facts:

  • Dance is here to stay
  • Dance is only growing stronger
  • The power of dance to help individuals grow into strong adults is undeniable
  • There are amazing dance educators out there, teaching fantastic classes, passing along great knowledge
  • There are talented dancers out there who understand what it means to learn by practice, like Martha Graham has always believed

We may not know what the future of dance holds. We cannot project the next fad. Call it classical, romantic, modern, post-modern, neo-classical or whatever you’d like; but movement is alive and well, and thriving.

Perhaps Mr. George Balanchine was right:

“Motion in general harbors some kind of secret."

The 10th Regional High School Dance Festival
March 7-10, 2013
Norfolk, Virginia
Hosted by: The Governor’s School for the Arts

For more information, contact Deborah Thorpe, Director
dthorpe@gsarts.net

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