The Pupil, the Practice, the Performance

Dancing USA August / September 2000

 The Pupil, the Practice, the Performance

 The Three Levels of Every Dancer

 By Jeff Allen

Every dancer, like it or not, develops as a dancer on three levels – Pupil, Practice, and Performance. Whatever level your public or performance level may be from social dancer to Blackpool finalist, you must continue to achieve a higher level of dance during your time as a pupil and during your practice.

The following is an excerpt from a conversation with Mr. Carlos Gavito found in the pages of my how-to book, Quickstart to Tango. Carlos originally from Argentina, is a world-renowned teacher of Tango and was the senior principal in the Broadway production of Forever Tango. What is said and implied here is important for dancers of all levels to really sink their “feet,” into.

Jeff: Are you a tough teacher?

Carlos: A student would say, “ We are not dancers.” Listen lady, from the moment you step a foot, you are a dancer. That’s a dance floor. If you don’t feel like that, then get the hell out of here! Because if you want to put your foot there, you are insulting me, if you say your problems. Because, that’s a dance floor. That is not a shop, a market, a café, a restaurant. That’s a dance floor. So from the moment you decide to put on a pair of shoes and come and put a foot there YOU ARE A DANCER. I’M GOIING TO TREAT YOU LIKE A DANCER!!! And I want the same response. I want you to be a dancer!!

Jeff: Harvey Edwards is a world famous photographer, predominantly of the Ballet. He had a beautiful poster image that I used to have in my first studio. That studio burned down (Carlos: Oh God) the poster burnt up. Its title: “If it looks good it hurts!!”

Carlos: No question. Definitely. It’s that little more which you don’t do because you are lazy that is very important to show in dancing. Some people say, OK I know how to stretch a leg so I will stretch it easy. No. When you take a class you stretch the full leg. No half way through. You go for the maximum. So, when you dance (perform) you do half, maybe. If you do three pirouettes on the studio, you do one on the stage. It’s not the other way around. There are people who think if you can do three in the studio, you can do six on the stage. Oh, no way, no way. If you do three in the studio, you do one on the stage, and you will do perfect. And if you do two maybe. If you do three, you’re gone. Because you do easy at the studio.

Jeff: We never achieve our best practice!

Carlos: Never, but how many times did you rehearse and you did a full routine complete, without mistakes?

Jeff: It’s not possible!

Carlos: I never did in my life!! And if I ever do something good in rehearsal, surely when I start again something is wrong. Something is wrong. I don’t know why, but it is the mind, the body, which doesn’t work the same time. Rehearse. That’s why you rehearse. To make the mistakes and then to secure (correct) the mistakes; that’s rehearsal.

The above conversation reflects two dance instructors discussing the three levels that must grow simultaneously in every dancer. Below is a discussion about how to make the most of your time at each critical level.

The Pupil

You must be a student of dance to learn to dance. As you step onto the studio floor allow yourself the luxury of believing you are a dancer, and the time spent there, is to become a better dancer. Take a trip outside the ordinary occurrences of your life and step into our fantasy for a while, it will be time well spent. If you do not believe in yourself yet as a dancer, then believe you are someone else who is! That dancer, your fantasy, is not traveling down the city streets dancing; they too wait for their moments at the studio or rehearsal hall. To a dancer these places should not just be fun but the place to be desired above all else-yes, almost sacred.

The good teacher, the experienced teacher, has spent years preparing for your lessons. Your directive as a pupil is to let your teacher administer the lesson. Complaining about your lack of practice, your aches and pains, and what is going wrong with your day, is not going to weaken your teacher’s resolve they are only going to prevent you from accomplishing what you came for; to learn dance. The time spent under the careful tutelage of your teacher is to bring you to your highest level of dance performance. The pupil’s desire should be to grow in dance experience and to learn what makes the body operate to music for the sake of both partners.

Commit your body to the choreography without fear or concern of your teacher’s watchful eye. Teachers must have the opportunity to observe your error in order to help you remove it. I have always told my students if it was not for the mistakes then I would not have a job. As a pupil, you should recognize the difference between a teacher and a person who shows you dance steps! It takes a teacher to give you mental, physical, and even emotional ideas about what makes the journey between and through your feet work. Once you have found a real teacher of dance, a teacher who is a student of dance himself or herself, then allow them to tinker with your equipment. It is only through physical change that you can go forward in your dance experience. Without physical change, the likelihood is that you become worse than you started as you continue at the same physical level only adding choreography that is more complex. Yes, it is possible to go backwards in your dancing even as you learn more “steps.” Applaud yourself when your teacher makes you feel a difference, without the difference there is no change or growth. Since feelings are subjective I want my readers to know that often the correct technique will feel wrong to you, at first! Until the change has become an indelible part of your physicality, it may indeed feel foreign. This is not the time to start complaining to your teacher about what feels right or wrong.

I am reminded about the golfer that has allowed the PGA Pro to change their Swing to eliminate a consistent and undesirable hook. They actually begin straighten out the flight of the ball only to turn to their teacher and remark, “this doesn’t feel right!” As they return to their original and more comfortable swing well you know that the hook comes right back. Allow your teacher to take you to a higher level at each lesson. Gauge your lesson experience not necessarily by what comes easily to you – after all these feelings already exist in your dancing. Pupils gauge your lessons by the number of changes you have to work for and then challenge your teacher to make you better by under girding those changes with practice.

The Practice

The practice of dance are the moments in time where through repetition we begin to make what is unfamiliar in lessons and to our muscles part of our own. Our attentiveness and cooperative learning during our time as a pupil is only supported by the quality moments of our rehearsal. Our teacher, having directed our feelings away from error, depends on our preparation or homework to develop dependability and consistency into our dance movement. You must make the changes your own, or you, like the golfer above, will simply revert to bad form.

The quality of your practice must closely resemble the sanctity and privacy of your lessons, especially if you are a beginner. It is never a good idea to attempt in public what you have NOT practiced for it will surely fail – or if you succeed you just got lucky! Practice time is the time to build your confidence and not to weaken it. Cherish your privacy.

Set goals for each rehearsal session. Keep these goals short term, somewhat challenging, but definitely obtainable. Things that you can achieve in short periods will become building blocks for dancing and your aid in your confidence to dance. It is unwise for people who are not professionals or high-level competitors to work in extended periods largely because they can never find the time.

I would rather see my students practice in two or three 5 –10 minute intervals everyday, than to try to set aside one or two hours a week that they never seem to “find” for one reason or another. The former insures minimal loss of the quality between one lesson and the next. The latter insures that you will be spending your money to practice with your teacher instead of learning new material or technique that improves your existing material. It would be only a teacher who is unethical, untrained, or both that would keep encouraging the student to come in and practice with them rather than learn. There is enough to learn about dancing for three lifetimes without subjecting yourself to being delayed by a controlled learning curve.

Do not take your practicing lightly it is the MOST important part of your three dancing levels. Allen’s Law of Dance states: You will NEVER dance in public including social, competitive, or performance levels of dance better than your best average of practice! Improving the quality of your dance intensity during practice will speed up your learning curve during your time as a pupil.

Increased practice intensity will also improve your “public dancing.” This is what Carlos was referring to by practicing three pirouettes in the studio when you have to do only one on stage. Please know these two things about practice to make this section complete and realistic. First, you must practice to find your errors and weaknesses both physically and mentally. Second, having found these you practice to eliminate them. The good news is that if you have never really set aside a genuine practice shedule with goals, imagine how much better, and enjoyable your dancing will become when you do. As the expression goes, “Baby, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

The Performance

This level of your dance persona is different for everyone, always your weakest, and the one filled with the most demons. The performance level for you may be as simple as the weekly social dance you attend, or a nightclub. On the other hand, it may be a shot at making the finals at Blackpool, England. Here is a reality that every athlete regardless of the sport, must face. Practice and conditioning have everything to do with your results publicly along with the quality of your teachers and coaches. If your teacher pushes you a bit to be better on a lesson or to practice with greater frequency, it is for your public level.

Let us get this right out in the open – there are pressures out on the public dance floor both real and imagined that do not or should not exist in practice. Public performance transforms the audience to a group of critics. The pressures of the social dance floor are in some ways much greater than that of the competitive dance floor. How is that you say? The competitive dance floor is much more spatial in terms of congestion, and more predictable as to the quality of dancer and the use of line of dance. It is easier for a Bronze level social dancer to navigate during a competition than socially. After all, there are people out there practicing just to gain experience in moving around a public dance floor.

For these reasons and many more, the typical social dancer will lose as much as 75% of their dance quality and choreography just by stepping out on a public floor. The percentages of loss are largely up to you and the type and content of your practice. Strive for and be happy with 70% of your best average practice. Imagine if you could achieve 70% of all the goals you have set in life, wow! I am sure that most competitors and performers would agree that if they could achieve 80% of their very best practice in the venue for the public’s eye they have put themselves in contention to be a winner. What only 80%? Yes of their best practice. No one is perfect as Carlos suggested. We come close to perfection and continually strive for it, but it never comes. We lift our performance level by focusing on becoming determined as a pupil, diligent in practice and empathetic as a human.

So there, you have it, the indispensable interlocking physical, mental, spiritual, and almost magical trinity of the dancer – the pupil, the practitioner, and the performer.

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