Athletics and Artistry: Striking the Balance

Speed, precision, balance, endurance: Dancers need these skills as much as any athlete does. But what separates dancers from athletes is artistry. It’s harder to define but just as vital. Think about it: A dancer with sky-high jumps and extensions still makes an unsatisfying Giselle if she doesn’t convey the emotion within the story. The audience needs to feel something from the performance. On the other hand, an emotive but technically mediocre performer isn’t thrilling either. It’s only when the two elements are combined that something complete and remarkable is created.

No one knows how to color and shade powerful performances better than the pros, so we asked veteran dancers, choreographers and teachers to share their thoughts on mastering athletic and artistic skills, and the importance of each. Turns out striking a balance between them is key: A dancer today needs both tools in her belt and the judgment to know which to use—and when.

Trey McIntyre, founder of the Trey McIntyre Project:

As a dancer, it’s a fine line. I work with dancers to hone their technique so that it serves the art, but making yourself vulnerable as an artist can be difficult. I ask dancers to question their own motivation for their choices. For example, if a high extension communicates a sense of shape or direction, wonderful. But if it’s just about getting your leg up, that’s different. You’re watching the human figure doing incredible things moving through space, but if that’s the only reason for it, I’d rather watch the Olympics.

As a choreographer, the use of athleticism is only in service of what I want to say. I exercise a great deal of discipline not to wow people by spectacle. Then, the overall experience is much more powerful. It has the power to speak the truth. There’s an opportunity in art to tell us about our flawed existence in our own flawed bodies.

Sonya Tayeh, choreographer/teacher:

I think there’s artistry in athleticism. When I up the ante with my dancers technically, just trying to get the movement is hard. It takes an extreme emotional connection to the work.

Sometimes what’s missing is the dialogue, how to find the purpose. It has to be explained to the dancers why they’re doing what they’re doing, and then they find their way into fluidity. My dancers and I spend a lot of time talking, a lot of time experimenting. I say, ‘Where’s the initiation?’ I work with them on learning how to fall into technique to make it look like it just happened. Thinking makes you look like a machine. Feeling makes you look like a colorful, vibrant dancer.

Ashley Roland, dance/choreographer/co-founder of BodyVox:

Every dancer is an athlete. What we do with our bodies demands strength, agility and balance. We play like a team: When we come out onstage, we work as a collective. There’s something more powerful in that for me than putting one person out in front who does amazing tricks. When you see a basketball team, they’re not thinking about the placement of their arm in relation to their shoulder. We do think about that. We take athletics to the next level.

Every time I go onstage, I have to decide: How much energy and power do I want to apply and how much do I need to save to get through the last minute? In every dance concert I see, I’m drawn to people who are physical beings and performers. To be both, you have to develop athleticism and layer artistry on top of that. Artistry is a gift.

Bart Cook, répétiteur and former New York City Ballet principal:

You have to have enough sensitivity to glean what a piece is about if the creator is not teaching it to you. It’s a personal thing, but generally if there’s not a story, there’s an emotion or type of feeling being stressed—or there should be. But I’m not sure artistry is something you can learn. If you have an artistic sensibility, it’s innate.

Jamey Hampton, dancer/choreographer/co-founder of BodyVox:

Usually dancers start young, when they’re approaching the peak of their physical powers. As a dancer ages, his or her body becomes less physically able to respond to the mind in that way, but the mind, the soul and the artistry grow. There’s an x–y graph growing in two ways: Artistry is ascending and physicality is descending. There’s a sweet spot where those two intersect, where people can pull off balance, height and hang time, while also achieving a level to speak with the body, to tell the story within.

Technically our dancers are far better than they have ever been, and a choreographer can be seduced by those abilities. But the successful choreographer uses those abilities in service of story. That’s where my sweet spot lies. Athletics has that element of reaching deep into the human spirit for the sake of winning. That exists for dancers, too – reaching deep within your soul because it’s imperative to do so, to remain expressive and alive as a human. That’s where that cross happens.

Rebecca Krohn, soloist, New York City Ballet:

If you’re a professional dancer, you can’t just go onstage and do the steps. You need artistry. It’s what separates you from a student. A lot of Balanchine ballets are abstract and have minimal story line, but there’s still something that needs to be added, even to a simple tendu. You have to have something to make it look alive and make it your own. You add individuality within the confines of the dance. Sometimes you can take it from the music. If it’s forceful, you add strength or shading. The choreography shows you a mood and you fill in the blanks. You find when you need to attack, to restrain, to stretch something out.

A lot of it is experience. You have to gain confidence in yourself and your ability. You learn what kind of dancer you are and what you can bring. It’s hard to say how much of what we do onstage is coming from our personal experience. I’m almost always at work, but it’s something you gain working with different choreographers and other dancers. You’re constantly learning and trying to add to your artistry. Striking a balance is the ultimate goal that the most beautiful dancers have.

Mark Goodman, tap dancer/choreographer/teacher:

As dancers, we have to put it together. All dancers are athletes, but not all athletes are dancers. There are people who do phenomenal tricks, but after a few minutes, I’m bored. I’m like, ‘Can you dance now?’ On the other hand, when I’m looking for dancers for a show, they have to be in shape, because you never know what paces they’re going to be put through.

I try to express emotions through tap, which is difficult but not impossible. If dancers are good at what they do, they express themselves through every inch of their bodies. I would love to see more exposure to people who are telling stories through tap. You have to find the depth in the song and tell the story that way. The difficulty is getting people to really feel something and not fake it. I want to care about the characters. Sometimes the emotion scares people. Sometimes tap dancers just want to make noise and there’s a disconnect between their feet and what they’re really doing. In a lot of ways, dancers have more responsibility than actors, because we are expressing solely through our bodies.

Shane Sparks, dancer/choreographer/judge on So You Think You Can Dance:

I like it when people take from the past and shoot for the future, but still keep it current. I think if people thought more from an entertainment perspective than just doing a bunch of dance moves, they would have more success. Anybody can do a bunch of eight-counts, but can they tell a story and have you follow it from beginning to end? That’s the definition of a choreographer and a producer: to tell you a story.

At the same time, you have to keep your skills up. You need the technique to make a piece look the way a choreographer wants it to look. I tell people who have a lot of emotion, ‘Take classes to express yourself correctly and honestly.’ And I tell people with a lot of technique to get out of class for a while and go find themselves. Turn on the music and just dance.

Tara Lee, Atlanta Ballet dancer:

I think every dancer brings something unique to the table. It’s a balance. There are certainly some ballets that are more technically and physically demanding. I feel whatever piece it is, the more experience you get as a professional, the more you can marry the two elements. I tend to start with technique: music, steps, counts. Then I layer as the process goes on, using the music and connecting emotionally to the piece. I attempt to synthesize the two.

Emotionally, you might feel more connection to one piece than another. You have to honor the process itself. Young dancers tend to be hard on themselves. They’re hungry to be perfect, and in this day and age we’re so impatient. But as I start to get older, the more I feel my identity as an artist is clear. I try to stay curious, read, listen to music, and learn from everyone, including the young people. It’s important to keep an open mind and heart.

 

Thinkstock

You've seen it a million times: A glamorous, toned dancer posts a perfectly styled shot of her colorful smoothie bowl. The caption gushes about how great you'll feel if you eat "clean"—but what does that actually mean? DS asked registered dietitian/nutritionist Rachel Fine and holistic health coach (and founder of The Whole Dancer) Jess Spinner for all of the dirt.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by Travis Kelley, courtesy Kathryn Morgan

In our "Dear Katie" series, former NYCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email dearkatie@dancespirit.comfor a chance to be featured!

Dear Katie,

I'm being bullied by one of the girls at my studio, and it's awful. I've talked to my dance teacher and confronted the bully directly, but it hasn't made a difference. What should I do?

Faith

Keep reading... Show less
Angela Sterling

Bunheads, this one's for you. They say you can tell a Nutcracker by its "Snow" scene—and we fully believe it. There are so many versions with extra goodies—olive branches! Fake snow! Sleds! Choirs! Snow queens!—and each brings a special something to the holiday favorite. But do you know which ballet has what?

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
(Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy BAE)

Consistent turns are a must for aspiring professional dancers, but pretty much everyone struggles with pirouettes at some point. Luckily, since we're all beholden to the same rules of physics, there are concrete steps every dancer can take to reach his or her top turning potential. “Three is the new two when it comes to pirouettes, but the secret to turning is technique, not magic," says Bojan Spassoff, president and director of The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia.

Falling out of your doubles? Aspiring to go revolution for revolution with your class's star turner? No matter where you lie on the turning spectrum, our 360-degree guide to pirouettes will help you improve.

Keep reading... Show less
Parris Goebel and her ReQuest Dance Crew (via Twitter)

Are your moves smooth and sexy like Chloé Arnold's tapping Syncopated Ladies, or is your dancing bubblegum sweet like the girls of Suga N Spice? Behold, the answer:

Keep reading... Show less
(Lucas Chilczuk)

Let's face it—spare time is pretty tough to come by when you're a dancer. You're either rushing to get ready for rehearsal, rushing to rehearsal, a combo of the two, or in rehearsal (or performing, or in class, or at an audition...you get the picture). Well here at DS, we understand the struggle is REAL, which is why we've rounded up our favorite foolproof makeup hacks, approved by resident #LazyGirl when it comes to makeup (spoiler alert: it's me). On to the hacks!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Kalea Hidalgo (Photo by 567 Photography, courtesy Stacey Hidalgo)

Kalea (pronounced kah-LAY-uh) Hidalgo knows how to move. Her decisive, dynamic dancing commands the stage: She gobbles up space so confidently it's hard to believe you're watching a mere tween. Unsurprisingly, that presence and power have started turning heads in a serious way. Not only did Talia Favia choreograph one of her solos in 2017, but Kalea also recently signed with Bloc Talent Agency in L.A. and, last summer, placed first overall in the junior contemporary solo category at Radix Nationals.

"When you're out on the dance floor, don't ask for permission—ask for forgiveness."—Kalea Hidalgo
Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Swift in her latest "Making of a Song" episode (via Youtube)

Taylor Swift is #blessed in many ways: She's got a great voice, insane song writing skills, and, to quote her new hit single, she's "Gorgeous." She is not, however, blessed in the dance department. But that doesn't stop her from busting out the occasional dance move. In fact, Swift likes to playfully show off her less-than-stellar dancing, be it in her music videos (hello, "Shake It Off") or at music award shows. So we weren't surprised when during the latest episode of her "Making of a Song" series for AT&T, she unveiled a new endearingly awkward maneuver, which she's dubbed the "dolphin body roll"—and it practically had friend and producer Jack Antonoff rolling on the floor!🤣

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Ray Batten (left) teaching class at Wagner Dance and Arts in Mesa, AZ (courtesy Batten)

You rehearse your group routine to perfection, but when the big performance rolls around, everyone turns into speed demons. It's the runaway-train effect—and it only takes one loud tapper, or zippy turner, to throw the whole group off the music.

While nerves and excitement are partly to blame, the ability to keep to tempo begins in the studio. A well-developed sense of musicality is your best defense against the dreaded speed trap. "When you understand how the steps fit with the music, going too fast won't just feel like rushing," says Jeremy Arnold, lecturer of tap at the University of Texas at Austin. "It'll feel wrong." How can dancers develop that musicality? It all starts with learning to listen.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Want to Be on Our Cover?

covermodelsearch-image

Video

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Sponsored