Singing and Dancing...Together?!
Singing and dancing simultaneously can be daunting. Add the challenge of staying in character and you might have a recipe for disaster. If this sounds like your worst nightmare, take a breath. Dance Spirit asked a team of professionals to address the most common reservations aspiring triple threats have about performing challenging song and dance numbers, like “One,” from A Chorus Line, or “Seize the Day,” from Newsies.
Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music students in Peter Pan (photo by Mark Lyons, courtesy University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music)
How can I sing when I’m so focused on the choreography?
Doing so can feel like you’re trying to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time. One of the key elements is matching the singing to the movement, says Diane Lala, resident musical-theater choreographer at the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). “When my students learn the choreography, I tell them to say the lyrics while they move,” Lala says. “That way they can see how the two pieces fit together.” Choreographers often use movements to accent certain lyrics or musical phrases. Don’t be afraid to ask if you need help making connections to the vocals.
Sometimes, even just moving around as you sing can be helpful. Broadway performer Sarrah Strimel used this tactic when learning musical numbers in Christopher Wheeldon’s dance-heavy An American in Paris. “Our musical director had us walk around the room while practicing our parts,” she says. This is also a good challenge if you have trouble singing when you’re dancing next to someone in a different vocal part.
When I sing out, my movements get smaller. How can I dance full-out and sing loudly?
Bethany Elkin, a director and choreographer at NYC’s Marymount Manhattan College, advises students to focus on their breath, since both dancing and singing require lots of air. “When you’re rehearsing the movement, try to find as much breath as possible in your belly and lower back,” she says. Dancers often learn to take shallow breaths in their chests rather than thinking of the roundness of their breathing in the stomach and lower back.
Elkin counteracts this training in her morning dance classes. “During barre or a warm-up in center, I have my students focus on taking deep breaths that will help support their singing,” she says. Elkin also suggests doing plank exercises, imagining a string connecting the belly button and the spine, to help strengthen the muscles you need for singing.
If you’re not sure you’re breathing deeply enough while moving, “turn profile in the mirror and watch yourself breathe,” Strimel says. “Dancers tend to be afraid of disrupting their lines with a ‘large gut,’ but it’s more about allowing your diaphragm to release.” Strimel also suggests trying yoga classes to learn how to relax and breathe deeply while strengthening and stretching your muscles.
Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music students in Legally Blonde (photo by Mark Lyons, courtesy University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music)
The choreography is so fast—I keep losing my breath!
Breathing is especially challenging in high-energy ensemble numbers—like “Whipped into Shape,” from Legally Blonde, in which performers jump-rope and sing. In these cases, staggering your breathing is key. This means that performers take short breaths at different times, but there’s no audible break in the music. Ryan Blackson, a dance major at Marymount Manhattan, used this tool in a regional production of Cats. “I was constantly listening to the person next to me to hear if they were still singing so I could take a breath,” he recalls.
If you’re really gasping for air, hit the gym for a cardiovascular workout on an elliptical machine or a bike. Challenge yourself to sing or speak your lyrics while you’re working out to build stamina.
I have to think about singing so much, I can’t remember the choreography.
The more complicated a vocal harmony is, the more concentration it requires. Tap into your strength as a dancer and get the choreography into your muscle memory—then add the singing. Don’t get discouraged. “Learning to sing and dance together is building a skill, just like working on your turnout,” Strimel says. “It’s a muscle that you have to train.”
For that reason, don’t hold back. Strimel’s motto is to sing loud and proud so the vocal coach can correct her if she needs help. “I tell myself to ‘Sing out, Louise!’ ” she says, referencing the famous line from Gypsy. “If you’re wrong, you’re not going to be fired. In rehearsal, it’s always better to be strong and wrong than timid and right.”
What's more daunting than getting into your dream college dance program? Figuring out how you'll cover the costs of tuition, room and board, incidental expenses and more. Here's the good news: The right scholarship(s) can bring your dream school well within reach.
Look Around, Look Around
Scholarship applications are due between the fall of senior year and graduation time, so familiarize yourself with funding opportunities during the spring of junior year. And there are a lot of opportunities out there, says Kate Walker, chair of dance at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, TX. "A lot of school guidance counselors now have software that automatically matches you with scholarships," she says.
Seek out scholarships on your own, too. According to Walker, "a lot of corporations are required to have some community engagement, including offering scholarships, so research corporations in your community." Your parents' employers might offer assistance too, says Doug Long, an academic and college counselor at Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, MI. "They might have scholarships you can apply for just because your parent works there."
Other sources of grant money you won't have to pay back (as you would a loan)? The YoungArts Foundation; competitions/conventions, like New York City Dance Alliance; and the university or dance department you're applying to. Even some scholarships aimed at athletes are open to dancers!
A winning scholarship application involves a fair amount of paperwork, especially if the organization requires you to show financial need. In addition, certain scholarships ask for the College Board's CSS/Financial Aid Profile, which gives the awarding organization a more complete picture of your family finances.
Other ingredients of a successful scholarship application include recommendation letters, a dance and/or academic resumé and an essay or statement of purpose. Treat these components just like college applications: Have multiple trusted adults proofread your materials, and ask for recommendation letters or transcripts long before deadlines.
A note for non-dance scholarships: Including objective measures of achievement can only help you. "List national recognitions, like YoungArts or other competitions," says Long. "That shows the scholarship committees that people at high levels have acknowledged you as an artist of quality." And don't forget who your audience is. "Especially in writing samples, make sure you paint a vivid picture for your reader," Walker says. "Don't assume they know about all the things—like barre every day—that we as dancers take for granted."
No award amount is too small to be worth your time and effort. As Walker says, "Don't pooh-pooh a couple hundred dollars in award money, because any scholarship is funding that you didn't have yesterday."
A version of this story appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "All Aboard the Scholar-ship."
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