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.