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Why Is Dance History So Important


Teacher article



Periodically while I am teaching a class I will refer to a famous dancer as an example of what I am trying to get across to my dancers and will be met by blank stares from them as if I have a third eye! It never ceases to amaze me as to how little the students know about something that some of them spend a large part of their lives doing. As I have told many of my students "If you want to be great then you must study greatness and emulate it".

Of course that means that they actually have to want to find out about the great dancers that are working now and all the greats that are older or who have passed on. I remember as a child loving nothing more than reading about famous dancers or watching them on film. I would spend hours doing that and at the same time imagining myself as part of that magical world. I would study those dancers and see if I could copy something of what they were doing to make myself a star like they were. Today there is so much material available at the click of a mouse they don't even have to move out of their homes to find any information. No walking to the library or having to search through endless books to find what you are looking for. I know myself, if I mention a well-known dancer such as Barishnikov or Margot Fonteyn in one of my ballet classes I get absolutely no response, but if I ask them to name a famous dancer they will give me a name such as Michael Jackson or someone that they have recently seen on MTV.

So the question is, how do you get your students to become a little more interested in dance history? Over the years I have found that one of the most successful ways has been to give the more senior dancers a project that they can either do by themselves or with a friend. I know they get a lot of homework from the schools but I always give them a week to accomplish this task. I will ask them to give me all the information that they can find on perhaps three dancers. One time it may be classical dancers and the next time it could be famous dancers from Broadway. I usually try to start them off with classical dancers as we all know that Ballet is the foundation for all the other styles they are doing. Once they have brought me the names and the bios I may spend one entire class just having them read their findings.

The next step is to have them try to find a DVD or video of the dancers' work. For this task they will probably need two weeks to accomplish their search. They seem to respond very well to this challenge and when they have found something that they can show the rest of the class, we will all sit down and watch it. Because we live in such a visual society they find it easier to relate to things or people related to dance when they can actually see it. The next step is to devote one class to their improvisation of the work of these people that they have discovered. Usually I have them do this in groups, duos or even solos, although I always encourage them to work with other dancers.

So what have we accomplished by going through this whole process? First of all, they are now more aware of where the different dance styles came from and who the "stars" of these particular eras were and how they affected what we do today in dance. In other words they start to connect the dots in a way that is user friendly to them because they are not only reading about something (which may be boring to them initially) but they are seeing it and making it come to life.

Why go through all of this? The reasons are clear, if we do not understand what went before us, it is impossible to move forward and continue to create. The end result is that they enjoy the journey even if they were initially resistant to it. Most importantly we hope that we have stimulated these dancers to find out more about what they are training for. Realistically it is doubtful that the majority of our dancers are ever going to become professionals but, if nothing else, we are able to train them to have enquiring minds and be excellent audiences for the future.

With my younger dancers I take a slightly different approach. I ask them to choose a Ballet or movie of dance that they have seen and liked and then I ask them to write down why they found the particular dancer or dancers interesting or appealing. It is quite interesting to read their thoughts and very often I am able to show them an old movie of, for instance, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly or perhaps West Side Story and then they can see where the different techniques came from. I have found, that by taking the time with these young dancers to demonstrate to them that dance did not start just in their lifetimes but that in every culture and community people danced since the beginning of time and that the techniques were gradually refined to make the class content that we have today; they suddenly seem to have a better appreciation of how dance is constantly evolving and how it relates to them. Again, it also helps them to understand why we do the things we do to help them become better dancers. Obviously I don't think that children coming to take dance once a week in purely recreational mode are going to be interested in dance history, but the dancers who want to progress will be able to learn to look backwards in order to progress forwards.


Angela D'Valda Sirico

Angela D'Valda Sirico

Originally from England, Angela spent her early years in Hong Kong where she studied with Carol Bateman. She continued her training at Arts Educational Trust in England. After moving to New York City she continued her studies with Martha Graham and Matt Mattox. She appeared with the Matt Mattox Company and toured with the first Disney On Parade working with Disney and N.B.C. Contracted to the Teatro National of Buenos Aires she performed for one year and spent an additional year as a featured soloist at the Teatro Maipo, Argentina. Travelling to Madrid, Spain she worked for Spanish television in a weekly variety show Tarde Para Todos and from there decided to form her own Dance Company. With the Company she choreographed and performed throughout Spain in theatres, and on television. Angela met her husband Steve while working together on a television special The Valerie Peters Show filmed in Tampa, Florida. In 1979 they formed the Adagio act DValda & Sirico appearing in theatres, clubs and on television shows such as David Letterman, Star Search and the Jerry Lewis Telethon. In 1982 they were contracted to Europe and appeared in a variety of shows in Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Italy before going to London, England where they appeared as Guest Artists for Wayne Sleep (formerly of the Royal Ballet) in his show Dash at the Dominium Theatre. Angela and Steve have owned and directed their dance studio in Fairfield, CT. for the past twenty two years and in 2005 added music and vocal classes to their curriculum. Angela served as chairperson for the tri state panel of the Royal Academy of Dancing and is Co-author of a Partner syllabus currently used for teacher training by Dance Educators of America. She continues to adjudicate and teach for major dance organizations and choreographs for theatre, television and conventions and was commissioned by Boston Ballet 11 to choreograph the highly acclaimed Brother Can You Spare A Dime? DValda & Sirico are currently in production choreographing the opening to the National Speakers Association convention on Broadway at the Marriott Marquis for August of 2008. Angela is co-owner of Dance Teacher Web designed as an online resource for teachers worldwide.

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