As we all know, modern dance is a genre which breaks traditional ideas, and at times does not synchronize with the traditional ballet foundation we are primarily aiming to instill within our students. In fact, until recently, modern dance was not a common inclusion within studio training curriculums until the undergraduate years of college dance programs. Then, students coming from solely traditional training backgrounds would often be overwhelmed and intimidated by this “new” way of moving, exploring space, improvising and creating movement.
Many studios now incorporate the modern dance genre to their own class schedules. Teachers and studio owners have recognized the importance of making modern dance accessible to younger students for a number of reasons including:
- **Increased awareness of rhythm and working within alternative time signatures
- **Understanding the concepts of “getting into the floor,” level-use, planes, shape, and working off one’s center
- **The integration of pedestrian movement and improvisation
- ** Development of a student’s own movement aesthetic and sensitivity to effort qualities and dynamics
So what can we do as teachers to make modern dance approachable to students who have never experienced it? Because of its disassociation to ballet, it is important to remind students that it is imperative to continue their ballet training so that they can recognize the differences and similarities among the two genres and how they can cohesively blend together. For example, without understanding how to utilize and maintain your center properly will never permit you to understand knowing how to take the body off center in turns, asymmetrical shapes or releases and find recovery back to neutral. Modern dance should not be seen as an escape from good technique practice, and it is possible to merge the two.
A simple place to start with younger students is to introduce music selections in alternative time signatures like 7/8, 5/4 or 6/4 with simple pedestrian across-the-floor movement patterns (i.e. walking, skipping, rolling, crawling, hopping, slithering, etc;) so they start to develop a sensitivity to working with uneven rhythm and syncopation. If your studio has the means and access, the addition of live drummers is always an exciting way to grab a student’s attention and add a layer of live performance. If that is not an option, CD’s by William Catanzaro, David Savell and Michael Roberts are wonderful choices to have in your library of modern dance class music that are eclectic and vary in mood.
Another suggestion for making modern dance palatable is to add improvisation scores to your technique class. Students given a structure or concept to move freely from (i.e. “Move only on a low level with quick movements” or “Transfer your weight in moving balances while changing levels,” “Utilize quick breaths or even breaths to initiate your movement rhythm” or “Visualize a floor pattern and pathway and only move in slow motion along that path,” etc,) will allow them the opportunity to embrace the components which modern dance is built upon while encouraging them to develop their own movement profile.
Finally for more intermediate-advanced students, the introduction of codified modern dance techniques and pioneers is essential and certainly creates an awareness that will put them ahead of the curve within their training. Rather than having your studio based in one technique, it is more beneficial at this level to introduce different styles periodically like Graham, Limon and Horton (perhaps alternating every ½ season.) Also, taking time to discuss the history and timeline of modern dance from Isadora Duncan and Rudolf Von Laban through Martha Graham, Jose Limon and Lester Horton, etc, will certainly embed an understanding of where these techniques come from even before they put the movement on their bodies. Relaying information and assigning mini-research projects about current-day modern masters like Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Trisha Brown, Mark Morris, Pina Bausch, Eiko & Koma, etc, is also a great way to introduce dancers to the vast modern dance styles and companies. Incorporating video clips, company repertory center combinations in class, as well as field trips to see companies perform are always fun and experiential ways to bring diversity to their modern dance training as well.
Taking into consideration that modern dance is an essential training practice within your studio’s curriculum creates a more comprehensive and sophisticated approach to making your students well rounded and aware of what exists in the professional dance world. By exposing them to this genre early on, you will be nurturing the development of their training and aesthetic and enhancing their overall body of movement vocabulary.
See you in the dance studio,