Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Disappointment of the Arts

As someone who has spent the greatest part of my life loving and intensely involved in the arts, I can always remember having a critical voice at the back of my head whilst watching things. You know the one: it notices that someone didn't get through their quick change fast enough so their hair is slightly unpinned, or that the scenery didn't clear the stage the way it should have, or that someone just messed up the choreography.... the one that, when silent, proves the quality of what you are watching.

I had the opportunity to go see one of the west end's newest shows last night. I was actually really looking forward to what I expected to be a strong show filled with energy and excitement - it was a brand new adaptation and still in previews, so those two qualities should have been a given. Instead, it was working too hard and failing to hit the right marks, the energy was lacking, and there was a complete lack of vocal strength from most of the leads.

The show itself is ok, but I am not convinced the changes made between London and Broadway have been for the better. What was most painful to see, however, was the lack of enthusiasm and energy that seems to be spreading through a lot of the "mainstream" productions these days. Leads are cast not because they are perfect for the roles in casting or ability, but because they are "names."

As someone who trained for this kind of work, it is a bit of a slap in the face when some TV presenter or reality TV star is handed a role of a lifetime and then can't actually do it justice. Shows should never look tired or like a lot of work - which is not to say they aren't hard work - especially not after a week and a half! Performing is as much a job as anything else, and of course there will be days it goes better than others; all jobs are like that. But the trend to bring "names" in to sell a show, regardless of their suitability, is one that ultimately will only serve to disappoint and ostracise the people who have a vested interest in the business as a whole and will undermine the trained performers and the industry.

The ensemble in the show last night were talented and working very hard with the little they had been given, but it wasn't enough to keep the energy up when two of the leads had no discernible chemistry at all and a few were struggling with being heard. My inner critic was unfortunately loudly commentating throughout. And as I left, I couldn't help but feel let down by an industry that has been so much a part of my life. I dont think it was just that show; the convention to cast via reality TV show or simply through notoriety is one that is prevalent today. And it saddens me to know that it is likely going to get a lot worse before it has a possibility to get better. But I have my fingers crossed.... and my expectations lowered.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Old Dance Today Cover Shot

I noticed a little while ago that the link to the Dance Today cover which features Hanna Haarala and Andrew Cuerden and which I happen to have shot was no longer working! To make up for that, I recently took some shots of one of the copies and attach the photos here for you.

All shots are copyright Sheard Photography and cannot be used without express written consent.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Reduce the Validity of Your Argument by Refusing Debate!

After writing my last post on the benefits that I have seen from initiating heels into my dance repertoire, I was drawn to a post that a friend linked to from someone with a very contrasting view. As someone who was obviously interested in the subject I wanted to engage in some debate or at least discussion about the issues we both recently had written about. I wrote a considered response and was shocked to find that a day later, my comment was not approved. On top of that, her reasoning for refusing to display it was as follows: "Remember, please: this is my blog. I’ll just delete your comment if you give me the shits. Hellz, even if you disagree with me! I encourage you to write your own blog posts or FB notes or whatevs if you’re cranky with that."

Now she has every right to moderate her blog as she sees fit. And as I feel that my comments deserve a forum as much as hers do, I am being "cranky" with that and writing here. But I have to say that when someone who sees themselves outside the societal norms petitions to stretch those norms or conventions so that they can be heard, taken seriously, and potentially change aspects of the society they see then turns around and so blatantly refuses to even discuss anything.... it doesnt lend me to to taking them seriously in the future.

The post can be found here and my deleted response to it is below:

I posted most of this as a comment on someone’s link on facebook, but I think it is only right that I post it here as well.

I don’t feel Sarah’s post was about the gender of the person in the footwear. If you look closer at Sarah and Dax’s site, there is also a post explaining why Dax feels that guys should wear heels too! So they were in no way claiming this was purely a female thing.

The point of Sarah’s article was to emphasise the benefits that she has had from dancing in heels and the issues she was able to flag because of it. Nor does it assume that “heels” means 4” stilettos… all she was saying is that by wearing a heel you become more aware of your posture, balance, connection with the floor, and the connection with your partner – none of which are a bad thing! Personally, I prefer to dance in a bit of a heel. I don’t do it because of what it looks like, I do it because it is the way I am most comfortable and where I feel the most secure. I have trained in heels and all sorts of dance styles for a long time and don’t think you should be limited to just one type of footwear – for dance or societal reasons! Yes, core strength should be encouraged and developed. But starting to “learn to dance in heels by dancing in heels” does not mean jumping straight in at high high heels. Like with any strengthening or fitness based training, you don't jump in the deep end before you can swim – that Would be dangerous.

I also have a bit of an issue with saying that someone cannot be “badass” in heels. Not only don’t I agree with that statement, but I also vehemently disagree with the statement that “[i]t stops you being totally badass (ie you can’t dance hardcore or do scary aerials or otherwise rock ON).” Besides the fact that “scary aerials” should NOT be done socially, in my opinion, surely dancing hardcore or rocking on depends on each dancer… and personally, I feel I can do those things in heels. If you don’t, that’s fine but don’t say it isn’t possible. I also don’t accept that you are any more badass because you flagrantly do the opposite of whatever you think society expects of you. (And frankly, wearing heels to Lindy is NOT the norm… so if you are trying to go against type then maybe you Should be wearing them.)

As for the claims that wearing heels is akin to societally imposed suffering or as in the comment above, Chinese foot binding… I am sorry, but I just don’t buy it. If you take care of your body (warm it up and cool it down, stretch and massage) then the shoes you are wearing shouldn’t make much of a difference as long as they fit properly and give you the necessary support. You can have just as many foot problems from cheap flat shoes as you can from heels if you don’t look after yourself.

I respect that everyone should be allowed their opinion and have the right to express it in the way that they please….. and the vehemence in this post makes it a very compelling read…. But I think that the core idea jumps to conclusions and the profanity isn’t really necessary. Make your point. If strong enough, it will stand without the swearing.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

To Heel or Not To Heel - That is the Question

I was reading a blog post recently which was about the effect that your wardrobe has on your dancing as well as on the dance scene as a whole. This was on a blog written by brilliant Lindy dancers Dax Hock and Sarah Breck... so I decided to have a peek around and see what else I could find. The very next article I stumbled upon, was one that addressed the idea of wearing heels when dancing. (Why Women Should Wear Heels) I was really surprised by the vehemence with which some of the people responded to this post and the refusal by some to accept that there could be any benefit to wearing heels whatsoever.

All through my training and in many different shows, I have had to get used to the idea of wearing heels to dance. In fact, when it came time to do my showcase at college, my 3 inch character shoes were deemed too small a heel for my height and foot size and so I was sent on a mission to find 4.5inch heels that I could wear instead. I then not only had to do the show and all rehearsals in these new shoes, but also all my Jazz classes as well. From beginning warm-ups to turns and big jumps, my high heels were there. Though the reason for the boost in heel hight was initially a cosmetic one, I very quickly found certain things out about my dancing which I was then able to address both when wearing heels and not. It made me a stronger dancer and  I became very comfortable in my heels. To this day, I prefer to dance in at least a bit of a heel for most styles.

Dancers in the Ballroom world also have the issue to heel or not to heel. Both guys and girls have the choice between different heel heights and the difference between Ballroom and Latin shoes can be extreme. Everyone has their preference and many people remain at the lower end, especially when learning, in order to maximise stability and control.This is sensible and heels also shouldn't be worn purely to prove that you Can.

In the Lindy scene, heels are far less common and I know a lot of people that flat out hate to dance in them. But I think that Sarah's article has a point. Although postures are very different between Ballroom and Lindy, there is something to be said about being placed in a situation which forces you to evaluate exactly how much of your core you really do activate or how you use your contact with the floor to provide momentum and impetus.

Now, no one is saying that every person needs to dance in extremely high heels. Even though I did manage to get through every aspect of my 4.5inch heel experience, I could still jump far higher and with more control when I wasn't wearing them. (The landings were always a little tentative in them... and rightly so!)

And I do recognise that the long term damage of wearing very high heels has been shown in society in general. However, all too often it is the shoes which get the blame when, ultimately, it is the wearer that could have prevented a large part of the problem in the first place. If you know that you are spending a night dancing, a day walking around, or a long work day in heels and don't stretch out your calves afterwards... then I wouldn't blame the shoes when you are a bit sore the next morning! And on a long term basis, preventative maintenance to your feet and calves (as well as lower back) can do a lot to combat the negative effects of high heels AND flat shoes that simply aren't supportive or well made. (High heels aren't the only culprit of damaged tootsies!) As with all dancing, you need to know how what you are doing is affecting your body and take action to prevent injury or long term damage. Warm-ups and cool downs can help tremendously, but how many of us honestly do them to the extent that we know we should?

So Sarah, I have to say, I am on your side. Even if it feels initially a little uncomfortable or tentative - sometimes downright scary - the benefits of working through that process and getting to know yourself and your dancing better is one that I believe is truly worth it.

Friday, April 01, 2011

The Value of Musicality in Choreography

I had the privilege the other night of attending the Ballet. It has been a really long time since I have gone to see a ballet and I left feeling generally inspired and suitably cultured. The dancers' technique was impeccable and the visual presentation of the piece on the whole was stunning, but I have to admit that I was occasionally slightly disappointed with one thing: the musicality of the the choreography.

Working with the swing performance group that I both organise and am a part of, I have also had a series of conversations lately about the importance of creating pieces that are highly musical and which use the whole song as an arc to present one coherent entity: the combination of music, dance, and performance.

Now, most people will think that what I am saying is a fairly logical thing. Of course the music should be reflected in the choreography, right? I guess, the issue is, to what extent?

We all hear different things in music: different accents, different highlights, and even sometimes different melodic tracks. And most songs have a lot of these things layered within them. When social dancing, strong dancers do their best to anticipate the music and utilise these layers of interest. Breaks, accents, and musical qualities that are used in the social 'choreography' show that the dancers are thinking about more than just which step they can think of to do next. But when doing a piece of set choreography, how many levels are enough?

Obviously, because set choreography is not impulsive it is expected to have a better understanding of the music it is using. But at what point do you have to stop dissecting the music and just allow the dance to happen?

I find myself caught in the middle at  the moment. I was disappointed that the Ballet I viewed didn't use the amazing music as well as it could have. Accents were missed or subverted and sometimes beautiful choreography was being done to music that just didn't seem to fit. And yet, when choreographing myself, I pick out the main highlights I hear and want to emphasise and then can sometimes neglect (purposefully or not) to hear the other lines around those. I don't think that every line can be played to within choreography, and attempting to do so can sometimes lessen the impact of really hitting an accent or musical element. But how much is enough... and where do you draw the line?

Rumba - Rumba Walks

Rumba walks are one of the things which when done well seem effortless but which in reality require a lot of practice and more multi tasking than you may have thought!

The technique is the same regardless of whether you are the leader or the follower and I will build it up step by step as I would if teaching it for the first time.

Because of the slow speed of the Rumba, one of the main things that you need to have to dance it well is control. I would recommend remaining within the rhythm of the Rumba when practising your walks and take two steps on the beat and then one step which holds the movement for two counts. (As you would if dancing..... counts 2, 3, 4-1.)

In a space where you can string quite a few steps together, begin by simply walking across the floor and back. Notice how you will normally walk with your heel hitting the floor first and often a relaxed centre. These are the first things that we are going to change.

The next time you walk, change the way that you hold yourself and lift out of your hips. Feel as though you have a big hook through your collar bone which is pulling you forward and slightly up.

After you get the feel of that, change the way that your feet contact the floor. Instead of stepping forward with a heel and allowing your feet to leave the floor, pretend that you have a large bill (£50 or $50 is usually sufficient) underneath the ball of each foot. The moment you lift your foot off the ground, you lose the money.

As you work with the "money" under your feet, think about the foot that you are bringing forward. Make sure it is extending out in front of you before you transfer your weight - pushing off the back foot, which then collects itself underneath you as you move your body weight forward. Stability will be helped if you turn out the foot you are stepping onto. (That means that you show the inside of the heel to the direction you are moving which points your toe diagonally out.)

Chances are, buy this point, you may have forgotten to think about your core and the fish hook through your collar bone. Whilst maintaining your footwork, try to feel the lift of your upper body out of your waist and hips. You should also attempt to keep your shoulders straight towards the direction you are walking and allow all of the work to be done below.... when done properly, this will be something you really feel in your stomach muscles! (It may help to put your arms out to the sides and then raise your hands 90 degrees to emphasise the necessity of keeping your upper body straight towards your LOD. You will be able to tell a lot easier if you are letting your shoulders move with your legs.)

So now, you have footwork that is pressing down into the floor (to keep your money under your toes) as your upper body lifts up and resists the natural movement that moving your legs causes in your shoulders. There should be a lot of resistance in your body as you walk - as though you are walking through treacle - and every single movement should be intentional and controlled.

Once you feel you have this under control, you can begin to work the hip movement into the walk. As you step forward onto the leg, your hip will move forward, to the side, and then settle slightly back - the way a lot of people naturally stand, with one hip pushed out slightly back. As you step forward onto the next foot, you repeat the process with the other hip. The total movement is a little like a figure 8. I will stress though, that this hip movement comes from the natural body movement and should not be forced. The more comfortable you are with the rest of the walk, the easier the hip movement will be to add.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tango - Natural Twist Turn

Starting from Promenade Position, this step is a good one for playing around with the dynamics of Tango as the man's rhythm is slightly different to the lady's - but both still work together to complete the step.

Leaders'/Men's Footwork

In Promenade Position, with your weight on your Right foot and your Left foot extended to the side (knees bent, knees, hips, and bellybuttons still to your partner, only your Left shoulder opened slightly to the LOD), take your first step with your Left foot moving along the LOD. Continue moving along LOD as you bring your Right foot forward and across in Promenade Position and CBMP. (You should be really twisted up at this point!) (Slow, Quick)

Untwist to step side onto your Left foot, getting as far around your partner as possible and blocking her forward movement. Your body will likely be backing Diagonal Centre at this point. As you cross your Right foot behind your left (toe only) you should continue the turn and be Backing LOD. (Quick, Slow)

With your weight on your Right foot primarily, untwist until your legs are side by side and then continue the turn on your Right leg but carry your Left with it so that you end up in Promenade Position where you started! Obviously you dont actually have any steps here, but the followers do... so the count in which you should complete this is Quick, Quick. (I know it looks messy... but you try drawing a movement that the foot stays in place but turns!)

Followers'/Ladies' Footwork

Starting in Promenade position, you have your weight on your Left foot with your Right foot lightly resting on the ground to the side whilst your knees, hips, and belly button  are facing your partner, you open your Right shoulder slightly down the line of dance and turn your head to the right. Step off on your Right foot and then take another step down LOD with your Left foot which will put you in CBMP and promenade position at the same time - prepare to twist! On the next step, your partner will take a step which puts his body blocking you but it is important that your step still goes straight forward - which should mean that you step directly between his legs. (Slow, Quick, Quick)

Then it is as if you are walking around him. Keep your upper body turned towards him and use him as the centre of your circle as you take two steps (Left, Right) forward and around him. (Slow, Quick) The third step (Left foot) is to the side to end up back where you started, in Promenade position - be sure to transfer your weight AND change your body direction into PP on this last step... and all on a Quick count!

Notes for both the Leader and the Follower:

- Guys, your turn and bringing the Left leg around without weight, whilst keeping your balance and centre strength.... will take practice. Try to get this movement as smooth as possible. Ladies, you are still moving while the guys turn... try not to walk too far away from them or you may pull them off balance.