From time to time, NDEO will be featuring guest blog posts, written by our members about their experiences in the field of dance education. We continue this series with an entry from Rebecca Mayer of Western Wyoming Community College. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please email Shannon Dooling-Cain at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Theatre Majors Dread Dance Class
Rebecca Mayer, Assistant Professor of Dance at Western Wyoming Community College
At my current institution, the dance and theatre programs are tightly interwoven, with the music program, as part of the Performing Arts Department. Because our musical theatre majors currently outnumber our dance majors, many of the 100-level dance classes (particularly tap and jazz) are populated by a majority of theatre students. These classes are required for the AA in Musical Theatre (and rightly so), but theatre-oriented students often approach dance classes with some degree of trepidation. I offer those students a few things to consider in order to boost their confidence and get them on board.
Dancing is character development
Most freshmen in a college theatre program have some experience with acting, whether they’ve taken drama classes at their high school or trained seriously at a summer intensive in New York or Los Angeles, so they are familiar with the idea that characters have specific ways of speaking, singing, and moving. Dance is an extension of those details. If they haven’t learned so already, they are about to discover that in a musical, dance serves either to further the plot or to entertain an audience with the expectation that they’ll see dance. In jazz classes, I often encourage everyone in the room to tap into a character of their choice when working across the floor or running combinations. I use the questions a director would ask an actor: “What does your character want?” “How is your character going to get what they want?” “What’s standing in their way?” This gives experienced and aspiring actors the chance to apply a language they already have some grasp of to the possibly unfamiliar world of dance.
When it comes to getting work, auditions are just the beginning
It seems every time I attend a college or high school theatre festival, at least one dance educator is offering an audition workshop. These classes can plant the seed in actors’ minds that all they really need to know how to do in terms of dance is pass an audition. In high school, college, and community theatre, choreographers tend to be lenient when casting dance roles in a musical because their options may be limited in terms of auditionees who can sing the roles to be filled. This leads to great “performers” being cast in dancing roles that they would be unlikely to play in a larger market. Picking up choreography in an audition isn’t the only thing that matters; to succeed in the industry student and pre-professional actors must be able to execute that choreography with at least a basic mastery of technique. Taking dance classes regularly helps actors to become familiar enough with basic movements to better contextualize them and acquire audition combinations more quickly and with greater confidence.
Auditions are just the beginning. Experienced dancers know that proper technique is the key to sustaining a rehearsal period and run of a show. I’ve seen too many actors injure themselves during the rehearsal process in ways that could have been prevented if they’d had a better understanding of simple concepts like turnout and use of plié.
Singing and acting take a lifetime to master... believe it or not, so does dance!
Serious singer-actors recognize the importance of regular voice lessons. They understand that a few months with one vocal coach doesn’t mean they’ve learned all there is to learn and they can just go forth and be fabulous. Most musical theatre students know that once they leave college, they’ll find at least one vocal coach, an acting coach, and acting classes to keep their skills sharp, stay current, and network with players in the industry. They can reap these same benefits from attending dance classes regularly as well. On that first day of class when I’m sharing the syllabus and stating my expectations of the students, I focus on my number-one mission: To give the students enough information to go take professional drop-in classes in whatever market they choose to continue their career.
I remind dancers of all majors that improvement takes time. Experienced dancers make it look easy, but they’ve done grueling work to get there. Being able to safely belt to that high note took some grit. That’s proof to themselves that they can reach their goals in dance too.
Rebecca Frost Mayer is an Assistant Professor of Dance at Western Wyoming Community College. She holds an MFA in Theatre (Musical Theatre Pedagogy/Choreography Concentration) from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BFA in Theatre Studies from Boston University. Her musical theatre directing and choreography credits include The Rocky Horror Show, Yank!, Pride and Prejudice, Company, RENT, and others at high school, college, and professional theatres. She also has extensive performing credits including musicals and plays in Boston, Portland, and Richmond. Rebecca’s primary dance emphasis is on tap, and she is currently devising curricula for integrating music theory into tap pedagogy.