The Thing About Student Dance Showcases…

Dear Diary,

I’ve completed another lovely performance workshop over a week ago and I have to say, with each one I learn more about the curious dynamics of humans when put into a group performance. Of course, it’s a great goal to have to work towards putting your daily efforts on to stage, but unless you are a pre-professional or a professional, or even a retired professional – student showcases…. they are what they are. It’s a stage full of mixed level students, most who desire and expect the center spotlight to be shined upon them. There’s a big mix of expectations, disappointments, surprises, joys and classroom politics, favoritism and just hard core reality checks. Oh… the drama.

It’s its own reality show. I don’t even need to tune in to TV to be entertained.

HELLO, DID YOU JUST DECIDE TO DROP IN?
What’s really funny about these open level performance workshops is that there are some beginner level students who sign up not familiar with the teacher’s style or have never danced the required style they are signing up for. The assumed reason is that they probably interpreted the definition of a workshop to be something where students are taken through lessons every week and at the end of it all, they will put on a little show.

The reality – at least the ones I’ve been in – are that these showcases are designed for students who have been taking dance classes on a regular or scheduled basis, who want the opportunity to show off their abilities on stage. The challenge then becomes both for the absolute newbie students (who are forced to learn the style straight from choreography) and the teacher / choreographer (who is now finding themselves tasked with figuring out a way to teach / whip these newbies into some sort of shape for the show).

To not know the style you are signing up for yet signing up for the performance for the “experience” is like standing in line for a roller coaster ride in the dark, not knowing what is involved but just being there because it all sounds very exciting is very courageous.

….until you are actually on the ride.

LIKE MOVING A LARGE HERD OF CATTLE ON A TINY ISLAND CALLED THE STAGE.
Another challenge with the teachers are the number of participants. Popular teachers may get up to 45 students signed up to be on stage. This…. of course is hitting the critical mass of how many dancers you can safely have on stage and the artistic challenge becomes how to make it all look dynamic and exciting – not look like an elevated mosh pit.

Of course, there’s always the method of moving big chunks of people from one place to another. Then you may get creative and have a selected few do some smaller group dances while the big pile move in the background. Or… if you are more ambitious, you could have several different groups interlacing each other, going in and out of the wings. All are very great techniques in staging a large group but we must not forget that depending on the level of students who participate, you may have a large number of novices who have no idea how to move within personal space, or to remember the traffic rules of going in and out of the wings, to say the least… remember the choreography and counts itself.

CASTING – WHO’S GOT THE SPOTLIGHT?
Regardless of what level dancer you are, being cast in a certain position in a performance always draws drama. For the most part, the more technically stable or musically gifted, skilled dancers are chosen to set up a foundation for the piece (front center, small groups, maybe a solo). They are the backbone of the piece. Then comes the “flesh” of the body that could be divided up into slightly larger groups or perhaps a single group.

What becomes sensitive and sometimes funny, is to hear the reactions that the dancers give when the teacher starts staging them in the piece, for example:

“Why is SHE/HE getting a solo?”

“I’m in the back row :-(“

“I’m not given enough counts to dance”

“Why am I being demoted (moved to the back line)? Am I being punished?”

“I’m not moving from this one spot the entire time”

“I’m dancing with my back towards the audience the whole time in this piece”

“I have less counts than my friends”

“All my friends are in the ‘special group’ and I’m with the ‘others’. What, am I not good enough?”

Now…. I am not a professional and I will admit that I have had my share of gripes in the past. I admit I didn’t fully grasp the process of building a performance.

How I understand it now is that it’s not about how friendly you are with the teacher (though I’m sure familiarity helps) but at the end of the day, we as dancers are all instruments or notes that the teacher / choreographer (or the conductor, if this was an orchestra) would be arranging in a way that would make the group dynamic feel exciting and entertaining to watch. I’m sure that doesn’t differ from whether you are performing professionally or as an amateur. Staging is such a subjective process but what makes dance so difficult is that the level of consistency in your performance will influence confidence in the choreographer. The stronger and more stable, more interesting a dancer you are, the choreographer is likely to choose you to lead the pack or certain key roles. It’s just how it is.

That said, while professionals fight to be accepted into a company or a production by going through the gauntlet of auditions (thus filtering the less strong dancers and ultimately getting PAID to perform), the students PAY to participate in these showcases. So with the price tag comes a certain expectation for the time and money invested. One may come to “expect” a certain level of treatment from the choreographer and it will feel like a let down when you are positioned in an order that is different from where you expected you should be. Again, this may have nothing to do with the your level of dance – the teacher could be looking at you as a certain tone or color, which may work in a place you least expected. That should not imply how you are as a dancer, but as amateur performers, the interpretation can easily turn into a personal one.

In these group settings, deep into the rehearsal after the staging has been done, you can sometimes FEEL the tension vibrating amongst the unhappy dancers like a ominous low hum. It’s easy to be drawn into their darkness, but the only way to get through it is to just simply focus on doing your own damn best and keep in line with music and steps with the rest of the group. If you end up being in the smaller group or even given a solo to dance? Fantastic. You now have the responsibility to be consistently GREAT now that you are given that part.

IS ATTENDING REHEARSALS OPTIONAL?
Another thing about open level student showcases is that we are given roughly 2 months to learn and rehearse the choreography for the show. You would think 2 months (once or twice a week) would be a pretty good time spent on learning a single 3 minute piece to music. Obviously if you were a professional you would be handling 4 – 5 (maybe more?) different pieces to learn and rehearse on a DAILY basis before it is put on stage. Probably practicing for months with careful detailing and constant notes.

With a large group of students, what’s curious is that some individuals feel it’s OKAY to miss a few rehearsals. Some meander into the studio half way through the rehearsal. Missing members from a group section causes havoc when trying to coordinate unity and composition. You just can’t simply dance around someone who is not there and it is unpredictable how they will space themselves during the dance. To boot, they won’t fully remember the new section so collisions could easily happen.

Some of those who openly miss rehearsals casually ask other members to show what they had missed that day. If you are a skilled dancer, catching up on steps isn’t such an issue. But if I may reiterate… we have novices who openly miss rehearsals. Getting them up to speed on a large missing section is like assisting a new climber up Mount Everest. You may never get there in time before the storm hits. In one rehearsal, a guy showed up 15 minutes before we finished for the night. When the teacher asked his students for questions after the rehearsals wrapped up, the kid raised his hand and said (in front of everyone)

“Yes. I need someone to teach me EVERYTHING up to this point”

Mind you… he said this after we had already learned 80% of the piece.

WHAT… THE HELL ?

If there was a cannon and this guy was to be the ball, I’m sure his ass would have been jettisoned out of it so far it would’ve reached Alaska. Granted this was the same individual who tapped me on my shoulder right before going out on stage, asking me if he was going out with the second group.

I wanted roll my eyes and say:

“How the BLOODY FUCK should I know?”

but instead I kept my calm and replied with a shrug, “I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention to your part”.

THE (STAGE) WINGS

Interesting part about a piece that uses a lot of exit and entries from wings is the traffic. First of all, you need to remember that the audience from the side can see you if you stand too close to the edge of the wings. In one performance, our teacher told us that he could see some of us standing there like toy soldiers, waiting for our cue to come out. Watching the videos after, some dancers looked like they were Pez candies, waiting to be popped out  😀

Then there is the dynamics of groups or individuals coming out while others are going in – from the same entrance. During one performance, we were hit by a severe storm that shut down the city on the day of our show, hence also forcing a schedule change for performance dates. Because most of us have day jobs, the schedule change made some dancers unable to attend one, if not both dates. That made for an interesting impromptu change of plans on stage.

On one day we had one half of the group perform. Then the next day it was the other set that came on. It wasn’t really made clear who would be on stage that day and who was not. Again, may I remind you that we are NOT professionals and since some have decided that they did not need to be in all of the rehearsals, we had huge odds stacked up against us. No pun intended, but we were totally “winging” the performance. Our first performance – for what it was worth – went “okay”. No collisions, though a few individuals blanked out on stage because some of their team mates were missing. However, when my group was about to step out, we suddenly found ourselves facing a cluster of other dancers coming towards us. They should’ve been exiting on the entrance next to us but somehow, someone decided our wing was better to exit. How we did not have a massive collision was a complete miracle.

The space beyond the wings for this particular stage was also incredibly tight. You can barely fit one line of adult dancers standing flat against the wall. During the tech rehearsals there were a few dancers who literally pushed the wings aside like curtains to get past others, which of course…. would totally be visible from the audience.

Most importantly…. we were fully warned by our teachers and the show director that under we should NEVER  – any circumstances – EVER TOUCH THE WINGS.

Of course, during this hot mess of a performance and on the second to last show – yours truly – hits the mother of all jackpot.

Not only were my group crossing diagonally across the stage while facing the opposite direction to where we’re going, but we also had another line come out behind us from the other side. Due to the sudden changing of the guards, the number of dancers and their positions shifted from the day before, so my group leader had to accommodate the angle to which we were crossing. So as I was about to turn to exit the stage, I suddenly found myself karate-chopping the wings, to which my teacher/choreographer (who happened to be standing right there), looked at me in sheer horror and squealed in a desperate whisper:

“OH MY GOD!!! YOU CRASHED INTO THE CURTAIN!!!” 

But that my crime didn’t stop there.

In my moment of shock and horror, somehow the rod that was holding the wings down got caught in my legs (how did this happen????) and it took me a few seconds – that felt like an eternity – to get that damn thing untangled. My teacher’s eyes bulged larger and he frantically hisses:

“OH MY GOOODDD!!!! YOU’RE TAKING THE CURTAIN DOWN WITH YOU!!!!”

I still laugh to this day when I look back at that performance but it only shows that when I screw up, I COMMIT, dammit.



…AND THEN THERE IS THE MATTER OF COSTUMES 

Costume is always the last thing that we end up scrambling to get before the show. It’s been my observation that most of the pieces out there (hip hop, jazz, funky) have been one of the following:

– whatever bright colored street attire (usually cheapest)
– a simple colored t-shirt or tank top
– black jazz pants or shorts
– sleezy black sexy out fit that resembles an 80’s hooker fashion with black leather boots

Of course this all depends on the teacher who decides the wardrobe but it’s been a common experience for me where I’ve found myself scrambling through shelves and bargain bins looking for the cheapest, usually out of season or size clothes that you know you will NEVER wear after the performance is done. You end up buying a few pieces because you can’t make up your mind.

Every time this happens I ask myself how I ever get myself into this situation. For one show I remember having to hit 15 bargain stores at closing time, desperately trying to find bright colored, short sleeved hooded t-shirt that have a zipper in front. Might I also mention that we were already in fall season and there was little to no chance of finding a specific top that was very specific in color and style. I was cursing bloody murder of the person in charge of costume, for insisting this incredibly ridiculous request.

God knows how many F-bombs have been dropped while desperately crawling between racks and shelves of bargain clothes.

Of course… if you are lucky you may get a specific kind of costume (usually theater dance, smaller group ensembles) of which the fit would also be another issue to tackle. But at least they will not be street hooker clothes or “I’ve just been raped” ripped t-shirt look that make you look like Jennifer Beales from Flash Dance (the movie).

SO… WHY DO IT? 

Someone had asked me why I cared so much about dancing and why it mattered what level I was at as a dancer – why not just enjoy it as a hobby. For what it’s worth, I care because I love dance and I take the art seriously. Maybe too seriously, for my own good. Physically I would say I am the least fit body as a dancer and I would never have made it professionally even if I had the opportunity to start from a young age, but I would like to say I love dance as much as anyone pursuing it professionally, would. Hence I have incredible admiration for those who have made a career out of it and have been on stage with some of the most famous stars.

To me, each performance is a learning experience beyond the classroom. With each production you stack another layer of intuition and knowledge that can be used in many other fields other than dance. Yes, I sound romantic as I say this but truly I feel I’ve come a long way from that very first day I performed on stage (wearing a bumble bee costume my mother made for me). My ego’s in a better place lately, now that I’ve come to terms with my abilities and limitations as a dancer, but I chuckle at myself, looking back at the past. Even then I remember at the tender age of 6 years old I had felt I should’ve played a Lion instead of a stupid bumble bee, buzzing around on stage like an idiot, LOL. If I remember correctly, I think the school production was Noah’s Ark. I didn’t even realize at the time that that was my first stage performance.

What can I say? I love dancing. I just can’t call it a hobby. It’s a life long passion.

Little (Dancing Godzilla) Reiko and the (still need to lose 5lbs) Turkey.

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