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Ballet Talk for Dancers

"Shy" dancer ... how to help as a parent?


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My daughter will be 14 later this summer and has danced since she was 4. Her forte is ballet and she enjoys it immensely. We've been told by her teachers at her studio and at the SI she attended last summer that she has a "gift" and has great potential. We actually auditioned at another studio earlier this week (scheduling reasons; nothing wrong with current home studio) and the artistic director was very interested in having her join, again using words like "gifted" and "untapped potential." I'm not sure if everyone is being overly complimentary, but as a parent, I can't help but feel proud of my little girl.


So here's our situation - my daughter is quite shy when it comes to her dancing. Her teachers have encouraged her to express emotions more freely, to be more passionate, and to use her upper body more to "communicate" with her audience. She knows what she should do, but she feels very self-conscious about doing it. Thus, at times, watching her dance is almost like watching her go through an exercise set. Her movements and placements are perfect, from what I hear, but she just lack that extra little "oomph" to really draw the audience in. Her teachers have commented on her grace and natural flexibility, but it's not coming across when she performs. Is there anything that I, as a parent, can do to encourage her to loosen up some more when she's dancing? Any other parents experienced similar with their children? Is this also a natural "gift" in dancers and, if someone doesn't have it, it really can't be taught?


Thank you!



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Sometimes the ability to express and perform is a "gift", but if it isn't, it can be developed. Many young teens are shy, and it can take a while for them the loosen up and allow their feelings to show. Sometimes it is a matter of confidence, whether it is confidence in their technique or just in themselves, or both. Hopefully, the right teachers will be able to bring her out as she matures a bit. :)

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Sometimes it is a matter of confidence, whether it is confidence in their technique or just in themselves, or both.


So true! I read this earlier this morning and came back to it. I had been thinking the answer was maturity, but it is a little more than that as Ms. Leigh so eloquently explained.


I had a conversation not long ago with my dancer. She was one of those who seemed to have a natural gift for expression from the beginning. Her technique, however, was not comparable. As her technique improved, that expressive quality in her dance dissipated and eventually nearly disappeared. I noticed that if she was somewhere when she thought no one was watching (dancing some variations with a friend for fun in an empty studio while waiting for me to finish up my business for example), she had a completely different quality. It turns out she was afraid she'd lose that hard earned technique if she let go. She needed both the confidence in her technique and a return to confidence in herself to get that "X" factor back.

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Huangichen, since you have several teachers, from several different programs, complimenting your daughter, I think it's safe to accept it on face value and feel rightfully proud of your daughter's potential. At this stage, it's unclear whether she's going through a teenage phase of wanting to be like everyone else in how she expresses herself and not stand out, or whether she's one of those ballet students who is drawn to ballet for its precision, compared to its ability to express something that can't be done any other way. As the mother of a professional dancer who has needed dance to express herself since she was tiny, I've been known to call her "gift" a curse on many an occasion. This is not a means of communication that comes cheap and can be done easily in one's house, after all. (Not to mention all the other hardships.)


Therefore, I'd like to underscore something that Miss Leigh said, above. Yes, the ability to express through dance can be developed, but with the right teachers. For us parents, our job is not to encourage our children to express themselves in specified ways, but to help them to find their "voice" and their favorite means of communication, whatever that may be.


I loved arts & crafts as a child and my mother, a watercolor artist, encouraged me every step of the way, making me think that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. In 11th grade, I switched to the visual arts "track," taking a double period of art each day that was dedicated to preparing a portfolio for college admission. That's when I heard over and over from my art teacher about the need to "SAY SOMETHING!" in my pieces. I discovered that I didn't have anything to say via paints, pastels, charcoal and clay. I became a psychology major in college. However, I'm very thankful for the opportunity to have studied art and for a teacher who helped me to appreciate the "messages" I can find in art. I also developed a much more humble appreciation for what goes into producing art.


Looking back at my mother's body of work, I don't really find any messages. I think she was great at technique, but her still-lifes were lifeless and her landscapes were just pretty. She never spoke to me about communicating through her art.


So that is my advice to you: TALK about art! Go to museums and observe how each piece "draws you in" (where do your eyes go?), listen to music and think about how it moves you, and by all means, attend professional dance performances and discuss all the dynamics of the piece beyond the amazing technique. Help open your daughter's mind to communication through all the arts. Re-watch movies to review the acting, read favorite parts of books out loud... you get the idea. If your daughter is an artist, she will find inspiration from everywhere. If she's not, well... she'll certainly be richer all around for having studied it.

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Guest Missmary

This is a very interesting conversation. In the years when I was coaching and choreographing for high level gymnasts, I observed over time that the gymnasts with the greatest facility for developing high level skills that were technically superb often were the ones that lacked artistic expression. I would guess that only 20% had both artistry/musicality and technical facility in equal measure. I was curious about this observation, and came to attribute this as a sort of "perfectionism" that served them very well in developing technical facility, but blocked them in developing artistic expression - it seemed that these gymnasts had no well of imagination to draw from. They excelled at imitating the exactness of technique, but something froze when I brought a selection of possible music for them to listen to, and asked them to just improvise and MOVE with the music. There was marked contrast between those who were invigorated by the opportunity to move spontaneously with music - and those who seemed frozen without a "script" to follow.


During this period, by chance I came to know Jimmy Jam (Harris) - in the year before he broke into the big time music scene. The parents of one of our gymnasts owned the nightclub where Jimmy was working as a DJ, and it had suddenly closed because of a fire. He was looking for a job, and the owners approached me to ask if I might want Jimmy to cut some music for our gymnasts. Jimmy began this process by coming into the gym and observing the gymnasts moving to music, and then went to the recording studio of a friend, and just started cutting and layering music with bits and pieces of music from different genres, sound effects - Jimmy was already an incredibly gifted musician, and was curious and excited about this opportunity. In his very laid back way, he somehow communicated to them that there wasn't any right or wrong way of feeling, and that he wanted to help them find the right music that would allow them to just let it out. It was an incredible experience for most of our gymnasts as if it unblocked them. A year later, Jimmy opened for Prince, and the rest is history. (As an aside, if I had known where Jimmy was going with his career, I would have saved all my tapes of the incredible custom music he created for our gymnasts!)


After this period, I added improvisation as a regular part of our training. We used both music that I selected, and music that the students selected. We treated it as a fun class - very relaxed, lots of laughter, spontaneous duets, no right or wrong. No corrections, suggestions or critique. It made a big difference for many of the students, in terms of developing musicality and artistic expression. There were a few who couldn't let go of needing to know what they should do, what was the "right" thing to do. They dreaded this class.


My DgD's studio has a choreography "contest" leading up the Spring Show every year, and all students are encouraged to participate in creating and auditioning a piece of original choreography. Although some jump at the opportunity, some don't. It seems to me that some dancers find their comfort zone in "knowing what the rules are", and excel technically in that environment, as in dancers who have a superior work effort and develop superb technique - but don't seem to be able to tap into their artistic side. Perhaps that artistic reservoir has not been filled through broad exposure to music, literature, theater - so when they tap in, there is less to draw from. Or perhaps the perfectionism that serves them well technically, inhibits their ability to express themselves artistically.

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  • 1 month later...



my dd also struggles in this area. I have recently ordered a book called

Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance, hoping to help her.
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I purchased this book "Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance" by Eric Franklin a couple of weeks ago for DD. it has wonderful descriptions and illustrations for imagery and approaches dance from a different perspective. I feel it would help an imaginative visual spatial learner to improve both their technique and performance. Haven't had DD's feedback yet and I suspect she has not read it as she has been overwhelmed with school work.

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Does your daughter take a modern or contemporary class? My dd had a lot of artistic expression when she was young but lost it as she began to focus more and more on her technique. Her ballet teachers told her to just dance because she has the technique but when she did that she would receive a lot of corrections on her technique and would just get frustrated. Having her take a contemporary class helped a lot because she could just dance and not worry about technique or getting corrections on it. Slowly that feeling transferred over to her ballet dancing. She is much more confident and less of a perfectionist now. Besides it is good to be versitile :-)

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