Al Blackstone only recently found his true stride in the dance world. Growing up taking class at his parents’ studio and going to competitions, he loved nothing more than performing. But now, whether he’s teaching a room full of professional-level dancers in New York City, a group of kids at a convention or at the Dance Teacher Summit, his true passion is sharing his process of creating and clever choreography with students and other teachers around the country.
Here, he talks about his teaching style and what he’s coined the “ugly dance.”
Dance Teacher: What did winning the Capezio A.C.E. Award in 2011 mean to you?
Al Blackstone: At that point I didn’t even know that I wanted to be a choreographer. I was still performing in Wicked on Broadway, and winning the award completely changed my life. I would’ve never developed the voice I have now—or even known I’d had one—if I hadn’t choreographed “Brown Eyed Girl.” I hadn’t choreographed a piece longer than three minutes, and I had to make a piece that was five minutes. I wanted to push myself, so I took a chance. It was the first piece I’d done that was comedic and had a beginning, middle and end. It was a huge learning experience. And then when I won, I had to create an entire hour-and-a-half-long show. From when I won the award to a year later when I presented my show, I would’ve never grown that rapidly or known I could do it. I wouldn’t have had a career as a choreographer if it weren’t for the A.C.E. Awards.
Blackstone at Dance Teacher Summit. Photo courtesy of DTS.
DT: Are there any specific exercises or teaching techniques you use?
AB: In my warm-up I have everyone introduce themselves to someone they don’t know and have a conversation. I try to get students comfortable walking around the room, as opposed to doing a ballet or jazz walk, and make eye contact and connect to each other in the space. We also do a fun high-energy exercise to end the warm-up—step touches, ponies, jumping around the room, isolations and the ugly dance.
DT: The ugly dance?
AB: Basically looking as goofy and horrible as possible or improv for a count of eight. I find if you end the warm-up in a place where everyone is feeling positive on the same page, dancers will feel more comfortable and confident going into choreography. I think it’s important to create an atmosphere in class that feels safe and alive, so students can learn how to have fun, and that can be for any age.
Photo courtesy of DTS.
DT: How do you create choreography to fit the story you’re telling?
AB: As a person who judges competitions, complicated choreography can be thrilling, and there’s a place for it. The most important thing, for me, though, is to know what story I’m telling, and build the steps from there. If the steps become more important than the story, then 9 times out of 10 the story will get lost. If there’s a moment where a character is feeling very anxious, complicated choreography can work. You have to balance those moments with simplicity. A lot of choreography feels like shouting, and I want to move away from that.