The Modern Mode
September 1, 2008

Former Paul Taylor Dance Company member Heather Berest admits to having had an addiction to Graham technique in her youth. “I got hooked,” she says of the style she studied at New York City’s Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. “I was such a melodramatic teenager. I was moody and emotional and felt I could sob with my body in those classes.”

Retired from PTDC, Berest now teaches modern to teens at Berest Dance Center, the Long Island, New York, studio founded by her mother, Olga Berest. “Teens need so much guidance and counsel, and modern is the most appropriate genre of dance to bring them through those years,” says Heather. “But it’s hard to get them there.” Even with Heather’s status and experience, she must contend with mainstream genres like hip hop, jazz and ballet, as well as a general misunderstanding of the nature of modern dance.

While the task is challenging, you may find, like Heather, that the pleasure of expanding students’ understanding of the dance world and helping them get in touch with their inner landscape outweigh the difficulties. Before you decide to introduce modern into your studio, though, it’s important to know what to expect.

Knowing the Obstacles

Modern is arguably one of the most inaccessible dance forms. If you live anywhere other than a major city, chances are you have few opportunities to expose students to the genre. Even when venerable modern companies come to town, dancers with limited exposure may not understand what they’re watching. Olga recalls the reaction of one student during a PTDC performance: “The girl had never seen modern before, and said it looked like bad ballet. She just saw parallel positions, with bodies that were not turned out.”

Experts suggest that this lack of understanding has contributed to the scarcity of modern classes in studios across the U.S. However, as more college dance programs include modern in their auditions, the need for this genre in dance studios has increased.

There is no easy solution. “I don’t want to discourage anyone from pursuing modern, because it’s an incredibly beautiful and important craft, but it’s not an easy dream to achieve as far as having modern in a dance studio for children,” says Heather. “Modern is based on breath and discovering how your body moves rather than on a visual aesthetic. You need to be more mature to have an interest in figuring out how your body moves, how your body feels.”

While the individuality of modern is what makes the genre special, it is also the biggest deterrent for self-conscious teens. “Many teens and preteens are insecure when it comes to really investigating how their body works,” explains Heather. “It’s much safer, say in a ballet class, to copy a shape. Your vulnerability isn’t on the line. Somebody tells you this is what it looks like, and you do it.”

Creating Interest

To understand modern, students need to be exposed to it. “If you just slap it on the schedule, people might be like, ‘What’s that?’” says Eva Nichols, the director of education for the Mark Morris Dance Group. Introducing students to modern works, whether through live performances or DVDs, is a must.

Renata Celichowska, director of the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center, has seen firsthand, through the Y’s free performances, how exposure to an artform can influence children. “There’s something about not being afraid to ask kids to participate in watching real art and not watering it down for them,” she says. “Don’t worry about how they receive it. Let them have their own relationship with it. I think we’re getting to the point where we’re hand-holding the experience too much.”

Watching a modern performance is quite different from studying the dance form, so prior to launching a full-fledged program, consider a ballet repertory class by a choreographer who is also versed in modern. Ask him or her to throw in a few modern moves. “Filter it into their rep here and there and then say, ‘By the way, do you enjoy moving that way? This is modern,’” suggests Heather.

Once students realize they have the skills and that it’s fun, invite a master teacher from a professional company to teach a trial class or workshop. “You have to contact companies far in advance,” warns Olga, so start sending inquiries now for next summer.

Even if you’ve taken steps to educate your students about modern, you may still need to devote time to the parents, whose own lack of knowledge may cause them to bypass the class at registration. Nichols suggests holding an open house so you can talk to students and parents about what a modern class entails and the kinds of doors it opens for dancers. “It really is a commitment on the part of the studio owner,” says Celichowska.

Hiring Teachers

Once you have built significant interest, Celichowska suggests establishing program goals in order to discover what types of teachers you’ll need. For example, if you would like your dancers to eventually audition for contemporary companies, which require skills in ballet and modern, you’ll need an instructor who will emphasize technique and the history behind the particular style. However, if you want to focus on the fusion between technique and the creative process, recruit a teacher who can teach both improvisation and choreography.

If you go the guest-artist route, Celichowska advises approaching instructors with broader backgrounds to prepare students for a more varied professional environment. “There’s a generational shift with teaching modern, so we no longer have teachers who were trained in strict Limón, Cunningham, Graham, Hawkins, Nikolais technique,” she explains. “Teachers themselves have trained in a fusion of so many styles.”

Appealing to All Ages

While modern can be an elusive technique for young dancers, if you have students who are interested, let them enroll immediately. “Modern’s nice because it’s got technique, but it’s also creative,” says Nichols.

Creative dance can be used to expose children under age 6 to the genre. “The Graham principles of space, levels and shapes can be taught to any age,” says Olga. “From these basic elements, modern dance can develop because students are used to the techniques used in all forms of modern dance.”  
Improvisation and modern technique fundamentals can be introduced as young as age 6. At Berest Dance Center, 6- to 8-year-olds take a class called “Create,” which teaches the essentials of improvisation using the aforementioned principles. “From there, children are encouraged to take ballet . . . then study the classic modern dance forms,” says Olga.

At Mark Morris Dance Center, students ages 8 and up learn the basics of composition. “We tack it on at the end of technique class for 8- to 10-year-olds, and it’s an hour and 15 minutes,” says Nichols. “For teens, it’s an hour and a half, with half technique, half composition.”
According to Celichowska, the type of school may also determine the age for beginning modern. “In a conservatory, I would introduce modern at age 10 or 11 and pair it with ballet,” she says. “If it was a neighborhood studio, I would start with modern basics at age 6 or 7.”

Despite the many benefits of studying modern, the classes will never bring in the number of students that idioms such as jazz and hip hop do. The reality is that establishing a modern dance program means risking running each class at a financial loss. “You talk to any school and they will tell you . . . modern is not a moneymaker,” says Olga.

Even so, exposing your students to a genre that delves deeper than the aesthetic is priceless. “It’s important to teach modern to young dancers, because it helps them get in touch with themselves,” says Heather. “It also lets them know there’s a place for them in the dance world. You don’t have to have 180-degree turnout. You don’t have to have a développé up to the ear. The feeling you had when you were 7 years old, flying around the room, spinning carefree—that’s what you should feel like when you’re dancing.”  DT

Sara Jarrett is a writer based in NYC.

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