When Martha Graham taught class at the American Dance Festival in the 1950s, she often gave an exercise with contractions and releases—but no counts. “Instead, she would have students imagine they were sand diviners trying to foresee the future,” says Marnie Wood, director emerita of the Martha Graham School and co-founder of the University of California, Berkeley, dance program. “She asked them to reach out as if they were trying to find answers, come up with nothing and reach out again.” Graham used imagery to inspire movement and encouraged dancers to draw from personal experiences. This method, she believed, helped dancers find their own language.
In today’s dance world, where so much emphasis is placed on technique and athleticism, it’s easy for dancers to lose their voices—or not find them at all. A lack of self-expression can lead to robotic movement and flat, lifeless dancing. But teachers can help students develop a unique approach within the frame of technique. Here are seven ways to inspire individuality in students of all styles of dance, from ballet to hip hop.
Nurture enthusiasm. When dancers love what they do, it shows. Rafael Grigorian, founder and director of Rafael Grigorian School of Ballet in New York, tries to foster happiness and excitement in his youngest students. “With students as young as 6, I don’t want to scare them in advance with very hard, demanding classes,” says Grigorian. “They learn simple steps and have fun. Then, by age 8 or 9, they’re ready for more discipline and start to understand what they have to do to further achieve that happiness.” Students shouldn’t stop using their imaginations, either, when they graduate from creative movement classes to more structured, technical lessons.
Encourage ownership. Young dancers at the Graham School take ownership of their dancing with a simple, seated exercise, sometimes done at the start of classes. “They hold their arms in first position, then put them in fifth overhead and say the words, ‘my name,'” explains Wood. “When they open their arms to second position, they say their name. Finally, they bring their arms down and say, ‘So be it.’ Children reveal themselves, say who they are and let it stand.” The purpose of this exercise is for students to articulate themselves verbally and physically, establish their identity and learn that dance isn’t all about imitating the teacher.
Include improvisation. Dancers who create movement of their own gain a deeper understanding of how their bodies move, what feels good to them and how they can best express themselves. In a style of dance like hip hop, improvisation is key. “If you’re going to be a hip-hop dancer, you have to know how to freestyle,” says Tanji Harper, instructor at the American Rhythm Center and artistic director of The Happiness Club in Chicago. “It’s creating movement off the top of your head and just freely dancing. You have to have an individual style.” She has her students freestyle before and after a combination so they discover their own way to move. Harper says the biggest part of her job is to help students find their individual voices: “They have to, if they want to dance professionally. It will be part of their job.”
Develop stage presence. Harper says that personality in dance is part confidence, part vocabulary and part showmanship. Facial expression is an important factor in that equation. “Have you ever seen a student who has it all in their body and nothing in the face? There’s no story being told,” she says. “That’s another level I like to develop: stage presence. I’m not training army dancers.”
Photo by Brigid Pierce, courtesy of the Martha Graham School
Champion Observation. Sometimes dancers need to get out of the mirror to find themselves. Encourage them to watch other dancers at the studio, in performance and even online. “Who touches their heart the most?” asks Grigorian. “When they find someone they love, it gives them the opportunity to recognize themselves.” He will ask students what they like about certain dancers and what inspires them, in an effort to better understand his dancers and help them develop as artists. “They cannot give the best of themselves if they can’t find themselves,” he says. “When it happens, something inside of them starts to explode.”
Introduce outside inspiration. Grigorian will ask students to visit a library or museum and look for art that speaks to them. The dancers then bring a story or painting back, and he creates an exhibit of this artwork on his studio walls. “After this,” he says, “I notice that they start to do class a little differently.”
Shuffle your faculty. Studying with a different teacher can also inspire a new approach to movement and help students learn more about themselves. Harper encourages students to take classes from many teachers, in many styles of dance, to become versatile and well-rounded. “They need to work with other people to gain confidence and build their vocabulary,” she says. “It will help them find their individual swag, star quality and way of doing what they’re doing.”