Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Company that is Moving in Many Ways

There are a lot of dance schools around that show off by filling their front windows with trophies and championship photos of sparkle, sequin and stage make up festooned girls.

I don’t think any of the dancers in those pictures won anything nearly as important as what the members of Danceworks’ Moving Company received.

One of the main reasons we chose Danceworks for our daughter was knowing, through family history, that their main focus was on the technique and artistry of dancing, not competing.

I'm about as far from a dance expert as you can get, but "practicing dance for the competition" always seemed to me like the way schools are now focused on "teaching material to the standardized test.” 

It misses the whole point of what the students should be getting out of the learning experience in the first place.

Yes, quantifiable ranking systems have their merits, but I tend to inhabit the camp of thinking the artistic expression itself is the important part, as compared to sports like competitiveness.

I knew about the school’s “traveling team” called the Moving Company before our daughter was old enough to join it.  However, being a Dad instead of a Mom I had no idea what it was about. 

I figured since I saw them at local parades and street festivals with other dance schools, there might be venues similar to those schools’ competitive meets.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Almost all of the performances were in local retirement homes, assisted care living places, and rehabilitation centers.  The Moving Company brought their talents to those who were incapable of going out and attending shows on their own.

I watched the audience at each performance and could see the joy and involvement on the crowd's faces that the dancers and singers were bringing to them. 

Of course, in some locations, there were one or two who would audibly voice they had expected more.  The allowance to be loud and rude in public is an earned perk of reaching a certain age, however, and since it was only a tiny minority it worked more as an amusing tension breaker than a direct insult.

A vast majority of all of the audiences were fully invested in the show, often clapping and in many cases singing along.

What the Moving Company performers got from generating and seeing those reactions will be far more rewarding and valuable in their future lives than any plastic trophy.

You also gotta love the feistiness of the elderly audiences.

Sure, they were more likely to sing along to old standards like "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "Sisters Two by Two."

But I think the number that got the most of them dancing in their wheelchairs was "What Does the Fox Say?"

My wife needed knee surgery at the start of the season, leaving me to take our daughter to most of the appearances.  She only signed up for one number since it was her first year.  I will admit that I brought a book to the initial few shows, expecting to read during the rest of the acts.

I ended up getting drawn in and watching the full performance each time.  Though it may cause me to give up my “Guy Card” I am looking forward to doing the same next season.  

(In an attempt to retain my "Guy Card": even though I have now gained an appreciation for modern dance, I will continue to refer to it as "artsy fartsy" to prove I still have the sense of humor of a six year old.)

My full attention being captured repeatedly by the show, again, comes back to the different mind sets of dance. These weren’t numbers designed for showing off specific requirements for a competition; they were designed for the entertainment value of a performance.

I’ve seen and attempted enough dance to understand what I witnessed, but not enough to speak in the proper terms and phrases required. I can explain it better with a comparison to skills I have more experience with.

1) It is like the difference between “Juggler Tricks” and “Audience Tricks.”

Juggler Tricks are highly technical, usually are harder than they look to an untrained eye, and require knowledge of the art and requirements to truly appreciate them.

Audience Tricks usually have a “wow factor.” They are not as restrained by technical requirements as Juggler Tricks; require more emotional connection with the crowd, and use and understanding of showmanship to add flair.  

I believe portraying and transmitting feelings should be far more critical to the quality of dance than juggling.

2) It is also similar to the difference between competitive fencing and stage sword fighting. 

While the former requires skill level in the specifics of formalized fencing and is needed to win duels, the latter requires additional abilities along with the basic knowledge, plus the knack to play to an audience. 
When done correctly, stage fighting is a heck of a lot more fun to watch.

Enough with ridiculous analogies.

The point is: these young women were using their natural and practiced gifts and abilities to bring the happiness and wonder connected with live entertainment to those who would otherwise have little or no access to it.

Having it be mixed performance groups instead of competitive tiers also made it a more valuable learning experience for the dancers (and guest singers) as well. 

OK one more ridiculous analogy: it’s like fencing bouts against better and more experienced opponents. 

While there’s less chance of “prize winning” there is a vast amount of more knowledge to be gained.

This does not mean that their technical skills were in any way substandard. Trust me, there were many dancing equivalents of "Juggler Tricks" in the routines.  Even after seeing most performances of the season, there were still moments during the Senior Company routines where I found myself thinking, "I have no idea what the heck that move was, but if I ever attempted it, I'd be in traction for weeks."

Also,  I was flabbergasted at how few of that group were named as graduating seniors at the final performance.  My reaction to learning some of the dancers were younger than I thought was extremely honest, if not necessarily as classy as their artistic displays:

“HOLY CRAP! You mean they’re going to get even BETTER next year?”

One of my favorite parts of the experience was how amazing it was to see the performers' comfort, confidence and stage presence grow each week.

My sister and I always said, “You can’t teach ‘TA-DA!’”  But being able to practice, and more importantly perform in front of a crowd with others to whom it came more naturally helped all the dancers unlock their own inner “TA-DA!”

These wonderful opportunities for both performers and audiences couldn’t exist without “Miss Chris,” owner of Danceworks, and Field Commander of the Moving Company.  As always, she was backed up by her SUPPORT staff consisting of relatives, former dancers, and combinations of the two.  Of course, another key element is the group of teachers/choreographers who instill a strong work ethic, appreciation for the craft of dancing and a belief of giving back to the community into the students.  The dancers themselves obviously take this to heart, most strongly evidenced in 2005 when the troupe sponsored their own Katrina benefit.

Don’t be fooled by the compassionate objectives of the company, though. There was an adamantine will making sure no roadblock stood in the way of the connection between her artists and their audience.  Having stumbled through the occasional solo juggling gig in venues that were completely unprepared and inappropriate for a juggler barely keeping my sanity and fingers intact, I have no idea how she kept it together and pulled off a season with an entire squad of performers.

Places with no sound system, an utter lack of backstage area, or with the audience set up facing the wrong way didn’t slow her down in the least.  Somehow she figured out how to make singers in echo filled lobbies, tap dancers on carpeting and en pointe ballerinas on slippery tiles come off without a hitch. 

There was never a moment during any show where she didn’t externally appear to be in total control of the surroundings and proceedings. 

The only semi- exception to that was if her daughters were dancing, when she would visibly transform from “Focused Commander” to “Doting Mom,” and back again in time to get the next act on. (The pride on her face remained constant throughout the show.) This was one of the other most entertaining, and also heartwarming aspects of repeated viewing.

“Miss Chris” has fostered the atmosphere of a troupe that’s main function is community service based, and focuses on growing performance ability over competition.

I have explained my definition of a dancer before as:

“Anyone learning to dance can put their limbs where they should go at the proper beats of the music, but only a DANCER makes it look like they were supposed to be there in the first place.”

Similarly someone learning to perform can execute the show flawlessly and be entertaining, but if they run into another member will become all flustered and embarrassed. Only a PERFORMER can twirl out of the collision, keep going as if it was all part of the routine, and laugh it off.

If there is any doubt of the professionalism and PERFORMER qualities of the Moving Company, I offer the following example.

One venue featured polished tiles that, in addition to slippage, any time a ballet or jazz shoe clad foot twisted on it at all released a sound like passing gas.  The only reaction any of the performers showed were occasional quiet giggles or smirking side glances to one another as they crossed paths in the routines.  I was exceedingly relieved that the parents were only allowed in the back of the room, behind the intended audience. 
It reduced the chance of them seeing me fall out of my chair laughing and ruining their concentration.

I am extremely thrilled and proud that my daughter immediately knew she wanted to continue in an expanded role as part of the Moving Company in future years, because of what she will learn and experience by earning a connection to such a special group. 

She will be bringing the joy and interaction that only comes from live, artistic entertainment to people who surely need and appreciate it, while increasing her abilities and confidence as a dancer and performer.


Anonymous said...

Kudos to Annabelle! God Bless her. One day she is going to make us all proud of her as she dances to the likes of Ginger, J-Lo,
Shakira and Grandma Theresa!
As a teacher I have to agree with you 100% when you said: "I'm about as far from a dance expert as you can get, but "practicing dance for the competition" always seemed to me like the way schools are now focused on "teaching material to the standardized test.”
That is truly one of the biggest problems with public education today. On top of that our elected crooks and liars (better known as politician) want teachers salaries to be equal to their students achievements thus forcing teachers to "teach to the test." When this "teaching to the test" started during the Reagan "merit pay" administration I can remember my Principal explaining this to all the teachers during a mandatory faculty meeting.
One of the senior female teachers whom was loved by all her colleagues stood up and asked the Principal. "Do you mean my pay is going to be determined by students who come late everyday, don't do their homework, have parents who never respond to a requested parent teacher student conference and when they are in my class most of the times they are disruptive, stoned or sleeping? And the Principal said resoundingly "YES BETTY." To which Betty responded "Then the next time we have standardized diagnostic testing I'm going to write all the answers on the GOD DAMN board!" To which the entire faculty stood up and gave her a standing ovation. The Principal clapped too.
Sorry Jeff, didn't mean to run off on a tangent but, I just had to respond in agreement with your comment.
Once again, enjoyed the blog today as always.
Cousin Michael (aka: 3 left feet)

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx for reading and weighing in Mike.

There was a great analogy for this comparing what it would be like to rate and pay dentists the same way. Sadly I am too tired from multiple hours per day of snow shoveling to look it up for you at the moment.

thanx again.

Antonia said...

Loved this one!! Hooray for good news!

Jeff McGinley said...

Many thanx for reading and posting, Antonia.

I can only do little spurts of important emotional topics though, the world needs your blog back!