Stages of Personal Practice

Perhaps it seems silly to talk about "how to practice," but I think there are some helpful methods that we tend to forget about when we are in the middle of a competitive season. Whether you're in that stage of "omg - there's so much to learn right now!" or "omg - we have to clean every count of the show before championships!" taking a little time to slow down and use these tactics in your practice can help your show overall. 

These 5 Stages of Personal Practice are simply my favorite methods for working through a section, and what I recommend to my students. Similar tactics can certainly be applied to instructing a small group or a full colorguard. 

For this exercise, pick ONE thing in your show. JUST ONE! Maybe it's a challenging toss, or your favorite 8 counts of the big flag feature. Limit it to only a few counts! For this example, I'm going to use a toss.

Stage 1. Visualization - Never underestimate the power of visualizing the choreography! Close your eyes and imagine yourself performing that toss perfectly. Slow it down in your mind's eye. Where is your release point? What does your body look like underneath the toss? How do you catch? What does it all feel like? 

Stage 2. Execute - Now, let's get the equipment in your hands. TAKE YOUR TIME! Apply everything you visualized in ONE toss. Did you execute it the way you visualized it? What adjustments can you make to get the next toss closer to that ideal visualization. Once you have thought about it, then reset and take one more toss. The point is, keep it slow, and keep thinking; it's the only way you can make corrections! One at a time! Never throw rapid-fire tosses when you're trying to fix technique!

Stage 3. Before and After - Let's give that toss some context. What choreography comes right before and right after it? You only need a couple counts in either direction. When you know what you'll be adding, take it slow, thinking through all your corrections from Stage 2. Again, take your time to reset, making sure to think through how to make your performance match your visualization. Strive for slow, controlled, consistent reps.

Stage 4. Full Phrase - Practice the full choreographic or musical phrase this time around (maybe all 16 counts?), still maintaining a slow tempo. Use the slower tempo to really lengthen through your body and maximize your expressive efforts (if you've got extra time, you can give it more drama!). Still strive for control and consistency, performing on par with your visualization.  

Stage 5. Show Tempo - Now, don't change anything except the speed. Keep everything as it was in Stage 4: consistent technique, expressive quality, control. Use a metronome or the show music and practice applying what you've learned. As you reset, take the time to think about what you want to change during the next rep and how best to achieve that.  

 

Not only will you notice a difference in the way you perform this phrase of your show, but you'll gain an increased awareness of technique and expressive qualities in other areas of your show. If you try this once a week with a different part of your show each time, you are guaranteed to see a dramatic difference in your overall performance abilities by the end of the season! 

Happy Practicing! 

Teaching the Triad

The Triad! It's the skill of doing three things at once: moving your body(dancing), manipulating equipment, and traveling through space(drill). As if dancing wasn't enough of a challenge, colorguard performers add spinning flags/rifles/sabres/etc on top of that, AND they move around in perfect formations while continuing to do the first two tasks! There is no doubt that guard is a workout for your brain as much as it is a workout for your body! It's because of this that I like to add exercises specifically designed to practice and develop triad skills into basic training.

If, during your first season of guard, you finally started to feel ok about doing drop-spins, angles, and tosses without hitting yourself or your neighbor, only to get out on the field or floor for your very first day of learning drill and realize "holy cow, I have to MOVE while I'm doing all this?!" you are not alone!  

In my own training, as is likely the case for many of you, dance, equipment, and marching/across the floors were all introduced as separate concepts.  We often seem to view the combination of the three as an advanced skill that must be reserved for those who have already mastered the individual parts.  However, at some point, we must practice dancing, spinning, and traveling through space all together. I propose that we start teaching triad skills from the very beginning. 

Of course, catering your training regiment to your specific group of performers is imperative, but there are myriad ways in which to inject a little triad into your rehearsal that will be helpful at ANY level of colorguard!

A high school marching band for which I taught some years ago, was just beginning their transition into the world of competitive marching (they had been exclusively a show band for football games and parades prior).  Their colorguard was used to a different style of choreography from my own, one that did not include dance. In an attempt to bridge the gap between their experience and mine, and to help them understand how to move in drill while spinning, I started teaching many of their flag exercises as across the floor exercises. They did a simple angle exercise with jazz walks, and chassés while keeping the pole flat and presented forward, focusing on their upper bodies.  We never once had a "dance" block during that season, but they moved well with their equipment regardless! When we got out on the field and started learning drill, they performed it beautifully with the flag choreography, and they enjoyed a successful first competitive season. 

I have used a different approach with many of my more experienced colorguards.  I like to spend time talking about alignment in dance block, making sure my performers have a good understanding of where their spines and centers are and from where they should initiate and support arm movements.  I like to remind them how this applies to any equipment that they might spin (arms initiating from spine and sternum, equipment as extension of the arm...).  I usually have at least a few dance exercises that can be paired with flag exercises so I can add that layer of training into their standard flag block (plie, tendu, rond de jambe, coupe, passe/retire, attitude...can all easily be applied to flag exercises)

There is also a box exercise that I like to use as a base for some movement training (yes, the same box that many of you probably already know), and it translates well to flag.  It moves sideways, and can be used as an across the floor exercise or done in one direction and immediately repeated to the other. I like the possibility of direction changes in this context.  I can ask the performers do a simple drop-spin exercise and add the box in variable numbers of sets to the left or right (i.e. right-handed drop-spins with 3 sets of the box to the right and 3 sets to the left), or add my own variation/flair to the movement and/or flag once the performers have mastered the basic version.  

At both the novice and advanced levels, I insist on alternating days to practice across the floors without equipment and across the floors with equipment. Adding directionality, jumps, turns, etc, can be an incredible boon in helping your students develop a more refined sense of planes, body facings, velocity changes, etc. 

By adding just a little bit or triad training each week, you'll notice a profound difference in your students' confidence and proficiency as they move and spin throughout their show! 

 

But You're Not a Rifle Person...

I find that many of us, at one point or another in our colorguard careers, have been told what we "are" or "aren't." The overall theme for me seemed to be "You are a dancer. You have skinny arms, so you can't be a rifle person." Even if it's something we hear only once or twice, perhaps from our instructors or peers or ourselves, a statement like that can stick with you.

At least for me, I always assumed I would be a B-line rifle at best, would automatically get picked for the dance line instead of a weapon, and would live out a sad existence struggling to throw big tosses forever. I have encountered plenty of small performers who were convinced that they would have to work harder to make it onto a weapon line, numerous boys who felt they only had value if they spun a weapon, and countless others who were convinced that they could never call themselves a dancer for one reason or another. 

Nonsense, I say!

You can be a small and formidable rifle. You can be a dancer with tight hamstrings. You can love spinning swing flag and still have the same value as someone on sabre. 

In my case, and in the case of so many others I have known over the years, we often limit ourselves in response to such hurtful ideas. I only recently decided that I wanted to train myself on rifle beyond an A Class skill level. Spoiler alert, it's going quite well! I already have skills and strength that I wish I had gained years ago. If only I hadn't worried so much about my skinny arms! Chances are, plenty of you have developed odd habits to compensate for your "deficits." Small performers often jump slightly off the floor when they throw. Many boys don't develop the expressive qualities of their female peers because they try to breeze through dance and flag training to get to the big weapons tosses. Some students who can't do splits hide in the back during dance block when they might otherwise flourish as great performers. 

Do not limit yourself by what others say or think of you! Learn the technique, put in the hard work to practice effectively, and perform passionately! 

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. -Eleanor Roosevelt

Point Your Toes!

This post is dedicated to every student I have encountered over the years who innocently asked "should my toes be pointed here?" to every instructor who is ready to pull their hair out because their students cannot seem to grasp the simple concept of "point your feet!" and to every judge whose commentary has included something like "let's make sure everyone is pointing their toes here." 

To me, the whole concept of "point your toes" may be equated to nails down a chalkboard. It focuses on one tiny detail while ignoring the greater issue. Teaching by yelling "point your toes" is like attempting to treat a minor symptom while simultaneously refusing to treat the underlying illness. 

So let's diagnose the big problem: a lack of understanding of extension and line. My first priority when working with a new group, is helping them find ways to feel their center. I like to do some Pilates-style exercises in my warm-ups to activate the correct muscles. When we begin dancing we can remember what it was like to use those muscles. As we perform technique exercises, my focus is to get the students to think about their center as the source of their energy, and to extend that energy out through their extremities. 

I love to use imagery for this type of extension. The basic idea is to think of your center as some type of reservoir for a substance. As you extend outward, you can shoot that substance out your fingers and toes. I've used images like lasers, water guns, chocolate pudding, glitter, paint, etc. For example, to perform a dégagé, I might say, "load your glitter cannon, and shoot that glitter down the length of your leg, through your toes and out in front of you."

I hope you'll notice a few key elements to this type of imagery: it begins by activating the center, it extends down the full length of the limb, and the energy extends past the end of the extremities and out into space.

In recent years, I have made it a priority to teach exercises that explicitly explore such imagery and the proprioceptive qualities it invokes (ie reinforcing an understanding how your body feels when you extend). I'll do this with warm ups that look similar to port de bras exercises or simple lunges, motivating the kids to reach further, extend more, shoot glitter farther. 

You may also notice that there are certain buzzwords of which I am particularly fond. "Extend," "reach," and "lengthen" are some of my favorite terms to describe the movement I'm teaching, or to provide guidance and correction. Terms and phrases that I make a point to not use in my rehearsals? "Point your toes," of course. I'm also not very fond of anyone yelling "perform!" at the kids, especially without ensuring that the students first have the information they need to understand what it means to "perform." I'll reserve my commentary on developing a character (and subsequently exploring the emotional element of performance) for another post. "Performing" with your body, however, can often be sufficiently explored in the exercises and images I have described above. As an alternative to "perform!" I like to use more specific commentary on how to fix the problem. "Reach more with your arms," "maintain a lifted spine through that sequence," or "slow your body and take all the counts to extend through that phrase." Each comment gives the student a specific action they can take to improve their performance. 

I encourage all of you, as performers or instructors, to resist the urge to think of the foot as a thing that needs to be pointed independently. Instead, try to look at the bigger picture. Extend from the center down the line of the leg and push that energy out past the end of the foot. I'm certain you'll see an immediate change in the way you or your students move. 

Audition Tips

Because so many auditions are coming up in the next few weekends, I wanted to post some tips to help you make the best of your audition. Here are a few items that always worked well for me when I was auditioning, and some things that I look for when auditioning prospective members for one of my ensembles.

Bring a good attitude! I love when someone comes to an audition and brings a positive ray of sunshine with them! If you present yourself as a hard worker, a team player, and as someone who can contribute an encouraging vibe to the whole ensemble, chances are I want you on my team!

Stand in front when you can. For many performers, standing in front of the block (especially at an audition), can be terrifying. You don't have to be the perfect example of every exercise or every count of choreography to stand in front, but it does mean the staff can see you more easily.  If they can see you, they are more likely to notice you being attentive, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and improving. At an audition, those are the people I remember.  If they remember you (yes, even for blowing up, performing through your mistakes, and recovering), you are far more likely to get a callback!

Ask smart questions. I'm not suggesting that you ask non-stop questions about every count you learn, but if you want to know "are we standing in first of third position here?" ask! I always remember the performers that ask good questions. It suggests that you are attentive and hard-working during rehearsal, that you're going to remember your checkpoints, and that you care enough to hit them. 

Perform. Everything. Performance is difficult to teach. I know plenty of instructors that would gladly take someone who can perform fabulously and teach them to spin. Prove that you can perform with your face and body all the time. Tell me a story with your body during dance basics and I will watch you the rest of the day! Show me some fierceness during rifle spins and werk that flag choreography! Perform through your mistakes and chances are you'll make a very good impression!

Those are my top 4 tips for a good audition. Good luck, and I hope to see some of you performing (maybe in one of my ensembles) in the coming year!

What are your tips for auditioning? Comment below! 

 

First Year Instructor

Hello, First Year Colorguard Instructor!

First of all, congrats on landing your first teaching job! I hope you find the experience of guiding young minds and passing the proverbial torch of colorguard rewarding!  Before you begin your journey, however, I hope to offer a few snippets of advice for your season!  These are some tips offered by experienced instructors who were asked, "what do you wish you could go back and tell your first-season-instructor self?" 

-Don't be afraid to ask for help! You can't be expected to know everything (even seasoned instructors don't know everything), so use your network!  The people with whom you have marched drum corps or winterguard, and your past or current instructors may be able to offer helpful advice, support, and assistance throughout your season. Not sure how to fix that awkward transition in your ballad? Ask another instructor to take a fresh look at it.  Need silks for your opener, but don't have the budget to buy a new set? Maybe someone with whom you marched this summer is teaching a high school program that will let you borrow some. 

-Outline your expectations; literally write them down!  Use this as your game plan for the season.  It helps to talk to your students about these, or even provide them with a list or a handbook so they know what to expect. My standard colorguard handbook has a section that lists "what is expected of performers" and "what is expected of instructors" in a bulletted format.  I like my kids to know that I will hold them AND myself to a high standard. It also helps to go back once and a while and review your list, to make sure your season is still on course to meet your goals.  You may want to consider having your students and their parents sign off that they have read and understand your policies. This can eliminate a lot of confusion later. 

-Approach rehearsals with a To Do List! What are your goals for the day? What should take priority? Make a list and stick to it! Often, I will schedule out my sectional time so I know when to move on to the next item on my list.  Sure, I could spend all afternoon cleaning drop-spins, but I really want to teach that new choreography too! Sticking to that schedule helps me get to everything on my list.  I'll admit that there are plenty of times, when I have to change my plans.  Just because you made a schedule doesn't necessarily mean you HAVE to follow it to the letter.  Allow yourself a little flexibility, when necessary. 

-Something I have witnessed many fresh-out-of-drum-corps, brand-new instructors do is approach their new program with a lot of intensity. Not that having high expectations or being intense is bad, but I have seen more than a few people get burned out very quickly as they passionately throw themselves into trying to make their novice colorguard of 8 high school kids throw rifle fives, perfect flag doubles, and do death drops because "it just takes passion and hard work and anything is possible!" Woah, there! Developing a program with highly-skilled performers who really buy into the intensity and hard work of colorguard takes time! Pushing too hard too fast will make you, and your kids, frustrated very fast.  It's great that you are passionate (maybe even a little obsessed, as I am) about the colorguard activity.  Of course you think everyone else would be too if they only knew what it was like to experience a great performance with an ensemble of other passionate performers.  Just remember, many of your high school students probably won't go on to march drum corps or independent winterguard.  ALL of your performers deserve a positive colorguard experience, regardless of what their plans are after the season is over.  Play to their strengths, give them a just few challenging elements, provide them with a show that they can relate to and enjoy, and they will ask for more as they feel successful and begin to love guard. 

-Don't sweat the small stuff.  Teaching requires some flexibility. I remember being a new instructor and wanting to fix every single little detail.  Try to focus on the big stuff, and the things you actually have the power to change first. Does that melodic line in the mellophone line sound odd to you? That's probably not in your power to fix; don't waste your energy focusing on it. Giving yourself a headache stressing over how that one rifle performer is a step and a half to the left of their actual drill spot may not be the best use of your energy if the ensemble needs help reviewing the choreography for that same section of the show.  It can be easy to get lost in the little things!  Your job is to make decisions that will prove most beneficial to the ensemble as a whole. Once that choreography is in their hands, and that awkward drill spacing is the thing making the ensemble look less than their best, THEN focus on fixing it.  

-Read up on all your circuit's rules and regulations, and understand the judging sheets.  This will guide many of your decisions in designing your show and teaching the choreography.  If you've read my post about the "Space, Time, Weight, Flow" dance exercise I often use, those terms come from the terms WGI movement judges are trained to use when talking about dance.  I hope that using this exercise helps my kids better understand what is expected of them from the judging community and they'll get more out of judges comments during the season.  This will also help you to avoid plenty of potentially frustrating situations during the season:  "What do you mean no live animals are allowed on the floor?! Our whole show is designed around Lucky the flag-catching golden retriever!" or  "Spinning golf clubs doesn't count as equipment time?! We only spin flags for 32 counts of the show, and now we're going to have a major penalty!"

-Keep learning. The colorguard activity is constantly evolving.  Last year's hot trick tosses may be passé this season.  Watch videos of colorguard (it doesn't hurt to know a little about guard history!), watch live colorguard, take a dance class, attend a spin clinic...keep learning new things and you will continue to grow as a teacher. 

 

I hope some of these ideas are helpful to  you during the season.  If you have other ideas/tips I would love to hear them! Good luck to everyone this fall!!!

 

 

 

Foot Positions for Colorguard

One of the first things you have to learn as a new dancer, is foot positions.  The general studio-trained western dance population, utilizes the numbered foot positions codified by the ballet tradition.  During my years of teaching dance for colorguard, however, I have made some slight modifications to how I teach them.  

First-

Open first is achieved by placing the heels together with the toes apart.  In colorguard, I teach first with the toes pointed at the 45's (90 degrees of turn-out between the feet).  Because the competitive success of an ensemble depends on technical clarity, I focus on reinforcing this uniformity with a consistent turn-out across the ensemble.  This also helps in cleaning choreography later, by training the group to understand where the 45 is.  If you have a particularly well-trained or flexible ensemble, by all means, adjust your technique accordingly, but I find that this is an excellent place to start for beginning ensembles.  Also be sure to reinforce good alignment through first.  A neutral pelvis and stong, lifted core should be maintained, with turn-out initiated from the femoral head (the hip joint).  Arches of the feet should remain lifted, and performers should feel a wide base through both feet as they make contact through the floor across the base of the toes and the heel.  Watch that ankles do not roll out or in, but remain neutral (the feeling of lifted arches should assist in this).

Second-

The open second position that I teach for colorguard is slightly wider than the one you might use in a studio dance class.  To emphasize both technical clarity across the ensemble, and reinforcing the colorguard ideal of "performing to the judges' box" (ie to an audience at a great distance), I ask my students to place their heels a little more than hips' distance apart.  Another way of teaching this: if you tendu out to the side, and then place your heel where your toe touches the floor, this is "guard second." Again, be sure to maintain a neutral spine, strong core, neutral ankles, wide base through the feet, rotation from the hip....etc.

Third-

I almost never use Fifth position when teaching colorguard.  Again, I want to provide my students with an achievable technique that can be consistent accross all flexibilities.  In my experience, third provides a satisfactory "crossed" position of the feet for a guard context.  Have your students place the heel of their front foot in the arch of their back foot.  Toes should still point to the 45's, and hips should remain even and flat to the front.  Again, remind the ensemble to turn out from the hips, maintain a neutral pelvis, stay supported through the center, neutral ankles....etc. 

Fourth-

I usually don't teach Fourth position until I feel the group has mastered First, Second, and Third.  I do, however, like to use it in choreography (it's great as a transitional step, and looks nice under tosses while still providing a stable/wide base. Seriously, watch an ensemble toss from Fourth sometime and tell me that doesn't immediately elevate the vocabulary!) To teach Fourth, use Third as a starting point and simply shift the front foot forward.  The front heel should still be directly in front of the arch of the back foot, but with about a foot's-length between the two.  All the same rules apply from third: turn-out from the hips with toes at the 45's, neutral pelvis, supported core, neutral ankles....pay particular attention to hip facings in this position! It is easy for performers to twist their pelvis so that the hips are no longer flat to the front.  The weight should be centered directly between the two feet, hips should remain front, and rotation through the hip sockets should maintain that equal 45 degrees on each side.  

5 Rules of Static Stretching

As an instructor, I am all about "news you can use," ie any information that might be helpful for day-to-day life outside of colorguard. I know that most of my middle school and high school kids won't go on to march colorguard after leaving their scholastic program.  Only a few of the kids who do march independent winterguard, drum corps, or college guard will continue to spin after age 22.  The vast majority will pursue careers in other areas, and I'm glad they do! I hope that the accountants, surgeons, teachers, lawyers, painters, musicians, engineers...all remember their colorguard days fondly, and continue to support the arts in their adult years.  I also hope that they continue to use some of the skills they learned from the colorguard activity in their daily lives.  The confidence, work ethic, ability to work for the benefit of a team...that students learn through the pageantry arts may prove invaluable in their professional lives.  I also hope, however, that they learn some skills that will help them take care of their bodies.  

So many working adults suffer from back pain or muscle tension, and knowing how to stretch your body may help to reduce some of that.  To help my students, I wrote up my own 5 rules for stretching.  I included reasons why each is important, complete with references to the experts who inspired these rules (so the kids know I didn't just make this stuff up, and there's real science to back it up). Sometimes I print out copies to give my kids at the start of the year, sometimes I post the rules.  I repeat the rules over and over again, and have my students repeat them back to me during stretch time.  I figure, if nothing else, these kids will graduate with at least a little knowledge that will help them practice some self-care.  

So, without further ado....I give you:

Jakki's 5 Rules for Static Stretching* 

Warm up first. “Stretching is effective if the tissues to be stretched are warm” (Howse, 2000). After a warm up, “early stretches (should be used) for waking up muscles, not for increasing flexibility” (Nagrin, 1994). Deep stretching for flexibility should ideally be done about an hour after dancing (but while the muscles are still warm).

Breathe. Your muscles require oxygen to function, and especially to relax into a stretch. Release pressure on the stretching muscle as you inhale, and use a long exhale to move more freely and deeply into the stretch. “The longer you exhale, the longer and stronger the stretch” (Nagrin 1988).

Stretch both sides of everything. It is important to stretch your left and right sides equally just as it is important to exercise the muscles on both sides evenly. It is common for dancers to spend more time stretching the more comfortable or more flexible side. It is also important to stretch muscles surrounding joints evenly in each direction the joint moves. For example, if you stretch the front of the hip, you must also stretch the back of the hip, and the turn-out. A joint which seems tight in one direction (i.e. tightness of the turnout at the hip) may need individual stretching programmes in two or more different directions in order to obtain the desired increase in mobility (Howse, 2000).

If it hurts, don’t do it! Pain is our body’s way of saying “this is not good for me.” Forcible stretching is counterproductive. If tissues are torn during stretching, then healing has to take place…All healing is by scar tissue, i.e. fiberous tissue. With the passage of time, scar tissue tends to contract and this may well make the tightness, which the stretching was originally aimed to relieve, worse than before the stretching started (Howse, 2000). You should move into any stretch slowly, stop when you feel the muscle stretching, then back off slightly to give the muscle more oxygen and to focus on relaxing any tension you may be holding. Never bounce in a stretch. Never let anyone else stretch you. By the time you tell them to stop, and they respond, damage could easily already have been done.

Take your time. Stretches should be prolonged and steady, and each stretch should be held for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. You should not, however, overstretch. Stretching and lengthening a muscle also lengthens the blood vessels, causing them to narrow. Overstretching can reduce the blood flow to the muscle for too long a period of time.

Other Information of Interest About Stretching:

  • Stretching can improve your awareness of posture and alignment as well as foster a better understanding of joint and muscle function. The insights you learn during your time stretching should be applied to your alignment when you stand and to the way you move your body when you dance.
  • Stretching should always be done in the direction of the muscle fibers, “in the line in which they work and function” (Howse, 2000). Stretching across the muscle provides no benefits of increased flexibility, and can cause injury.
  • Imagery is a great tool to utilize during your stretch routine. Methods such as picturing the muscles as something fluid, as melting, or as sand can increase relaxation and thus increase the benefits of the stretch. “Avoid sensations that reinforce a sense of restriction and tightness” (Franklin, 2004).
  • Use caution when stretching a weak or injured muscle! Only gentle stretches should be done with any injured muscle and never should be performed before the muscle is strong enough.
  • Stretching should ideally be paired with exercises that strengthen the muscles being stretched.

Works Cited

Franklin, Eric. Conditioning for Dance. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2004. 

Grant, Gail. Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet: Third Revised Edition. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1982.

Howse, Justin. Dance Technique & Injury Prevention. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Martins, Peter. New York City Ballet Workout. New York: Quill/William Morrow and Company, 1997.

Nagrin, Daniel. How To Dance Forever: Surviving Against the Odds. New York: Quill: An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.

Nagrin, Daniel. Dance and the Specific Image. Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 1994.

 

*These rules are only for static stretches.  Dynamic stretches are also very useful, but that deserves its own post. 

Finding Performance Quality (Part II) - Ezra Campbell

Oh hello there, I didn’t see you come in. Has it been a week already? I was lost at sea battling pirates and happened to have lost my pocket watch to a very pesky crocodile. Dreadful creatures, crocodiles. But back on course, I believe when we last parted ways I was left with some very large grown up questions regarding performance quality. Let’s dive right in.

What is performance quality?

Well, Webster was of no help and the Internet mostly speaks to the idea of assigning a numerical value to performance as a means to compare and contrast two separate performances. That’s all well & good, numbers and comparisons are an undeniable reality in not only in the pageantry arts but also in life. We cannot as human beings escape the comparisons we make of ourselves to others. This is an important idea to keep in mind when exploring the idea of performance quality. First, and most paramount:

Performance Quality is personal and is developed from within the performer to create an emotional, dynamic, and visually interesting performance. It is not something that is layered on after dance or equipment choreography is finished. It is the starting point for all performers. Performance quality should be the first thought, not an afterthought.

This is so important. I can attest to the transformation that young performers make when they understand and can begin to apply this. Your style of performance is never going to look like Wendy standing next to you, and hers will never look like John or Michael. And that is exactly how it should be. This is why I absolutely detest telling students to ‘just smile’. (Side Note: Smiling is not an emotion it’s a physical action that results from many different emotions. Therefore it cannot and will not evoke true emotion from your audience. We’ll get back to this in a future blog post about creating a character.) Simply smiling, no matter how big, does not create performance quality; it is a mask that hides the true performance quality of the individual. Using this technique of mask work dates back to Ancient Greece, where actors used large, single emotion face placed on a human being that has real emotions beyond “SMILE”. (Repeat after me: Smile is not an emotion. Good.) The primary goal of using masks was to be able to read a single emotion of a character from great distances in large coliseums. Sounds familiar to colorguard, right? If that is the level of performance that you desire from your students, then I suggest you buy into the trend of having them wear actual masks, the continuity of performance quality will be unparalleled. I would then point you into the direction of Commedia dell'arte, which dates back to the 16 th century and that will give you about 8 or so base characters to work with without any need for emotional development from your performers. Doing this you will escape the need to teach performance quality entirely.

I am being quite sardonic and for that I apologize. But I sadly have seen these fundamental 8 characters of Commedia perpetrated throughout the world of pageantry arts. You have too. And now, thanks to my analysis you will likely recognize it even more. You’ve likely used it as a way to describe shows to your friends that did not have any other memorable emotional aspect.

“-Hey, did you see that angry show? 

-Yea, the one where they were wearing black and white uniforms with the boxes on the floor and they all just kept growling at the audience?”

Shows should be more memorable than costumes and floor tarps but so often the set or props upstage the performers. We as human beings are far more complex than one singular facial expression or emotion. At least, I hope you do not walk around growling all day long. Asking this of your students will rob them of their ability to grow into multifaceted performers.

Performance quality is more than a single emoji. Your performance should reflect the uniquely colorful hues of human emotions. You are more than a mask. You is kind. You is smart. You is important. It is establishing early & reminding ourselves often of those positive internal beliefs and narratives that will allow you to really utilize all the aspects of your face, your energy, and of your body to convey the story you’re telling. Remember, smiling pile of poo is not a story.

Speaking of colorful hues, I’d now like to share with you a quote from an inspiring and affirming colorful Queen, RuPaul. She says, “If you don't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?” YAASS QUEEN! And so, if you can’t perform as yourself, how the hell are you gonna perform as somebody else? If you cannot on some level quiet those thoughts of self-doubt and silence the harm of negative self talk then how are you going to create a character that emotes masterfully and evokes emotion from your audience. The first and most important character you will every play, is yourself.

Performance quality begins with the inner self and radiates outward allowing the internal to become external. This internal energy is then translated into physicality through multiple facets each performer utilizes to transpose their story to further develop the narrative of the show. Some examples of external transposition include posture, stylized individual movement choices, breath, energetic projection, and facial expressions. All of this can then be translated further onto equipment.

One of the first exercises that I do with new (or new to me) students is a basic across the floor. First, I ask them just walk to a beat. Usually this is to some happy, pop goddess music. Music choice is just as important as the walk itself during this exercise. It’s not meant to just be about learning how to walk in tempo, although that’s an important fundamental skill. I allow them five or six times across the floor to work on starting out with the proper foot and creating awareness of the tempo. Then we talk about what was easy and what was challenging for them. Often the performers themselves have wonderful solutions to help each other to overcome challenges. Then I ask the performers to think of when their favorite song is on and they’re all alone in their room with nobody watching. Ask them what these songs are and make note for future across the floor playlists. I then ask them to walk in tempo how they would walk across their rooms. This exercise is about having music become so consuming that it allows the young performers to begin the often-scary task of drowning out those inner demons of self-doubt. Music can always be found that fits this purpose, and can also be used as a vehicle to create emotional connection and fuel performance energy and quality. This is why you can spend hours agonizing over a new playlist. Performers are not immune to this inspiration at any level, if merely the right music is found. If you are a performer, try both versions of this on your own. Pick your favorite up-tempo song (around 110-120bpm). Make note of the differences between the first walk and the second. Some questions to ask yourself: How does your posture changes, how does your gait change, where is the placement of your head in relationship to the floor, what does your facial expression look like, are you tense or relaxed, where is your body holding tension? When you do the second walk is the voice in your head quieter or louder? Why do you think this is? In giving the performers a task and an expectation they are less likely to be ‘in their head’ trying to figure out what it is you want from them. The first time you may have had questions swirling about like, “How am I supposed to walk? Toes first? Heels first? Where should my head be? Am I supposed to point my toes? Are we working through coupé? What should I be feeling? Should I be smiling?!?” If you did, you’re not alone.

There is power in not only the music but also in the performer’s perception of themselves in regards to the judgments of those around you. This is why it is paramount that when working in an artistic space that there be no judgment. In your first walk, you probably weren’t a rock star and that is perfectly fine. (maybe you were, if so, that’s where you are starting from and you must build from there) The first time you picked up a flag you weren’t throwing 45’s and working into the floor rolling underneath. (maybe you were, now turn twice.) This exercise is definitely more accessible to extroverts (don’t worry, they’ll be easy to spot!) but don’t discount your introverts. Some of those most famous performers identify as introverts (Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Zayn Malik, RuPaul, Kelsey Grammer, Matthew Morrison, and Meryl Streep come to mind), this goes back to the place where performance quality originates. Typically extroverts will have greater difficulty creating emotional depth and quality, as they are used to projecting all emotions outwards, sometimes they must really work to find layers within their emotional performance. Challenge them to really examine the emotion internally and then to reside in stillness with it before trying to embody the emotion. Introverts tend to struggle with getting their emotion, any emotion, to be displayed physically. They have often spent their entire lives working to remove emotion from their physicality. Allowing them a safe space to have an emotional outlet and occasionally some one on one time tends to help break down those walls. But once those walls are scaled, broken, or plowed through—watch out! Introverts hold great power for emotional depth since their emotions tend to stay closer to their body. (The author admits to being an introvert, but one with extrovert skills that he learned through theater and colorguard.) These reasons reiterate to us further that performance quality and its development begin on a personal level. So in viewing this exercise or even in doing it yourself be aware of those little voices that creep into your head and assault your self-confidence or the confidence of your students.

My advice for most everybody, cliché as it may sound:

Fake it until you make it. Believing that you are a rock star creates a rock star. Believing that you are struggling creates a struggle. Your performance will tell whatever story you are telling yourself. Your audience is only able to see the outer story.

This advice is something that must be reiterated to students and to us as performers. Create a mantra that combats those negative voices. Use the voice of one of your favorite teachers if your own inner voice is not strong enough. We must overcome the innate fear that we are going to be discovered as not knowing what we are doing, or that we may fail at something. We are all born with the fears and our innate nature, our circumstances, and our access to education certainly have some control over how far we are able to take our own abilities. But how far you go, is determined not by talent by but the amount of work and dedication we are willing to put forth. Failure is one of our most powerful teachers, if we are willing to push past those fears.

I absolutely believe that performance quality can be taught and that everybody can achieve that magical ability. It comes from creating the space that allows the performer to tap into their greatest strengths while honoring their greatest fears. The magical moment may occur for the audience, as it did for me when watching the Servant in Finding Neverland. It was an honor as an audience member to share in that moment with that particular performer but it is not our goal. Our goal is for the performer to have that experience within themselves. Here’s an example: maybe you’ve struggled all season with that 16-count dance feature, you knew every count and every checkpoint but it just wasn’t clicking. You’d stayed over at practice to work through it, asked friends to help you, and even lay in bed at night imagining yourself doing it perfectly. (Awesome technique, using visualization!) Two weeks before finals and finally you nail it in rehearsal. You’ve had your “a-ha!” moment. You feel seen and validated for all of the hard work you put into the creation of that moment. Even if you’re the only one that knows just how powerfully proud you feel. You did it and you’ll be able to repeat that success. There is performance quality created in that very moment of finally feeling capable of what you saw yourself doing in your mind.

Performing transforms us into everything we imagine ourselves to be. It begins as an “A-HA” moment and grows through the confidence gained in that moment. Performance quality is consistent and repeatable.

I have on many occasions had conversations with fellow instructors about the frustration of watching a group on the verge of these discoveries. We as instructors often become out of touch with the intricacies of the process and we get impatient. “I wish I could just take it out of my brain and just hand them this neat little box of confidence/character/performance quality/technique.” It certainly seems easier to take this short cut but it is no different than applying masks to performers. So much of the journey to creating performance quality is a journey of self-discovery. This is why when these ideals are valued that the students will continue to push themselves. They will see their own potential through you, even if they are not yet able to realize their own. Or when you value your own journey as a performer, you then create a safety net underneath you as you challenge yourself to try new things. If you fail at these things, great! You are going to take what you’ve learned from that failure and apply it as you move forward. Repeat that positive mantra. Sit with those critiques. Apply the changes. Repeat your mantra again. Find music that inspires you, listen to it, embody it, & try again.

So can I hand you the magical box filled to the brim with performance quality? No. That would ruin the story, now wouldn’t it? I can only guide you to Neverland, you’ll have to find your way their all on your own. Remember your happy thoughts. The faerie dust & performance quality you’ve always had, you simply need to believe.

To perform will be an awfully big adventure.

Finding Performance Quality (Part 1) - Ezra Campbell

This week and next, guest blogger, Ezra Campbell talks about performance quality. 

 

On a recent trip to New York City, I had the privilege of being able to see Finding Neveland from the 18th row (yay rush tickets!). The show is inspired by the 2004 film of the same title and premiered in 2012. It has been on Broadway for 17 months and is expected to close in August, so I feel very lucky to have seen it during it’s run. It is an imagination of the story of J.M. Barrie, the author behind the classic Peter Pan. Matthew Morrison, from Glee, playing J.M. Barrie and Kelsey Grammer playing Charles Frohman/James Hook in the Original Cast. And Yes, I did play the Hamilton lottery every day while in the city but to no avail. Although it was my second choice of show to see, Finding Neverland did not disappoint and certainly left me with happy thoughts.

But you’re not here for a Broadway review, so firstly, I must admit that if I took a BuzzFeed quiz to find out my Colorguard judge personality type that I would absolutely be Ensemble Analysis. Sure, I love those downstairs judges but I enjoy Ensemble Analysis because, for me, it is elevated General Effect. It’s what comes after you’ve learned the choreography that really excites me as a performer, an instructor, and as an audience member. I often find challenging when sitting so close to a stage for a production that I am unable to use my more typical wide angle viewing lens and must swap it out to my more isolated sampling lens. So as the curtain rose and the visual onslaught began, I had to decide if I was going to be judging Individual Analysis or Ensemble Analysis based on which would make the show more enjoyable. The learned visual acumen of a trained performer could possibly rob you from every having a peaceful theater going experience. I’m sorry, really I am. On one hand it will allow you to absorb details missed by the average audience member. You will be able to look into places that are not the created focal point. I was able to enjoy the choreography from the secondary focus on many occasions during the show. You’ll be able to notice how transitions are utilized to create a general effect, before the effect takes place. Like noticing that the pirates were going to climb on the netting deployed downstage long before it actually occurred. (See if you can notice the transition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fevDew-8oSo) Or like the zippers, the boys all had plastic zippers on their boots which were not period accurate. (See, robbing me of a peaceful experience since I spent half of the first song starring at them) But this insider vision that you gain will allow you to examine your own performance style and to then integrate new performance techniques to expand your own repertoire.

By the third number, after the big opening statement, I had settled into enjoying the overall general effect of the show. Mia Michaels, from So You Think You Can Dance, choreographed the show and more recently she has immersed herself into the world of colorguard-teaching a master class at World Championships in 2011. She did incorporate colorguard into the show, using poles to create the illusion of a carousel. Although, the vocabulary of the equipment work was not difficult and based on basic exercises the ensemble struggled to display proficiency to a trained eye. This goes back to angles and checkpoints, those basics that you hate to do on flag are what could have saved a Broadway production! Also the 6’ poles were black and taped spirally with large gold tape-this only further exemplified the lack of clarity in the checkpoints. It is so important to choose the right equipment to allow your performers the greatest level of achievement.

The show is definitely easily recognizable as her style of movement with the level of achievement of the individual performers varying. I felt like some the more nuanced muscular articulations were challenging for the younger performers due to lack of training and at times resulting in timing discrepancies. I was ruminating on these ideas when the Servant entered the stage. I do not know what else was occurring onstage at that moment because I developed tunnel vision. Finding a performer that captivates all of my attention is similar unlocking a magical, glittering, glowing treasure. There’s an equally regal theme that would make John Williams ache to have created in my head that swells to crescendo when this moment rarely occurs. This actor, who was playing a minor role, upstaged the main characters on many occasions. I tracked him in various costume changes, even one in which his face was obscured. As the park and blow of the final number in Act I ended, although my disbelief was not yet suspended, I felt satisfied to be able to experience such performance quality. In talking later to my fellow theatergoers they too expressed a fascination with the actor playing the Servant but not being able to articulate exactly why.

This lead me to question-What is performance quality really? Can it be taught or learned? Why don’t all performers have it, are we born with it?

Tune in next week, for all the fairy dust secrets behind how take your performance quality to the second star on the right & beyond.

Thoughts on Dance & Social Consciousness - Ezra Campbell

In the wake of the recent massacre at Pulse in Orlando, guest-blogger, Ezra Campbell reflects on the idea of creating Art in service to a particular cause:  

 

As a long time student of the world of theater and dance, and as an transgender artist who has spent many years working in theater for social justice, I have viewed a growing trend among artists that continues to disappoint me. The idea that art is no longer simply reactionary but also that it can and is being used to purpose other than creativity. Art being used under the guise of social justice when really the artist and/or the company is seeking monetary gain and social clout from the creation. Meanwhile, the community continues to struggle underneath the disillusioned Artist and financial backers. 

This is a perfect example of predominately why I found myself unburdened by stepping away from the world of colorguard. In fact, I can trace the pinnacle of my disillusionment with the ‘sport of the arts’ back to when I was working with an independent program that had barely scraped together the funds to go to WGI World Championships in Dayton. (a experience in hindsight which was merely a burden and not artistically rewarding in any way, something which I still regret deeply) These kids had worked tirelessly to fund-raise and were performing at show that was about more than hitting every check point and nailing that 5 with the turn underneath. I know many instructors say that about their shows, “it’s about more than just (fill in the blank)” but this show did indeed hold heavier weight. The show told the story of how high school students were infected with HIV, these young performers immersed themselves within their characters and doing outreach work within the HIV community. As a director, I am never surprised by the potential of my students and these students were certainly challenging me as a director to take them on this emotional journey. Sitting in the Dayton arena, behind the 50 and catching bits and pieces of World Class finals and there was a show about homelessness. I remember thinking to myself, “this is great, something that has a real social awareness-just like our show. Finally, some social issues will be brought to light in this art form at a highly competitive level.” I settled in to watch a show that was about hitting every checkpoint and nailing the turns underneath each 5-and with gusto, otherwise of course, why would this guard have made it this far. I do not discount the work required to make such art, as there is always respect in creating art. The disillusionment came with the $200 costumes, and then custom floor, and the meticulously designed custom flags. I began to honestly question the allocation of funds to provide breathe life into this art and I felt suddenly heartbroken. As if somehow along the way, the point had been lost entirely. The political discourse, the issues of mental health that surround homelessness, the estimated 1.6 million to 2.8 million homeless youth in United States, the portion of the homeless youth population who are gay or transgender- 20 to 40 percent compared to only 5 to 10 percent of the overall youth population, ect. 

There is often the joke that in colorguard it has “all been done”, perhaps better even, (I’m talking about some classic WGI, Forte 1995 realness-how important it is to know your history) and of course this is most often the case. To take the joke further, the basis of all shows are merely theme parties that have already been or are yet to be thrown. This show felt to me like somebody was using homelessness as a theme party. So often is this absolutely true. The struggle being an afterthought, the community left to suffered underfoot of the Artist. 

I understand the allure of creating a piece for the greater good, to demonstrate ideas without the need for the complexities of words using movement, color, and space. This is the art that I love, transformative for performer and audiences, the art that inspires me, that many times has moved me forward in my own life as I have embarked upon my own transformations. Human transformation is absolutely a universal theme and certainly an inspirational idea of overcoming adversity. With the emerging events challenging the LGBTQIA community it is understandable that these events will begin to see themselves rise to the top of the Artistic consciousness. Bathroom bills and mass shootings make for some terrible theme parties, but artists will continue to create to fuel dialogue about these events.

But, even when the heart of the artist is well placed within the work itself the message can be lost in translation. While creating dialogue for and among cisgendered individuals to promote acceptance, it is vital that it is not being done at the expense of transgender folks. Art created by cisgendered individuals meant for the consumption by other cisgendered individuals in an effort to discuss transgender narratives is not in fact, the transformative art that I spoke of previously. Simply speaking to multiple transgender individuals who coincidentally support your cause does not allow for the artistic license that many feel that they have been granted.

I sincerely hope that transgender voices are being centered during this extremely challenging time for myself and my community. Particuarly queer and trans individuals of color. I hope that dialogue among artists who will continue to respond to HB2 (as is expected, as artists we create as a way to process that which surrounds us) will involve questioning their own motives and whether they are being exploitative of those they are hoping to help through their creative representations. I hope that the cisgendered community of allies can learn when it is appropriate to be in the audience showing support, whey they should step offstage, or simply when it is time to let others dance. I understand how challenging that learning the dance of ally-ship can be at times, the variances in tempo and rhythm, the discordant music and then the silence, frail costumes, and ever changing partners. But still, I hope that the struggle of myself and of my community is not being used as a vehicle for artistic, social, political, personal, or financial gain. I hope that transgender voices are not being silenced in the pursuit of artistic endeavors. And I hope that the final bow leads to a standing ovation for transgender equality.

“We are part of each other and part of something bigger than our own egos. An artist should… bring into the world some vision. Dancers should ask, "What is their work in the service of?” -Bill T. Jones

Overcoming Fear in Colorguard

As I was biking to work this morning, I remembered the summer I learned to ride a bike (the big-kid kind with no training wheels). I believe I was eight at the time, and we were on a family vacation at the beach.  I remember starting the week off with an unreasonable fear of attempting to balance on two wheels, and ending the week with a feeling of blissful freedom and accomplishment.  This memory made me think, "how do we overcome our fears to reach our goals?"

As a performer, learning something new can be scary for a lot of reasons. I have experienced fear over learning new tosses, over looking ridiculous, over doing something wrong, over what my staff and peers thought of me, and yes, over hitting myself with my equipment.  Despite spinning for nearly 20 years, and dancing for nearly 30, I still experience all these fears.  What changes, as you mature as a performer, is mostly your ability to identify when your fears are largely irrational, how to adjust your practice to avoid the risks that cause rational fear, and to overcome your fears in a way that allows you to succeed. 

I am certainly no expert on overcoming fear, but here are a few of my personal tips and experiences:

Fear of Looking Ridiculous - As an instructor, this is the fear I have had to help my students through most often! At some point (probably during those awful middle-school years), we start really caring what other people think of us.  I wish I could say there is an easy solution to that! (I think I'd be rich if I knew one!) In the context of performing, this may be a case of surrounding yourself with supportive people.  Especially as beginners, it really helps to have friends who you know are going to like you regardless of how silly you look, and a staff who is going to encourage you.  If you're learning a new exercise or choreography that makes you feel awkward, focus on simply giving your all for those people who believe in you. Terrified of your stone-cold instructor? Find a mentor in your ensemble.  When I was first learning sabre, I made friends with an age-out who was really friendly and encouraging.  He was a great mentor to me, and helped me get over a big hump in learning sabre!  Also remember that colorguard is inherently unnatural.  No one is born with a flag in their hand, and dancing around with a pole with fabric taped to it is kind of a silly (albeit very enjoyable) thing to do.  Embrace the awkwardness! 

Fear of Doing Something Wrong - I hate to tell you, but you are going to screw up at some point.  It is unavoidable. This is the beauty of live performance! It's what makes the performing arts so amazing! The potential for everything to go wrong makes all the things that go right more impressive! Yes, we work hard to minimize the mistakes, but the imperfect, human element of creating Art is what makes it so appealing. Take a deep breath, and focus on all the things you can do right! Try to end each practice on a positive note; think about something you did really well and how you can repeat that in the future.  Also remember, that If you're continuing to practice and work hard to get better, then you have already done so much right!  Maximize your strengths, keep improving on your weaknesses, and you'll learn to recover from your mistakes.  I mess up choreography regularly, but have gained the experience to correct my mistakes quickly and without drawing any attention to them.  I also frequently experience a brief moment of panic before performances when I think, "do I even remember how this starts?!"  Then the music begins and my body remembers what to do.  Trust yourself! You know more than you think! 

Fear of Injury - Ok, dealing with this fear is really hard! First, you need to address the two fears I have already discussed.  If you don't have someone you can trust teaching you that new and terrifying toss, or that fancy new leap, you're not going to trust yourself to do it right.  If you don't understand the mechanics of the scary choreography, ASK FOR HELP from someone YOU TRUST! Injuries happen for two reasons: bad environment/equipment or bad technique. 

1) Bad environment/equipment: Don't learn a new toss in the dark, if it's really windy, if the ceiling is too low, if your rifle butt is splintered and needs to be re-taped...just go ahead and eliminate that environmental/equipment factor.  Don't practice turns on a slippery floor, don't jazz-run into a gopher-hole...These are all sources of completely rational fears that you have the power to fix.

2) Bad technique: Learn the mechanics of something before you do it! If you don't understand it, have someone break it down in a way that you do! Know where your release point it. Know on what plane your equipment should be. Know where your hands should be. Find a way to relate this choreography to something you already know.  If you can say, "oh, this is just like that other toss, but with this one change," then you will probably feel less frightened.  Once you understand the proper mechanics, you have to apply them...every time!  I have suffered plenty of guard-related injuries by going on "auto-pilot" and neglecting to use the technique I already knew.  

I hate to say, that just knowing these two things probably won't prevent you from EVER getting injured, but it should help to minimize the frequency and severity.  This is colorguard, and you're likely to suffer a jammed finger at some point, but practice smart and hopefully that's the worst you ever experience. 

Remember that fear is totally natural, and it doesn't make you any less of a performer.  Performers at all levels experience fear.  Becoming a mature performer means you learn how to listen to your rational fears and utilize that information to minimize your risk for injury, and you learn how to overcome your fears to achieve your goals.  You can do it! 

 

Teaching Movement Quality - The Basics

I find that many colorguard instructors don't feel adequately prepared to teach movement quality to their ensembles.  At the mention of teaching movement in general, many equipment-inclined instructors will freeze with panic.  Likewise, many students will creep towards the back of the basics block when it comes time to dance.  

First of all, relax! Dance block does not require the seriousness of curing cancer; it's just movement!  Its ok to do something wrong, as long as you are willing to go back and try it again until you get it right (this goes for students and instructors!).  Students who simply tolerate this part of the training regime as a means to spin flag, rifle, or sabre later, are not going to get the full benefit of dance block.  I like to encourage my students to think of dance training as the building blocks of equipment training.  For example, performers who acquire a better understanding of where their arms are, will subsequently develop more consistent release points.  Learning to stretch through the length of the leg line (rather than just "pointing the toes") can make the lines of equipment work appear longer, thus improving overall performance quality.  I could provide infinite examples, but let's get to the meat of it. 

As I often say, when learning something new, start with what you already know.  This exercise starts with walking.  The rules of the exercise are this: 1) don't make noise 2) don't touch another person 3) stay within the boundaries (ie on the floor tarp or within the basketball court lines) 4) move into open spaces 5) don't do anything that might injure yourself or others.  

Then I turn on music and just let the kids walk. 

Now let's use this exercise to talk about movement quality.  

Movement quality refers to the way in which you are moving.  How might the way you are moving be described? I break it down into 4 categories with sliding scales.  These terms come straight from WGI movement judges; these are the terms they are trained to use when talking about an ensemble or individual's movement.  You've probably heard them on judges tapes. 

1) SPACE - are you taking up a large amount of space or a small amount of space?

2) TIME - are you moving quickly or slowly?

3) WEIGHT - does your movement look like gravity has increased or as if you are floating on the moon?

4) FLOW - are you moving in sharp, short, punctuated movements or in one fluid, continuous motion?

After describing each of the four categories, I revisit the walking exercise.  Turn on the music, and then call out instructions so that students might experience the two extremes of each category through their walk.  It might go something like this:

"Take up a large amount of space......now take up a small amount of space....walk quickly.....now walk slowly... etc"

As students become comfortable with this, I will call out two descriptions at once. "Move slowly with increased gravity!" "Be small and fluid!" 

I find this is a great warm-up exercise that helps prime my students to apply variations of movement quality during dance block.  I can now describe the quality I am seeking (for a particular exercise or for choreography) in a way that my kids can immediately understand and apply.  For example, I might describe an across-the-floor exercise this way:

SPACE   Big -----X------------------------------ Small

TIME    Fast  ----X------------------------------- Slow

WEIGHT    Heavy ----------------------------X------- Light

FLOW    Punctuated ------------------------X----------- Fluid

Using this continuum helps my students understand what movement quality I'm seeking, and immediately helps to clean up the exercise by creating a more consistent look from performer to performer.  Of course, the same continuum might be applied to describing equipment work as well! 

With more advanced students, this exercise can be modified to include variations in levels, to move into and out of the floor, and to foster an understanding of an individual's default movement styles and to help them explore outside of that comfort zone.  

I hope this approach to movement can help instructors and their ensembles relax and feel more confident in their movement training while exploring the fun side to dance block. :D 

 

Alignment for Colorguard

Years ago, a WGI judge at a seminar mentioned that his most common critique for a remedial colorguard was that they rarely knew how to stand.  The group would come in, unfold their floor, set up their equipment, and then stand with slouching and widely-varied postures, waiting for their music to begin.  

In my own limited experience as an adjudicator, I have found that I often have very similar complaints.  We are supposed to be judging your show, but rest assured, we are judging you from the moment you come into our view.  If your ensemble cannot stand with "good" and consistent alignment, then I have already decided what kind of show I'm about to see, and you will have to work very hard during your performance to change my mind.  

If you noticed that I put "good" in quotations, it's because there isn't really a universal consensus on what "correct" alignment is.  Different traditions of dance have different ideas of what alignment should be.  Here, I want to discuss the two that I believe to be the most useful in a colorguard context. 

I teach TWO kinds of alignment for colorguard, and encourage my students to use both.  Each has its own application, and I find it often useful to be clear with my kids about what they should use in each of their basic exercises and in the context of choreography.  

Alignment #1 - "Stacked" 

I often call this "Ballet Alignment" with my kids. If you start in an open first position, begin by spreading the toes and feeling a wide base through the balls of the feet and heels.  Envision a spiral wrapping up from the arches of the feet, gently supporting the turnout of the knees, and allowing the femur to rotate outward, creating a wide feeling across the front of the hips, and feeling that spiral end by rotating into the supported crease right under the glutes. Don't clench the glutes, but allow your core to support your spine in front and back while maintaining the natural curve of your spine.  Allow your head to float upward, creating easy space between the vertebrae.  You should feel your scapula low and your back wide as the ribs stay neutral. I like the term "quiet ribs;" they feel easy and spacious as you breathe deeply.  Focus is straight ahead.  I like to think of this as an "active" first position; constantly spiraling, feeling unnecessary tension release, and allowing micro-corrections to take place. (My thoughts on an "active first" deserve an entire post! Look for one in the next few weeks!)  

I find this alignment very useful for basic dance exercises. Colorguard often puts dance exercises that might traditionally be performed at the barre, in the center of the floor.  I think it's helpful in that context for students to learn the balance and control that this alignment offers. I also like to remind them that turns are much easier using this "stacked" alignment, as are many jumps and leg extensions. 

Alignment #2 - "Performance"

Because in colorguard, our audience is very frequently above us (as opposed to dance performed on a stage with the audience slightly below or directly in front of the performers), performers are often told to "project to the box." Without specifics as to how best achieve this, many performers will default to hyper-extension, over-stressing the neck, splaying the ribs, causing unnecessary tension in the back, pinching the in the lower back and hips, and tilting of the pelvis.  The long-term effects of this on the individual performer can cause both pain and injury over time.  In the short-term, with this limited direction, the ensemble will display a wide range of postures. Such variation becomes easy pickings for any judge looking for consistency from person to person on the floor or field. 

The second type of alignment I teach is simply a variation on the first that addresses this need to "perform to the box."  Once the "stacked" alignment has been achieved, the top half of the thoracic spine may be arched slightly backward in a position similar to a small cambre back in ballet.  Focus can now shift upward towards that top row or judges box to which every instructor wants their students to perform.  Care should be taken to not hyper-extend or splay the ribs, and to maintain a long easy neck without additional tension or strain.  

This alignment is great for those dramatic, arching gestures we love so much in colorguard. It works beautifully for equipment too, provided that students are reminded to practice it consistently and not default to hyper-extension as they perform. 

Again, these are by no means the only "correct" forms of alignment! They are simply the two I have found to be most useful in my colorguard teaching practice. There are plenty of other valid forms, and consideration should be given to student skill levels and somatic awareness, creating a consistent ensemble, and the desired show/movement style.