I had the lovely opportunity to meet and work with a phenomenal group of Jazz dance teachers and dance theorists this past weekend. We were sorting out and preparing a presentation on Jazz dance technique and composition for NDEO this October. Super exciting!
Since then, I have had a continued discussion with Paige Porter from Loyola Marymount University on the specific issue of artistry in Jazz dance. Very interesting and timely stuff for me, and my mind is still whirling so I thought it was about time to put some of my thinking into writing to be shared with my dance interested readers. So, thanks to Paige who asked this question and got me thinking!
On the first day of my level 2/3 Jazz dance class this semester, I asked my students:
What makes a good dancer?
Their responses included naming things like dedication, technique, and expression. Only 2 out of about 8 groups identified creativity as an essential component of a dancer. Only 1 group identified musicality and no one specifically named artistry.
… and good for me to know as a teacher.
Anyone who has taken a dance class knows how important it can seem to "get it right."
"Step on count 2! Leg at 45 degrees! Higher! Release your head!"
And, even in my classes, I stress the need for precision and accuracy in performance. However, I don't want to do this at the cost of stripping the dancer of his or her sense of being an artist.
Like actors and singers, dancers are a living medium for art. Dancers are not lifeless clay on a wheel, paint on a canvas, or musical instruments that can be manipulated without feelings or sensitivity. The magic of being a dancer is that the dancer is both the medium and an artist. The non dancing choreographer is just a visionary, an artist without a canvas or paint set. Sometimes, it can seem that all the creativity is coming from the choreographer, but that is hardly true! The choreographer relies on the dancer's artistry to bring to life his or her artistic vision.
As an artist, the jazz dancer is a conduit, a craftsman, a technician, a medium, and a human. Sometimes dancers forget how important the human component is to being a true artist. Dancers must challenge themselves to be authentic in their performance, to make the movements and expression true and real. They are honoring the choreographic vision, by bringing themselves to the table and putting more of themselves into the dance. (Side note: I very much dislike the song "Are we human? Or, are we dancers?" I want to shout at the radio: Dancers ARE human! That is what makes us special!)
It is still the jazz dancer's job to be precise. And, here is the dilemma for many jazz dancers I know. It can seem contradictory for a teacher or choreographer to ask a student to be specific in her performance and yet include herself in the dance.
How can there be room for both precision and self expression?
The artist hones the craft of dance, studying the movement in a clinical way at times to discover the palette of expression that lives inside her body. In other words dancers must hone their craft so that they can work beyond the technique.
We, dancers, can't let a lack of technique get in the way of our expression as artists. Art exists in an artist's ability to choose. A jazz dancer must make expressive choices in performance, thus embedding his artistry in the performance as well. We must enliven the dance with ourselves. Our artistic voice is the animating spirit of performance.
Now, where does musicality fit into all of this? Coming from a family of musicians, musicality lives in my bones. I sense and feel music very intimately, and music is a strong influence in my performance quality. However, I need to clarify what I mean by musicality. In the music world, musicality refers to the artistic process of making music (producing sound that is expressive and artistic). Musicality in dance refers to the dancer's ability to relate to the music in performance in an expressive or artistic way.
These are not the same.
Dancers need a word that represents their ability to infuse a dance with their artistry while they are dancing (just like musicians). I suggest dancecality. We need a word that reminds the dancer that he or she is creating art in the specific and expressive performance of the choreography. Dancecality like musicality should refer to the performer's ability to bring nuance and expression to the performance, because that is the artistic experience of being a dancer.
It is the artistic responsibility of jazz dancers to tell the human story through their movement. The dancer is responsible for connecting with the audience and transporting them into the human condition. There is magic in this process and no amount of "technique" can replicate it. It must come from the artistic spirit of the dancer.
Lastly, I need to address the Jazz dancer as a choreographer. Jazz dance has not given itself a universal, useful framework for teaching young jazz dancers how to create jazz dance that is fresh, personal and unique while still remaining under the jazz dance umbrella. Laura Smythe's (Laura was another participant in our jazz dance think tank weekend) Master thesis addresses just this, and I am so excited for her research! Jazz dance is such a rich practice in American dance and dancers deserve to feel creative within their own art form. My hope is to draw inspiration from Laura's work and implement a choreographic component into my classroom that feeds the dancer's artistic spirit from a compositional perspective.
I want 100% of jazz dancers to feel creative and artistic in the performance of jazz dance.
I want 100% artist 100% of the time.