StEPS: How do educators and coaches maintain balance between artistry and technique for performance athletes?

StEPS: How do educators and coaches maintain balance between artistry and technique for performance athletes?

Written by
Apolla Performance
Tuesday 7, 2023

How do educators and coaches maintain balance between artistry and technique for performance athletes? 

Welcome to Beyond the Steps…

Kelsey Nelson Lack* what are the biggest changes you've seen in your studio program this year compared to the past few years?

Kelsey:  I think that when we initially emerged from the pandemic, everyone was highly invested because there were so many things that were still unavailable. It was wonderful to feel that everyone was fully committed. However, last year, as everything started to return to normal, people swung completely in the opposite direction. Encouraging attendance became a challenge because people were preoccupied with concerts, school games, and other activities that they were unable to engage in the previous year. I believe that this year, we are attempting to strike a balance between these two extremes. However, it is more difficult to enforce attendance and maintain a schedule since people became accustomed to not having those obligations. It is crucial to find a balance between holding individuals accountable for their commitments and allowing them to pursue other activities since anything can happen at any moment. Personally, I find this balancing act to be the most significant challenge.

Dance is the only sport that not only requires extreme athleticism but requires you to look “beautiful and effortless” while doing it? That comes with a very unique set of challenges. Do you find that your students feel this pressure and does it hold them back from taking risks? 

Kelsey: Last night during rehearsal, we had a conversation about a topic that is a recurring challenge for both myself and my students, as well as many other students. Even as a choreographer and teacher, I sometimes struggle with finding the right balance between pushing my students to achieve technical excellence while also allowing them the freedom and space to explore their own creativity and individuality. This balance can be extremely difficult to achieve, especially for children, who may not fully grasp the complexity of this concept. As we progress into the professional world of teaching and coaching, we can begin to understand the importance of finding this balance, but it remains a challenging task when working with children.

um there's it's it's so what age do you find that they'd start really calming

difference between the two

Kelsey: Around mid-high school, typically around 14 or 15 years old, students start to gain confidence in their training. Once they have developed this confidence and technical proficiency, they begin to understand that technique is essential to support the artistry of dance, but it is not the artistry itself. Both elements are necessary, and as they progress through high school, students learn to trust their training, their bodies, and their knowledge. Trust is a crucial topic that I discuss with my students, emphasizing the importance of knowing that they have spent countless hours in the studio training. This trust enables them to perform with confidence on stage, without the need to overthink the technical aspects of their performance. Instead, they can fully immerse themselves in the artistic expression of their performance.

There is often fierce debate about whether dance is a sport or an art? What are your thoughts on this debate? Do you think it’s possible to marry the two? 

Kelsey: I firmly believe that dance can be considered both a sport and an art. If you examine the criteria that define each category, dance seems to fit more closely within the realm of art. However, depending on the specific avenue of dance that you pursue, such as dance team or company work, there may be a stronger emphasis on one aspect or the other. I don't believe that there is a right or wrong answer, as there is a style and movement that is suitable for everyone. For example, some studios may prioritize technical tricks and movements, while others focus more on artistry and personal expression. What I find most captivating is when an artist has both athletic ability and artistry, combining great athleticism with the form of art. Ultimately, dance is an art form, but it can also involve physical and athletic challenges, depending on the style and approach.

It’s so hard to know what judges want in this competitive space. Everybody has a different opinion about what will come out on top…strong technique…artistry/creative so you think there is one that outweighs the other? 

Kelsey: I believe that the reason behind competing is what really matters. It's not a straightforward answer, as people may have different motivations. Personally, this year, I have decided to let go of any concerns about what the judges are looking for and focus on creating something that feels right for me and my dancers. I want to challenge them and push ourselves to do our best. Winning is great, but it's not the most important thing. To me, the most exciting thing is if we create something that takes us to the next level, regardless of the competition results.

I often refer to ex-gymnasts who are now dancers at the studio to highlight the black and white nature of gymnastics, where skills and scores are clearly defined. However, I believe that if we focus too much on technique in dance, it may stifle creativity, freedom, and boundary-pushing that performers, choreographers, and creatives can achieve. This approach may turn dance into more of a sporting event. In contrast, incorporating artistry into dance creates a personal, human connection. I remind my students that impressive technical skills, such as kicking their face or doing multiple pirouettes, may be cool, but they will not impact someone's life in the long run. Instead, vulnerability, fearlessness, and self-expression are what truly move people and can potentially change someone's life by witnessing such performances. Thus, I believe that artistry in dance is more important than just focusing on technical skills.

I often say that teaching someone how to do a pirouette is easy, even to someone working at 7-Eleven, but teaching them how to be vulnerable, honest, and open is much more challenging. It requires a true artist, someone who is passionate about their craft. Thus, I believe that the Artistry aspect of dance is more difficult to teach and personal, and it takes someone who truly loves what they're doing to excel in that area. Therefore, I would prioritize and connect with someone who can convey their emotions and vulnerability through their performance, rather than someone who can perform a series of technically challenging moves.

How do you balance keeping parents satisfied while also staying true to your vision for the season? We were discussing earlier about how there are always a few parents who are very focused on winning and getting top points. So, how do you navigate that while still being true to your values and goals for the team?

Kelsey: I believe that the most important thing is to establish a culture within the studio that includes parents in the bigger picture of what we're doing. We are creating artists who take on challenges and are not afraid of failure. This is something I've worked hard on achieving. Despite our efforts, some parents may still focus on winning and losing. It's important to emphasize that growth looks like more than just technical skills such as pirouettes or high kicks. However, this can be challenging to communicate to parents who have no dance experience and are only judging what they see with their eyes.

At the beginning of this year, I had a conversation with a parent and explained that if their only measure of growth is technical skills, they are only considering one aspect of a student's progress. There are other columns to consider, such as their verbal communication skills, their willingness to try new things, their practice habits, and their desire to take extra classes. All of these areas contribute to a student's overall growth, and it's not just about technical skills. As a teacher, it's important to explain this to parents and help them understand that there are multiple aspects to consider when assessing a student's progress.

As an artistic director, studio owner, or teacher, it's important to find competitions that align with your dance studio's mission. If your focus is on tricks and skills, look for competitions that cater to that style. If your focus is on artistry and creativity, search for competitions that prioritize those elements. It's also beneficial to connect with like-minded studio owners in your community who share similar visions and missions. Together, you can seek out competitions that prioritize creativity and less emphasis on the end result. This creates a more exciting and enjoyable competition experience, rather than being an outlier studio with a different approach than the competition. Overall, finding competitions that align with your direction and values is crucial for success.

Do you ever suggest adjusting choreography during the season to match the strengths of the dancers? I haven't seen it done much, but I've heard of people making tweaks to the choreography because they know their dancers better. Do you find that approach productive, or do you advise against it?

Kelsey: I have never adjusted choreography specifically to match a competition. However, if something doesn't feel right or if my dancers have trouble with a certain part, I may make changes and ask for their feedback. Throughout the season, I do think it's important to make adjustments as dancers develop strength and technical efficiency. For example, I may challenge my dancers with difficult elements to push them to reach their potential. It's not about changing entire sections of dances, but rather tweaking and adjusting to help them grow and develop. The goal is not just to win competitions, but to help my dancers strive for excellence.

I believe that having a respect for the technical skills and foundation of dance is crucial to becoming a true dance artist. However, I also think that it is possible to be an impressive artist without having fully mastered those skills. It takes a special type of individual who is able to bring their own unique style and interpretation to the art form, while also continuously working to improve their technical abilities. Ultimately, it's about finding a balance between creativity and skill, and using that balance to create something truly special and unique.

Kelsey:I believe that it is possible to approach dance in various ways, and everyone's journey will be different. However, having a strong foundation is essential to build upon. Without a solid technical understanding of the art form, even the most impressive and beautiful artistry can falter. Understanding your body, how it works, and the science behind dance gives you the freedom to create and express your artistry. While it is possible to create a phenomenal dancer without technical support, it is rare. You can start building your foundation and developing your artistry at any age, and you can build one on top of the other. Ultimately, you need that foundation to create something truly remarkable.

Is acrobatic training becoming a necessity for competitive dancers to excel in the dance competition circuit? It seems to be a prevalent feature in the routines of top-tier competitors. How significant is acrobatics in the dance industry, and does your studio offer acro training? 

Kelsey: Our studio offers an optional acro class on Fridays, which is mostly taken by younger students, while only a few high school students take it since they didn't train in it before. Acro is not mandatory for our students, and although it can add value to choreography if used correctly, it can also detract from it if used inappropriately or in certain genres. As a dance teacher, I encourage my students to use acro skills to enhance the storytelling and add value to the piece, rather than solely aiming to score points. While acro can be impressive, I believe that it's no longer enough to simply execute acrobatic tricks, and that maintaining eye contact, breathing, and performing with intention are more impressive skills. Therefore, although acro can be beneficial, I don't think it's necessary for competitive dancers to succeed.

As an educator, at what point do you start pulling in artistry beyond the technique…in your experience, how young are they when they can understand the concept of artistry and is it possible to do too much too soon?

Kelsey:  I facilitate improv sessions with children, but I provide specific guidelines to ensure a structured approach. For instance, I make it clear that technical skills are not allowed, such as pirouettes, battements, or saute de chats. To give an example, this week, I worked with seven and eight-year-olds on improv exercises, and I also incorporate movement activities like freeze dance and encouraging them to act like different animals in my classes for younger kids.

To engage my younger students, I encourage them to tap into their creativity and explore movement beyond technical skills. For example, I'll ask them to dance like a butterfly or embody a certain color, and they will raise their hand and share what that color means to them. Then, I challenge them to incorporate a dance move like a Chasse while embodying that color. This exercise helps them connect their movements to their imagination and incorporate skills into their dance.

As my students get older, around nine to ten years old and beyond, I introduce more advanced concepts that challenge them to think creatively. For example, in one session, I asked them to move through space like bubbles or lightning, encouraging them to think beyond technical dance skills. These exercises prompt them to explore different movement qualities and be more aware of their body in motion.

During our improv sessions, I emphasize the importance of being present and aware of their movements without pre-planning them. This encourages them to let go while holding themselves accountable for their movements. As a result, I have noticed an improvement in their improv skills as they take their time and pay attention to their movements, making sure to execute them correctly. As an educator, I strive to give them the freedom to explore while providing them with technical guidance. I teach them that technique involves things like how they move through their plie or work through the floor, not just pirouettes. By integrating these concepts at a young age, they can develop a solid technical foundation that allows them to feel confident and free to express themselves later on.

How do you as an educator deal with middle schoolers who prioritize tricks over the value of technique, particularly when influenced by social media, and feel inferior if they cannot perform these tricks?

Kelsey: To encourage middle schoolers to value the process of dance, it's important to understand that there is more to it than just tricks. One way to do this is to ask them who their favorite dancers are and watch videos of them together, asking questions about what they notice and admire. This will help you understand what they value and what they're looking for in dance. From there, you can create combos that are focused on movement and artistic expression rather than just technical skills. By doing this, you can show them that there's value in both aspects of dance and help them to appreciate the process. It's important to have conversations with them and find out who inspires them and why. Additionally, giving them opportunities to dance across the floor and work on artistic-based combos can help them understand the value of both directions.

To engage more emotions into a performance, what are some strategies to get performers to connect more deeply with the emotional aspect of their performance?

Kelsey: We incorporate journaling in every class, setting aside around five to seven minutes for this activity. This has helped the students to tap into their emotions and feelings, allowing them to be more open and vulnerable while dancing. It's crucial to understand the motivation behind a piece, and it doesn't have to be the same for everyone. Personalizing it brings out more emotions and depth, which leads to a better performance. For example, when I was having trouble getting a group of students to perform, I asked them to pick a movie they connect with and choreograph a dance that depicts the movie from beginning to end in two and a half minutes. This made them act it out, which helped to bring out the emotions needed for the performance. Another approach is to ask them to make fun of the choreography, which often results in exaggerated movements that elevate the performance. For more emotional pieces, it's essential to get the students to find a personal connection and share it verbally, which helps them be vulnerable and perform better.

Yesterday, we rehearsed a piece that I choreographed. The inspiration behind the song was the sudden and unexpected passing of the father of one of my former students, who never had the chance to say goodbye. However, many of my current students may not have experienced that feeling, so I try to make them think about what it would be like if they were never able to see or talk to their loved ones again, whether due to moving away or other circumstances. Instead of explicitly telling them how to feel, I use different methods to help them tap into their emotions. There isn't a single right way to do this, as it depends on the kids and the style of dance, but once we find what works, we can use it as a starting point to develop the performance further.

Oftentimes, especially in the competitive dance space, we see pieces with a theme that is questionable and frankly uncomfortable to watch as an audience member. For example spoken word pieces about protest, pieces about death and loss, suicide etc.  Ignoring the psychological impact this might play for the dancers themselves…how much is too much and when should an educator draw the line between the need to tell their story at the expense of their students?

Kelsey: So, I believe that as dance creators, we should keep in mind that we're creating for children most of the time. While there is a place for all kinds of topics in dance performances, I think it's essential to have a distinction between presenting a message and having it personally impact you. When it comes to kids, it's important to choose topics that they can relate to, rather than ones that are unrelatable and force them to try to understand something they can't. For instance, when I choreographed a piece about not being able to say goodbye, I explained where it came from for me, but I wanted my students to make the piece their own. If we pick topics that are unrelatable, we won't get an authentic and genuine performance from the dancers. Therefore, I always try to avoid such topics.

As a judge, it can be uncomfortable to provide feedback on pieces that address sensitive or controversial topics because our role is to offer constructive criticism to improve the dancers' artistry and technique. Critiquing a piece that touches on social issues, suicide, or other contentious subjects can feel inappropriate and make me hesitant to provide feedback. It becomes challenging to balance the desire to help dancers improve with the discomfort of critiquing such pieces.

I believe that if you want to showcase a piece at a competition and receive feedback, it's important to create something that kids can relate to and understand on a personal level. However, if you want to create a show or an experience for your students, then it's better to create something separately from competition pieces. Personally, I would avoid putting controversial topics on stage.

Kelsey, as part of our weekly homework, we usually suggest a small change that people can make to improve in the topic we are discussing. What is one challenge you would like to give to our readers,  to work on between now and next week to make progress in this area?

Kelsey: I suggest having a conversation with your students to understand what they value in having a strong technical foundation and strong artistry, and how to bring those two aspects together. Understanding their values will help you as a teacher change where you put your focus and bridge the gap between the two. For the next week, challenge your students to do a combo that focuses more on movement and storytelling rather than on technical skills. Encourage them to improvise and see what results they get. Also, choose music with an uplifting message that the students can connect to. For example, a song like "More" that talks about healing, love, and the desire for more time with friends and teammates. Give them space to dance and see how they connect to the music and express themselves. You might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

As we wrap up, I want to encourage all of you to take our Steps Initiative course. This is a completely free online course that covers important topics such as racism, gender and equity, sex abuse prevention, dance medicine and science, psychology, and nutrition. Each module is curated by experts in their respective fields, and it serves as a great foundation to further your knowledge and professional development. While it's not everything you need to know, it's a fantastic starting point to create happier, healthier spaces in dance for all of our performance athletes.


Kelsey, if someone wants to book you for consulting, master classes, or judging, how can they get in touch with you?

Instagram: @kjndance



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