This semester I will have two courses with our freshman. Freshman year of college is always a difficult time but I think being a dance major makes it a little more challenging.
Most of these students have been the ‘stars’ at whatever school they attended before college and it is always a real eye opener to them to suddenly be in a class where they are more like equals to the other students. These students also have a different schedule than their peers in other majors. They take their dance and academic classes all day long and then spend the evenings in rehearsal. They have between 6-8 courses on their schedule while their peers may have four. Their ‘Dance’ classes also contain many writing and reading assignments. They don’t get to just ‘dance all day’ like their peers assume. When they are not working on all of this, they are cross training. They work at least as hard as the athletes but without the respect.
I am most excited to be working with the freshman in the dance conditioning class. Dance conditioning teaches students alternative techniques for training their body. The complimentary approaches of Pilates and Yoga, for example, help them with the alignment with their torso and pelvis and also with incorporating more breath in to their movement. This course also spends a good deal of time focusing on anatomy. For many of these students, it is their first look at the anatomy of the body and how that anatomy can influence their dance and their performance.
Dance conditioning makes visible just how much unlearning and relearning my freshman dancers need to do. Many of these students have come to us with bad alignment habits. As an instructor, there is a fine line to walk and a lot of trust that needs to built up with the students in order to begin to have them make changes to their alignment and the way that they have been training. Much of this work began when they arrived at school in the fall, but in this class we can really focus on it.
The dance students, after their lecture on leg muscles, use the foam roller to ‘roll out’ the fascia of their IT band.
Studying anatomy helps this transition. As they learn about the shapes of the muscles and bones, they begin to truly understand why body parts move as they do. In one class, we were discussing the vertebral column. We were also talking about the anatomical terms for movement in the body, flexion in particular. I said to the students:
“Flexion of the vertebral column or spine is forward bending. In between each of the 24 vertebra is a joint- movement is possible there. Think of that the next time you are in modern dance class and asked to roll down in your spine. Are you using all 24 joints or just 3 or 4?” You could see the wheels turning as they pondered that thought. It’s really a simple and obvious thought but if they are not aware how the body works they will be unable to dance to their fullest potential.
In the first few weeks of the class, the students float between being overwhelmed with names of muscles and other anatomical terms to wondering why no one ever talked about this before. I tell them that the same re-learning process that they are going through is happening in dance programs all over the country.
As the semester progresses and they begin to see and feel the changes that are happening in their body, their trust of the process grows. They start to notice that that hip does not pop any more, their turns are easier, their arabesque higher. At this point for many of the students, there is a renewed excitement about their dance training and what they can accomplish.