Monday, November 9, 2009

Editorial: The Challenges Faced By Our Youngest Dancers

We're returning to writing a series of editorial articles this week as we move closer to the holiday season. Autumn is often a reflective time and it's worth looking back at this past year of 2009. Soon, we'll be starting a new decade. It's a crucial period for our newest generation of street dancers as our traditions will live on through how they handle them. So today, we're looking at some of the challenges faced by our youngest dancers as they take their first steps into street dance culture. (Photo above is from a Getty Images archive.)

Where do we begin? Our information age has made insights and online videos of street dance more accessible to anyone who has web access. One of the biggest challenges facing a young street dancer is misinformation of technique. But our youngest dancers can't be blamed for turning to Youtube for information. When you don't have access to an experienced mentor/teacher, a thriving dance studio with street dance classes, or a collaborative community; it's easy to turn to the Internet for answers. However; how does a new bboy, popper, or locker distinguish between correct, experience-informed technique and shoddy imitation? For the uninformed, it's like studying a foreign culture by starting off with imitations of it from movies and television. With this approach, you can either be misled down the wrong path or you can burn a lot of time before you discover the facts.

"Know your history" has been the prescribed mantra of many established street dancers as they pass on their knowledge to a younger generation. That's a good place to begin. A dedicated student will want to identify the pioneers of a particular style as well as learn the timeline of how it developed. A hungry dancer will consult many established sources and cross-reference what they learn in order to create a more balanced picture of the past. Youtube is a spotty reference for street dance culture from the 1970s and 1980s. We can find clips on there for some jam sessions, television appearances, and stage performances. But it's not comprehensive. Those who lived the culture during the '70s and '80s either have the video footage themselves and haven't uploaded it to Youtube or they have chosen not to do so. For whatever reason, there is a sea of visual information and historical documentation that a new generation hasn't witnessed. The majority of the most high-profile dance video clips on Youtube are from our current new generation. You'll easily find footage from the past month or even past few years. However, this won't give you a better portrait of the past.

So what can a new dancer do? Perhaps they can consult with an established street dance teacher/mentor and ask to view priceless footage from two decades ago. Or they can check public archives for television shows and recorded stage performances. Along with getting a picture of the past, a new dancer needs to understand the social/historical context of back then. Knowing why our first generation of dancers did what they did is as important as how they performed their dance. It only grows a deeper appreciation for our culture within all of us.

Learning and studying from an established mentor is key. Along with this is the training that comes from taking classes and learning how to perform with eight counts. Unfortunately, there is a trend among many young street dancers who love to freestyle but they can't follow an eight count of choreography. Freestyling is fine, but if you want to perform in a professional project, you'll likely have to work with a choreographer who operates on eight counts. If you can dance to eight counts and follow choreography, it's just one more thing that will help you be considered for a dance gig. Plenty of hip hop choreo dancers in the competitive collegiate scene can do eight counts. So why can't our solo freestylers do it? The probability is that we can, but we haven't applied ourselves in that way. It just takes more practice. We call this "pick up" skill. That is, how well you "pick up" choreography when you're learning it.

Young street dancers need to know that they have to be technically proficient in their style, but they also need to present their moves well. At an audition, they may be asked to freestyle for a a few eight counts. No doubt they will be excited to do so. But if the audition committee can't see or read your moves, then you're shooting yourself in the foot. For any of us who have gone on auditions, we've seen competitors who may not be as technically proficient in a style, but they present their moves extremely well. And sometimes, they get the job instead of us. Best thing to learn from this situation is to simply work on presenting your moves and your dance in a way that can be read by an audience. Sometimes, our youngest dancers dance inwardly. Their heads are facing down. They're hunched over with their backs to the audience. Or maybe their moves are directed inside towards their core without ever projecting outwards. We can do better than this. Auditioning more will bring experience. Being humble and accepting of constructive criticism from our mentors is also helpful.

Last of all, our youngest generation needs to persevere. Our mentors have encouraged us with these very words. We can't lose hope. We can't give up. Keep going. Stay strong. Whether these words ring as cliches or as truthful gems, they contain valuable meaning for us. Only with time will our skills grow and mature. Think about the first generation of street dancers. Many of them have danced for thirty years or more by this time. Some of us have only danced for a few years. We still have a long way to go. But we also have a lot to look forward to. That's hard to grasp in our fast-food culture. However, there will be endless insights and revelations that we may never experience if we don't persevere. Dancing and being a street dancer is just as relevant to one's life journey as your core beliefs, passions, and dreams.

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