Mastering Delicate Styling
Although the Zeina instructional program focuses on demonstrating the sequence of steps in a choreography, I hope dancers will also be able to use Zeina's combinations as skill-building technical exercises.
To dance Zeina's intricate combinations with fluidity, poise, and grace, start by taking ownership of the movement vocabulary. If you're working with steps or transitions that you haven't mastered, take time to examine each movement and iron out the kinks one by one.
Next, put your body in a confident grounded alignment, breathe, and be precise. As you work with the Zeina program you will see that there are a lot of steps and changes, and very few empty counts. If you dance with too much momentum or effort your steps will look crowded or messy and you will feel rushed and unstable. Breathe and relax. Use a light touch.
Find and draw out open space. The more cleanly you articulate your movement, the more room you open up around and between movements. To put even more air into the dance, pay special attention to moments of punctuation and suspension. Follow the phrasing of the melody, and phrase your movement to match. Breathe. The literal air that you flow through your body supports a fluid airy quality in your dance.
To make your footwork glide, work on a gliding surface. I choreographed Zeina specifically for a dancer wearing a flat soft-soled dance shoe working on an unobstructed smooth floor. If you have a thick callous layer, or if you're willing to build one, you may be able to execute the steps barefoot. But for me shoes are essential to mastering the technique of this choreography. They make the steps easier and more comfortable, and that relaxed confidence translates into more precise more graceful dancing.
If you are still struggling, if you look or feel frantic, or if you find that you're holding your breath, or that you're really exerting yourself, stop, relax, and start again. Make it soft, make it small, dance delicately. But most of all breathe and relax.
If you would like to dance through Zeina exactly as I designed it, there is a lot to memorize. Learning the sequence of steps and internalizing all of the details will not be a quick project.
With that in mind, when you're working with this program, maybe it's useful to you to memorize the whole choreography, or maybe it's more useful to just work at the level of combinations or sections and put your focus on concepts.
If you feel frustrated by trying to memorize steps, you don't have to make memorization a priority. Instead, look to take away technique and ideas. Think of the choreography as a plan, and don't worry if the plan changes while you are dancing. If you leave out a step, or the step takes on a life of its own and comes out as something else, go with it and explore where it takes you. You're likely to find interesting possibilities and interpretations that are better for you personally because they're a better expression of your unique physicality, or a better fit into your own artistic language.
But, if you specifically enjoy working with choreography or aspire to versatility, building memorization skills is an important aspect of dance training.
To memorize choreography, I recommend starting with verbal cues. They don't work for everyone, but they are very helpful for many dancers. I use verbal cues as a kind of song that goes with the choreography, describing each step as it happens. If you take a group class or work with an ensemble, you probably know a few of these songs already, with lyrics like, “hip and hip and 123 up!” If cues are at all useful to you, I strongly encourage you to incorporate them into learning step sequences and review them during the early phases of rehearsal. (And, if you are a teacher or troupe leader, you may find that specifically creating consistent verbal cues that go with each movement phrase helps your dancers memorize choreography more quickly.) If there are movements you consistently flub or forget, sing the cues aloud while you dance. Even if you feel self-conscious, try it anyway. I think you'll find that after a few cue sing-alongs, many rough spots disappear.
If you're feeling ambitious, the process of creating your own cues will go a long way toward planting steps in your memory. But, for Zeina, you can also work with the cues I've developed for you. The cheat sheet is here.
I strongly encourage dancers to practice with a mirror and to review video, but, for memorization, dancers also need to learn steps without relying on these tools for visual memory cues. (If this idea is new to you, test it out right now. Close your eyes and try to remember a sequence of steps from a class or rehearsal. Are you remembering feelings? Or have you summoned up a mental image, mentally “seeing” your reflection in the mirror? Do you remember your left and your right, or are you taking orientation cues from a visual memory of a specific room you work in?)
Working with a webcam has really helped me to break my dependence on visual cues without having to sacrifice visual feedback. In my practice space at home, I have a webcam set up to point in to the mirror, and I leave it on most of the time, since the computer provides plenty of memory and unneeded video is easy to delete at the end of the day. Sometimes I dance facing the mirror, but I also rehearse facing the camera, with my back to the mirror. Facing the mirror, I can watch my reflected image, or ignore my reflection and watch the recorded footage when I'm done. When I'm facing the camera, sometimes I watch my “reflection” on the computer monitor, or sometimes I minimize the window. Knowing that I can always watch myself later has taken away my mirror-dependence, and flipping back and forth between facing the mirror and facing the webcam (and also occasionally running dances facing one or the other side wall) really helps me to get a sense of choreography independent of my practice environment. I also try to periodically rehearse in other spaces.
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