Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Creating a Thorough Practice Routine

Having a structure in your practice is very challenging! Many dancers end up staring aimlessly into their mirror unsure of what to do. But a thorough, regular practice is the best tool in a dancer's arsenal. Dedication and finding time are hard, but if dance is a real priority there is no excuse for irregular or (gasp!) total absence of practice. Some dancers mistakingly believe they don't need to practice - but let me tell you no professional ever got that way on an hour of practice a week. Here's a good motivator. Taking one class a week will result in an average of 52 hours of training in a year. Daily practice (which should amount in about an hour total if possible) could easily result in 365 hours of training in a year. Professional dancers work several hours every day - in my busy months that sometimes adds up to 25 hours a week or more between teaching, performing and personal practice, which could add up to as much as 1300 hours a year.
Many dancers also make the mistake of "practice" meaning just improvising aimlessly to music - which is extremely important and should be a part of your practice. But very few dancers, I find, actually drill movements consistently which is the true key to effortless technique. To solve these problems I am going to outline a sample drill routine. It is important to rotate what movements you integrate into your practice, and make sure to include new moves without forgetting old ones!
I recommend selecting a handful of movements you want to work on based on how much time you have. Don't forget to warm up! You might start with gentle taqsim movements and yoga poses.
Now let's say you've decided to practice hip slides, saiidi hip drops, sidewinder, undulations up to down and three quarter shimmy. It would be straightforward to practice these movements standing, as we do when we learn them in class. However, this is not dancing dynamically! Once you have learned how to do them, you must integrate into your muscle memory in a variety of poses and movements! So here is an example of a drill of one movement; we'll select the three quarter shimmy.
Begin in first position and drill for 16 to 32 counts here. Repeat in second and fourth. (not all movements can be done in all foot positions!). Repeat that whole sequence in double time! Now with a basic walk in all stage directions - downstage, upstage, left, right, and diagonals (while facing downstage). Walk in a circle around yourself both directions. Now try grapevine and basic Egyptian. Repeat all that in doubletime. Practice with a level change. If you are an advanced dancer, try adding upper body layers.
If we wanted to practice a similar drill flow with a different movement, such as a grapevine - the example above would not apply the same way. We cant do a grapevine while doing a basic walk at the same time, but we can variate the direction of the grapevine, for instance. So to  make this less confusing, here is a simple set of questions to ask yourself about each movement you want to practice.
Which standing positions can this movement be done in?
How many time signatures/speeds can this step be done in?
Can this step be done with a basic walk?
Can this step be done with other foot patterns such as grapevine, chasse, basic Egyptian and cross-step?
Can this movement be done with a level change?
Can this movement be done while turning?
What other isolations can this be layered with? (advanced)
Can this movement be done in floorwork? (advanced)
Practice each variation for 16 to 32 counts -  longer if it feels awkward or you want to work the controling muscle - shorter if you want to practice a greater variety of moves. Remember - quality over quantity!
Of course, you won't be able to do this with every single move you know every single time you practice, the key is to rotate. Just insure that you don't practice too wide a variety so that you are master of none, but don't practice so few that you limit your movement vocabulary. It's all about balance. And don't forget to allow yourself free dance time to improvise and feel! This will develop your individuality and personal style.

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