An Unconventional Perspective From Stables to Studios

Training the Aspiring Dancer

By JoAnna Mendl Shaw

Does traditional technical dance training fully prepare the young dancer in 2015 to engage with the requirements of contemporary choreography? Are we preparing dancers to integrate sensing and thinking, merge memorized sequences with real-time decision-making and combine technical prowess with creative imagination?

Woman with horse

Photo credit: Kajsa Lindqvist

My engagement with these questions emerges from many years of conservatory teaching but is also deeply influenced by a choreographic journey that has taken me far from the dance studio and into the world of equines. I choreograph large-scale performance works with dancers and horses and create kinetic language that must effectively communicate with a 1,200-pound creature of flight, a herd animal that looks to the alpha in the herd for decisive leadership. The dancer must be the alpha, prepared to make spatially clear, fully embodied decisions.

My horsemanship training introduced me to multiple techniques for teaching right brain and left-brain learners, combating the dullness that results from endless repetition in the studio. Working with horses gave me tools to engage an equine both physically and mentally. As I trained dancers for my company I began to explore how to more effectively support dancers’ three-dimensional investment in space and train them to work with more empowered and dynamic interplay between thinking, sensing, and decision-making. These experiences helped me rethink some of the long-held dance conventions that have long been fundamental to dance training.


Writer Malcolm Gladwell in his New Yorker article “The Physical Genius” writes, “What sets physical geniuses apart from other people, then, is not merely being able to do something but knowing what to do – their capacity to pick up on subtle patterns that others generally miss … When psychologists study people who are expert at motor tasks, they find that almost all of them use their imaginations in a very particular and sophisticated way.”

Dancers are experts at motor tasks, but they are not being trained to cope with the complexity of the motor tasks demanded of them today. Dancers in the 21st century are being asked to use their imaginations in tremendously sophisticated ways, yet I question whether training imagination is being fully integrated into their technique classes.

Nancy Halsey

Nancy Halsey, courtesy JoAnna Mendl Shaw.

This question is foremost in my choreographic world when I ask my dancers to navigate fluidly between set choreographic material and in-the-moment decision-making. Learned phrase material cannot settle into memory in our work with horses, but must remain adaptable: Set phrases might have to be performed facing any direction, carving around the animal or leading from the front. A phrase that touches the horse might be performed with vehemence or gentleness depending on the kind of leadership the animal needs in that moment. Dancing is occurring in constant relationship to the animal – thus it is dynamic and ever changing.

Repertory experiences surely ask dancers to actively use imagination as they generate material and participate in the creation process. Improvisation and composition classes offer multiple opportunities to train the dancers’ intellectual and emotional imaginations. However, the cornerstone of conservatory training is still regular technique class. This is where the psyche of a dancer is being most powerfully shaped. Technique classes structured around repetitive, memorized warm-up sequences and phrases based on a set lexicon of steps are not training a thinking dancer. I believe that the imagination could be more actively engaged inside the technical training.

  • Imagine a technique class in which dancers take set movement material and adapt it to different locations in the room or to a busy hallway. Spatial adaptability and imaginative problem solving begin to integrate into phrase-learning.  

Empowering the Thinking Dancer

I would like to make a case for training the empowered, thinking dancer. How we train dancers to make decisions is, to some extent, linked to how we treat them as human beings. This is not accomplished by hand holding. I am fully in favor of rigorous and demanding training that places the burden of responsibility on the dancer to show up, invest fully, work unimaginably hard and put in the 10,000 hours to become an expert. But I do think that movement is often drilled and micro-managed to the point of dullness; that dancers over-rehearse. In equine training, long hours of repetitive training dull desire. Constant repetition is not the only pathway to learning.

In horsemanship, when teaching something new, the minute the animal does the correct move the trainer should stop, release. It is the release that teaches. Essentially you are giving the animal time to mentally process a new kinetic pathway. I question whether sheer repetition allows dancers to intelligently inform their bodies. Sheer repetition is only one of multiple ways to bring dancers into a choreographic landscape.

  • Imagine alternating combinations that require lots of thinking with simple experiential warm-up material.
  • Imagine inserting assimilation moments into technique class – either personal time or conversations between dancers about what did learning has taken place. 

The dancer in 2015 must be a courageous problem solver. However there is also the lingering and tacit message that dancers must be obedient and follow the choreographer’s steps or logic. They are often silent collaborators in the creation of works, generating original movement material as part of the creation process. I believe that dancers should be treated as collaborators, encouraged to ask questions and taught to ask questions respectfully, with honest curiosity about process rather than the need to be noticed. Dancers should be encouraged to think about why they are asking that question. Training empowered dancers offers choreographers movers who operate from a place of curiosity and intelligence.

Conscious Competence

Young dancers come into a serious training process with enormous unconscious competence. This is the passion for movement that led them to dance like demons when they were five years old. My job is twofold: To help them gain more conscious competence as well as encouraging them to fully own and trust the wealth of unconscious competence they already own.

JoAnna Mendl Shaw is a site choreographer whose choreographic work uses natural and architectural environments as foundations for movement exploration and narrative. Her work has been commissioned by The Neuberger Museum at SUNY Purchase, Dancing in the Streets at Wave Hill, NYC River-to-River Festival, Chelsea Piers, and numerous ice dance works created Ice Theatre of New York. In 2012, with funding from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, Shaw created OnSite NYC, a performance series of site works made for urban landscapes in NYC. To date OnSite NYC has produced 12 unique works created for sites in New York City. 

Shaw is the recipient of two Choreographic Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her company, The Equus Projects, has gained international recognition for its performance works and installations for dancers and horses and for the innovative choreographic scoring structures that emerge from that process. and created works for the Bates Dance Festival, the Myrna Loy, The Flynn, Mount Holyoke College, Connecticut College, Virginia Commonwealth University, Saratoga Arts Festival, the Heifetz International Music Institute and the White Oak Plantation. The Equus projects’ 2014 documentary Hastdans pa Hovdala follows the creation of an evening-length performance work with horses and a Swedish company of young adults with autism. 

The Equus Projects received prestigious 2008-2009 ERPA grants funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The company has also been funded by the Jerome Robbins Foundation and National Performance Network. Shaw, a 2014 recipient of a Mount Holyoke Special Achievement Award for her unique and outstanding contribution to the arts,Shaw has taught on the faculty in the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, Juilliard, Tisch/NYU School of the Arts, Princeton University, Mount Holyoke College, Montclair State and Marymount Manhattan. She is certified in Laban Movement Analysis. 


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