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Friends and Dance

Joseph Simons warns us of the dangers of friends in the dance studio.

You’re in the dance studio. The class is spread out across the room, waiting for the next instruction. The teacher is at the front. They explain the next exercise. It’s a little unusual, perhaps a little difficult. Suddenly, there’s a side comment. And a few giggles. Some of your friends behind you have decided that what the teacher wants the class to do is stupid. At this moment, you have a choice. You can giggle along with them, and regard the exercise as ‘too weird’ and not worth trying. Or, you can shut out the giggles, trust your teacher and give it your best shot. You can see where I’m going with this. Obviously I’m encouraging you to take the second choice, trust your teacher, and ignore your friend’s lazy behavior, but sometimes this is easier said than done.

Friends are awesome. Friends are so fun to hang out with, laugh with, share stupid feelings with, share important feelings with. Brilliant. But be warned: friends in the dance studio can be a bit of a trap. Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not saying you should dump all your friends right now. But it’s important to recognise when your friends are a negative influence. When a group of friends get together, there is inevitably a ringleader. Someone who influences the others, and dominates the group. Now, this doesn’t always mean that they are going to influence the group negatively. Sometimes the ringleader is able to inspire the group to work hard, and encourage healthy competition. Of course, just as easily, if there is a negative ringleader, it can pull the group down into laziness, side comments, and a bad attitude.

I’ve done a lot of guest teaching over the years. Guest teaching can be particularly tricky because you don’t know the students and the students don’t know you. When I give a workshop, I like to push the dancers, to give them something they are perhaps haven’t tried before or to expose them to new ways of thinking about dance. As a result, I’ve discovered two very different responses.

The first response is a group of dancers who see something new, decide that it’s too strange, too unfamiliar, and are unwilling to give it a try. They seem to merge together to create one collective brain, and when this collective brain has decided that this particular exercise (or class, or teacher) is not worth working for, all systems shut down, and the whole class can turn a bit sour. From a teacher’s perspective, this is very disheartening. There is nothing worse than teaching a group of young dancers who are making faces at each other as if to say ‘can you believe this guy? He wants us to do what?!?!’. But teacher’s perspective aside, by choosing to side with your lazy friends, you’re actually cheating YOURSELF out of the benefit. Of course the other response is when the group takes on the new challenges with gusto, giving everything a try, and even if not instantly successful, they create an environment where everyone is working hard, and everyone is encouraged to do their best.

Let’s go back to our image of you in the dance studio, your friends having a giggle behind you. Whether you are a ringleader in the group or not, there is one important thing to do that requires a lot of practice: think for yourself. When you’re in the professional industry, being able to think for yourself is one of the most vital skills you can have. Following the crowd can actually be very dangerous when you’re freelancing, because you run the risk of fading into the crowd and getting lost.

To be able to be a successful freelance dancer/performer/choreographer/director (or whatever you want to be), the way to forge your own path is to take notice of what the crowd is doing, and instead of blindly joining in, be able to observe, analyse, and then make your own decision. It requires a pioneering brain to be a freelance artist.

And the best place for a young dancer to start thinking for themselves is in the dance studio. When there are lazy dancers around you, even if they are your friends, be brave and ignore them. If you want a career in dance, put your focus on the teacher. They have so much information to pass on, so allow them to inspire you. Work hard in the dance studio, or let your friends distract you? The decision is yours.

Joseph Simons is freelance dancer, choreographer and teacher. He performs as a contemporary dancer, physical theatre performer, soloist ballet dancer and actor.