by Amy Smith
I think that you are the first dancer we have interviewed who has an opera background! How did that training support your dance?
Strangely enough, my background as a singer/musician has been incredibly beneficial to me as a dancer. In college, I was required to study not only singing technique but also music history, music theory, music composition, ear training, acting, and pedagogy. As a dancer, I apply all of this training to dance. Musicality is incredibly important to me. When I hear a piece, I’m listening for all of the layers within it: rhythm, melody, harmony, instrumentation, dynamics, structure. In music composition, we were required to write music using computer programs so it was a sinch to start editing my music for dancing. Studying music theory and ear training gave me the skills to pick out rhythmic patterns quickly, which is extremely helpful when it comes to improvising drum solos or playing zil patterns.
My experience performing in the opera helped me to understand what it means to effectively portray a character, tell a story, and how to communicate with an audience from the stage. I also observed costume designers, makeup artists, and hairstylists at work backstage. This taught me a great deal about aesthetics on big stages and influences my choices of costuming, hair and makeup to this day. I learned a lot about how to prepare big pieces, how to work with stage lights, and have had experience performing in many different kinds of theaters and other venues. Being a part of a professional company also taught me about teamwork and rehearsal techniques.
What is your teaching style and approach? What are your primary goals for your students?
Well, pedagogy was part of my college education and I understand several theories about effective teaching methods, but mostly I’ve learned about teaching by having incredibly gifted teachers myself. My first voice teacher has been the single most influential person in my life. My goal as a teacher is to not only help people become better technicians and performers, but to help people become better humans.
First and foremost I want people to enjoy my classes. I want them to feel they’ve entered a safe and supportive space where they can leave the stresses of their daily life at the door, to be free to learn, make mistakes, and grow.
The way that I break down movement and structure my classes comes largely from my education in the fitness world. I studied cueing, class construction, and anatomy in yoga teacher training; pilates certifications, therapy workshops and other various fitness formats like cycling where BPM is really important for things like interval training. I want to get my students moving and teach them about their bodies, how they work, how to develop safe and effective dance technique, and how to be more fit and healthy. I also want to help guide people toward their goals, dance or otherwise, and coach them on time management, self-care, and balance. I hope to be a good example to students if their goals are athleticism, teaching, or performing.
One of your workshop topics for October is stage presence. That is one of those things that is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. What does it mean to you, and how do you help your students to understand it?
Yes, that's a tough one to define. In my mind, the term stage presence implies several things: confidence, charisma, skill, and poise. If a performer is trying to portray a character, good stage presence means they are successful in maintaining that character throughout; they’re committed to the character and the audience can clearly identify their character. If a performer is telling a story, the audience can follow. Most importantly, a strong performer with skillful stage presence will be able to create a mood, command a captive audience, and leave them feeling something - so they have something to talk about or think about afterward.
When I teach stage presence to dancers, I use a variety of exercises and games to help them get out of “technique and choreography brain.” Stage presence goes beyond the motions of the dance. Of course, this means that a dancer must have a strong enough technical foundation and must know their choreography (or be able to improvise) well enough to think about communication, characterization, musicality, and poise. So as not to overwhelm performers, I break down each of these concepts separately, depending on the workshop or experience level of performers. We’ll play character games, work with portraying various emotions, discuss entering and exiting stage. Other layers include working in groups, creating an aesthetic, understanding stage lighting, and how to work within various venues.
Who are your biggest dance influences, and why?
In terms of dance influence, my greatest influence comes from my dance teachers--the people I was so drawn to that I sought them out to teach me what they know. I have spent the most time learning under Rachel Brice and Zoe Jakes. Both have been incredibly supportive and they’ve offered me countless hours of guidance in all aspects of dance and performance. Not only are they great teachers of technique, but they are kind, have mountains of experience, and they are both (in my humble opinion) aesthetic geniuses. They’ve helped me with the big things: form, technique, choreography, pedagogy, but also with a myriad of little things: how to pack for the road, how to do makeup and hair, how to store my stuff at home, how to manage those huge dance calluses. I even got a dress form from Zoe one Christmas - never knew what a huge help that would be until I had one. Rachel has shared several tips on sewing, how to get all that metal through the airport security, showed me what a bun pin is. And those are just dance-related things. There’s tons of other things they’ve shown me! I could probably write a novel but I’ll stop there.
Other teachers I've studied with have all influenced me in different ways. I have studied quite a bit with Mira Betz. I absolutely adore Amy Sigil. Early on I was able to study with Jill Parker and Heather Stants. This community is just filled with the most amazing, hard-working, intelligent, and creative people.
Other influences include taking contortion classes or studying other dance forms and watching plays, operas, and circus shows.
What's playing on your iPod?
Ha! I destroyed that thing long ago. I’m more of an internet-streaming gal these days. I also hunt for lesser-known music from newer artists or non-Western artists. But I’m currently combing through Sufjan Steven’s new album on my best friend’s recommendation (I’m not sure how I feel about it just yet). Love Ray Lamontagne and Mumford and Sons. I am not ashamed to admit that I often rock out to bad pop music, especially while lifting weights. If I’m sewing I’m likely to put on some house or breakbeats, or bizarre electronica. I adore heady jazz, anything with syncopation, and I always keep Chopin and Beethoven nearby. The Eroica Symphony is my personal theme song. One can have an entire symphony for a theme song, right?