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“Tricks” vs. “Technique”

Bree Hafen

Posted on February 19 2020

“Tricks” vs. “Technique”

by Bree Hafen

Similar to dancers, as teachers and choreographers we also have to develop a pretty thick skin.  Each year as our dancers hit the competition stage we place our bare naked creativity out to be scrutinized by our contemporaries.  We place the very life of our creations under the microscope. Our dancers, our dances – our everything. Personally, I get much more nervous on this side of the business than I ever did as a performer.  Criticize my body, my technique, my ability to perform – I can handle that. Criticize my creativity, my ability to train, my CHILDREN – that brings out a whole new beast!

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For the most part, the critiques and even criticism I receive from competition judges is constructive.  Many times I have to chuckle and roll my eyes at the judges comments that echo what I have been telling my sweet dancers for MONTHS! However, one critique has been eating at me for years, and it’s high time I settle the score.

It was given to one of the most talented teen dancers with whom I have ever worked.  Her solo was contemporary. Not contempyrical – straight contemporary with artistic risks that I knew some judging panels may not fully appreciate.  We knew this going into the choreography, and we were both willing to take the risk. Much to our delight – the solo competed very well and most judges loved the piece… but there was the one.  The one comment that repeats in my mind every 4 days or so. It went something like this:

“She is a really great dancer, and I want to score her high.  However, there is just not enough technique in her solo to receive a high score from me.”

A-HEM. What was that?  Not enough technique? I literally rewound that phrase 6 times to make sure I heard her correctly.

I quickly realized that what that judge meant to say was “there aren’t enough tricks in her solo” – which got me thinking… are competition dancers taught that “technique” and “tricks” are one in the same? Yikes.  Let’s clear this up.

Technique: “A way of carrying out a particular task, especially the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure. Skill or ability in a particular field. A skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something.”

Trick: “A clever and skillful action that someone performs to entertain or amuse people.”

The technique of a dancer should be seen in the way she walks on stage.  The way he works through his feet as he chassés. The way the shoulders pull down through the back muscles, elongating the neck. The energy exchange between the dancer and the dance floor to create a stable foundation.  The slight wing of the ankle in derrière. A coupé turned out from the hip. A tailbone positioned toward the floor in plié. The daunting skill of creating an open chest coupled with a closed rib cage. A great technician is even allowed to “throw away” some of this technique in moments of artistic choice because they know just how to use that technique to thread into and out of those moments seamlessly.

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Tricks are a skill or act that take place within a dance – usually a skill that is deemed difficult or given worth through the technique it takes to execute it well.  Things like jumps, turns, tumbling, and extensions can be found in this category. When done with great technique – tricks certainly have their place in a routine… but the lack of “tricks” in a dance certainly does not imply lack of technique.

When are each necessary?  In my opinion, technique is constant.  It has always been important, it will continue to be important; great technique will never go out of style.  There are no types of dance that aren’t enhanced by great technique (though the proper technique for different styles may differ.)  Each and every piece of art you create is going to look it’s best when executed with sound technique. Tricks, on the other hand, depend on the choreography, style/genre/feel, and the general goals of the piece.

There are three main problems – things that I see as a judge weekend after weekend:

  1. “Tricks” performed by dancers who haven’t reached a level of technical readiness.  I love a great pirouette as much as the next judge. However, when it’s on a flat heel with multiple hops and weak upper body… I have to believe that this performance is valuing the “trick” above the “technique”.  I will speak for judges across the globe in saying, we would rather see a nicely executed single pirouette than to a dancer hop and bobble through a triple with a disconnected passé. My rule of thumb that I share in critiques often is: If the dancer is not nailing the trick with proper technique consistently in rehearsal – then that trick is not stage ready.  It’s time to go back to the basics of technique. Build upon a SOLID FOUNDATION, rather than feeling the pressure to throw in tricks for which your dancer is just not ready. That isn’t good for your dancer, her scores, or her safety.
  2. Teachers/choreographers feeling that tricks are required to score well.  I can’t tell you how often I judge a beautiful contemporary or modern routine – one that takes me on a journey, building a story, relationships, creating staging, shapes, textures, layers… then 3/4 of the way through when I am chest-deep in LOVING the piece – the dancers abruptly stop the movement to step-prep into a hundred turns in second.  Listen, I certainly don’t have anything against a well-executed turn in second. They have their place in many routines. But there are times when I have to ask - why this piece? What do these tricks do to enhance the art you are creating? How to they tell your story? Do we feel obligated to put tricks in our choreography in order to score well? Let your art be art – and if your dancers are ready, let your tricks be integrated into the art in a technically sound, meaningful way that serves the purpose of your piece.  If you, like me, run in to the random judge who needs tricks to understand the technique of your dancers… may I kindly suggest you let it roll off your artistic backs and consider taking that competition off your schedule for next year.
  3. Dancers working incorrectly or impatiently in order to achieve the latest “trend trick”.  I feel like, especially since social media and reality television exploded their way into the dance world – there’s now a new “standard” which dancers can measure themselves against.  The problem is that, often dancers are diving into flexibility stunts, pointe work, tumbling or leaps that their body is either not made for, or not ready for. This is where teachers need to be very smart, and convincing.  Just because so-and-so that has 4 gagillion Instagram followers can do that, doesn’t mean that you are ready for it. Some of these dancers are L I T E R A L L Y breaking their backs to get that perfect needle for which their body was not designed!  We are responsible to help these dancers understand their bodies, and to know that technique is prerequisite to tricks. And that there are some tricks that would be unhealthy and unwise for them right now – and maybe always.

Technique is always important.  Tricks have their place when executed with proper technique – but let’s stop using those terms synonymously.  Build a solid foundation of technique, and your skyscraper of tricks will be solid and stage-ready.

Dance on,

Bree Hafen - Ceo, Tiger Friday 

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  • Sandi Reynolds : February 28, 2020

    I love this article. It is so true watching some of the dancing these days. I love ballet, contemporary, jazz, but not much of a Modern person. A lot of modern seems to be with spoken word with people running around stopping touching someone, more running or turning, stopping, touching etc. It just doesn’t entertain me. Anyway, back to why I love this article. I was at a competition with my daughter once and there was a solo that was nothing but something you would see at a gymnastics meet for a floor routine with a couple of turns here or there. The worst part was that she won. I couldn’t understand why when there was no dancing, no technique, and it just didn’t flow. I was thinking as we left, if this is what they are considering dancing we might need to find something else.

  • WIlliam Waldinger: February 23, 2020

    Well said. I’m a regular faculty member at The Joffrey Ballet School and not part of the competition dance world. I do however travel internationally to guest teach and spend a significant amount of time teaching competition dancers. Two of the things I always try to impress on these students and their regular teachers that they should:
    1) Have a vision for their piece
    2) Remember that the critique of a judge is just their opinion, and it is sometimes an opinion that they might not be qualified to make.

    Thanks for this article which makes those points so beautifully.

  • Kathryn : February 22, 2020

    Did you read my mind? I cannot tell you how much every single word rings true to me. As a teacher/choreographer/adjudicator for over 20 years I feel the same. I have always said 1 perfectly executed jete is enough, the judges do not need to see more. Technique is so much more than random tricks. I too wonder why teachers throw things…..random fouette turns, back handsprings and my fave – leg grabs into routines. Trust me, 99% of the time it is not a wow factor. Thank you so much for writing this and for being a champion of proper technique.

  • Matt Hackman: February 20, 2020

    As a dance educator, choreographer and judge this was a spectacular read. Thank you for bringing attention to the importance of technique and why “tricks” are secondary.

  • Kelly Dean-Bailey: February 20, 2020

    I love this so much. I don’t know when people began using the term “technique” synonymously with leaps & turns, and I would never ever apply it to acrobatics. Technique is exactly as you defined it, and can be detected as soon as the dancer walks onstage. I don’t understand either, though, why people have begun calling turns and leaps “tricks”, when they are really just dance elements that may or may not be appropriately woven into choreography. A jeté is not a trick. Nor is a pirouette. Neither are floats or turns in second. These are elements of dance – more difficult elements requiring strong technique to execute well, but not tricks!

  • Rapha Conrad : February 20, 2020

    Amen!

  • linette romero: February 20, 2020

    Cannot agree more. Thank you for taking the time to put this meaningful piece together and out there ❤️

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