4 Tips for Training Musicality and Timing in Your Dancers

I have fond memories of my dance teachers growing up always having ‘the coolest music’ (which I now recognize as retro Janet Jackson and 90’s Eurodance). I don’t recall them ever playing The Spice Girls or *NSYNC or whatever else I was listening to at home – and now as a coach myself, I understand why. Musicality comes naturally to some but for most it needs to be skillfully trained and nurtured like all other aspects of dance.

Here are my Top 4 tips for training musicality and timing in your dancers:

Maple Grove High School from Maple Grove, MN

Maple Grove High School from Maple Grove, MN

1. Have a set choreographed warm up and enforce synchronization. This makes timing and music awareness a priority right from the get-go, as soon as they start moving. Choreographed warm ups require counting, not just copying – after a while nobody wants to be that one girl still in a lunge while everybody else has expertly moved on to arm circles in one swift movement. Moving ‘as one’ through warm up also creates a nice sense of teamwork and purpose.

2. Like the great dance teachers of your childhood, be more picky about what music you have your dancers moving to. You can’t control what they listen to at home but you can be in control of increasing their music vocabulary in the studio. Moving to only Top 40 all year and then throwing an intricate pom mix or emotionally mature lyrical/jazz song at them for competition is asking them to go from 0 to 100.

Between warm up, across the floor, stretching and conditioning, you play at least 45 minutes worth of music each practice. Use this time to expose your dancers to music they don’t hear on the radio, intricate or unique beats and melodies, various genres, and songs that evoke different types of emotions. Being mindful of age appropriateness, this can be harder with younger dancers. For little ones I like to use things like classical or rock covers of pop songs so they’re hearing familiar music presented in different ways.

spotify:user:dtmasterclass:playlist:6hTnNUNoFKs4mqYfh377z9

I know sourcing music can be the bane of coaching – but don’t worry! I’ve linked you to my Spotify playlist (above). I update it regularly so it’s always fresh. Follow and enjoy! If you don’t see the link you can find it on Spotify by searching ‘dtmasterclass’ and follow my DANCE TEAM playlist.

3. When it comes to timing for a specific routine, have your dancers listen to their routine music any chance they get. Not practice, just listen. On the bus, walking home from school, brushing their teeth – anywhere and everywhere! Make sure they have easy access to the music on their phones and computers. The closer it gets to competition, the more I make them listen to it – sometimes 10 x per day. They will begin to hear things they hadn’t noticed while dancing – different instruments, accents, lyrics and mood changes. That familiarity will come through in their dancing.

4. For cleaning routine timing, I like to do the routine ‘a cappella’. Without music and ideally with minimal counting (just 1’s or just 1’s and 5’s). This can be packaged and sold as a ‘game’ and is super easy to get your dancers excited about due to Pitch Perfect fever. Aca-awesome! Being able to hear every step, slap, jump and shuffle highlights who and where your timing issues are coming from. If it’s not sounding so hot all together, start by breaking the team into smaller groups and have them perform for each other.

What are your favorite tips for training musicality and timing?

Goal Crushing Your Way Into 2016: 3 Easy Steps

The excitement of “New Year’s resolutions” is buzzing once again and as a coach I personally milk it for all it’s worth. January is a great time to reassess the goals your team (hopefully!) set at the beginning of the season. If goal-setting got swept under the chaos of tryouts and then choreography, now is the time to do it!

Here are my 3 easy steps for goal crushing your way into 2016:

1. Re-evaluate what you already have, both team and individual goals.

How are we looking? What progress has been made? Often times at the beginning of the season we set big, faraway goals like “placing at so-and-so competition” or “having whole-squad triple pirouettes by first competition”. These are great but they require some serious Action Steps, which tend to fall by the wayside as the season rolls on, or never even exist to begin with. Identify all necessary Action Steps! That is, what needs to happen to achieve each goal.

2. Enter, 30 Day Challenges!

My Goal Tracking worksheet. Click to download your free copy!

The goal tracking worksheet that I use. Click to download your free printable copy!

My absolute favorite way to turn Action Steps on paper into actual action, which equals real in-the-studio results. This is where the magic happens (because magic is actually hard work, duh)! It’s exactly what it sounds like – you set your dancers a challenge and they have to do it at home every day for 30 days. Have them track their progress both on a chart (like the one on the right) and by filming themselves.

The key is setting the right challenges, they need to be effective. There can be benefits to setting a “whole team” challenge, however I find results come much faster when each dancer is working on their own individual needs. If Sally is struggling to turn her pirouettes into triples (her goal), she’s probably having trouble holding form. So one of her Action Steps is likely “increase core strength for balance and control”. A perfect 30 Day Challenge for Sally that will check this Action Step off her list is 10 Minute Ab Workout – once a day for 30 days. That’s just one example, the possibilities are endless!

To make all of this easier, CLICK HERE to download a free copy of my goal tracking worksheet (or click on the photo above). Save and print as many times as you like.

3. Daily Goals!

Or more accurately, every practice. Some of our dancers we see 2 or 3+ times per week, dance practice becomes a second home. Which is great – but sometimes that familiarity gets in the way of productivity. Having your dancers set Daily Goals for themselves gives every practice a sense of purpose.

Daily Goals need to be 3 things – small, achievable, and not about dancing. We already have a whole list of dance-related goals for the season. This is more about keeping your dancers mentally healthy, keeping morale up, and re-focusing energy when needed. Some examples of Daily Goals are:

  • I will be on time for practice with all attire that I need
  • I am going to give 100% effort
  • I will get through the whole practice without Coach having to ask me to stop talking

I like to have blank notecards and markers in the lobby that the girls fill out first thing when they arrive and then post on our big pinboard just inside the studio as they enter for practice. On their way out they take them down for quick reflection. You can have them keep the cards in a journal or scrapbook, either at home or in the studio, so they can look back and track their progress every few weeks. Daily Goals don’t have to be fancy – sticky notes on the mirror or wall work just fine!

Happy 2016! Go forth and crush your goals.

3 Games To Make Routine Cleaning Fun

When it comes to routine cleaning there’s no doubt that repetition and drill, drill, drill is the most effective method. But sometimes when morale is waning and dancers are deflating, you need to mix it up a little to reignite the team’s energy and enthusiasm!

Here are 3 games I like to use to make routine cleaning fun:

PAPARAZZI

“No cell phones at dance practice.” This is a great rule 99% of the time! But this game allows dancers to use their smart phones and that in itself gets them excited and responsive.

Split your dancers into two groups. One group will be the “stars” while the other are the “paparazzi”. The “stars” dance the routine full out. The “paparazzi” sit out and take photos of the routine. I usually ask them to take around 10 snapshots throughout the routine – it makes them think about which parts they want to photograph rather than just snapping away aimlessly. When the routine is over the team come together for a few minutes to analyze the photos. If you have a large team each “paparazzi” can choose just one or two photos to share.

Then have the groups switch roles and run the routine again! Dancers always work harder when they’re on camera and these snapshots are great for highlighting things like lazy feet, blank faces, and of course synchronization issues.

stoughton

Stoughton High School from Stoughton, WI

KNOCK OUT

This one is nice and simple and especially good for polishing specific elements of the routine that need work, such as facials or pointed toes.

Run the routine full out from start to finish. When a dancer does something wrong, they have to stop dancing and sit the rest of the routine out. This keeps going until there is one dancer “left standing” or the routine is finished.

It may seem counterintuitive to have dancers sitting out, especially the ones who are making mistakes, but you’ll be surprised how hard they work to stay in and be one of the dancers who get to finish the routine!

JACKPOT 

Break your routine into 4 sections (roughly 30-40 seconds long) and give each section a number. Write these numbers on little pieces of paper (one on each) that will act as lottery tickets and place them all in a hat. You’ll want the same amount of lottery tickets as dancers, with the routine sections divided evenly between the tickets. For example, a team of 20 would have 5 x “1” tickets, 5 x “2” tickets, 5 x “3” tickets and 5 x “4” tickets.

Then have your dancers pick a number out of the hat and that will be the section of the routine they dance full out in the next run through. I like to make them keep their numbers secret so there’s an element of surprise during the routine – for them that’s the fun part! For you it shines a spotlight on who does and doesn’t know the choreography. During the other sections not on their ticket they can relax and watch the girls who are dancing. I like to have them still moving through the formations but their main focus should be looking around to see who has begun dancing full out and watching them closely. Having their teammates eyes on them from potentially all angles is what pushes them to perform that little bit harder.

To up the ante you can have dancers pull 2 or more tickets from the hat at a time, meaning they’ll be dancing more of the routine full out. I also like to throw in 2 or 3 “JACKPOT” tickets each time that indicate those girls will dance the whole routine full out. It’s fun to watch the team identify the “jackpot winners” and cheer them on.

How do you shake up your routine cleaning process?

DTM EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: University of Minnesota Choreographer Karl Mundt

Karl Mundt is arguably today’s most successful and sought-after dance team choreographer. His incredible work with 8-time National Champions the University of Minnesota has made him a household name in the competitive dance world. But his impressive list of National and World Championship winning clients also includes the University of St. Thomas, University of Cincinnati, Eastern Washington Elite All Stars, Los Alamitos High School and Eden Prairie High School – and that’s not even the whole list.

Karl took some time to chat to me about his inspirations, his method, his favorite routines and his thoughts on current trends.

The age old question – what comes first, the music or the choreography? 
The music comes first. I generally listen to it over and over again before I start thinking of choreography.

Which is your favorite style to choreograph?
I grew up in the studio world and lyrical and theatrical jazz were my favorite styles. This has definitely carried over into my professional life.

Who or what inspires you? 
I am often inspired by the dancers I am working with on a given piece. The music also plays a huge role in how a routine develops. My assistants are a big part of the process as well. I am especially grateful to Leslie Attwood and Rachel Doran.

How would you describe your creative process?
I tend to work best in the moment. I generally need the dancers to create the best work. There are times when an idea or concept will come to me out of the blue, say while doing the dishes or folding laundry, and then I try to be sure to take notes or video.

What creates a winning piece of choreography?
A routine that feels organic and where the dancers connect to the music and to each other. Ultimately, they need to take the audience on a journey. This is necessary for all styles. The best choreography keeps everyone engaged and leaves you wanting more. I know I love a routine when I forget to blink!

What were your favorite or least favorite trends this competition season? 
To be honest, I tend to focus more on the dancers I am directly working with and not on the other routines. I find I get less nervous or anxious this way. I will say I am a bit over acoustic covers of popular songs.

Did you have a favorite routine or notice a standout team?
Hands down my favourite routine was Coral Reef High School’s jazz routine at the National Dance Team Championship. It was breathtakingly good. It told a story and the dancers were so committed to the movement. On a personal level, I liked the routine I choreographed for Eden Prairie High School (with Hannah Fredrick), as it challenged me and expanded my dance vocabulary.

What does dance mean to you?
Dance means everything to me. It makes me feel alive and invigorated. It gives me purpose. It truly is the best therapy, too. I love working with dancers and helping them grow as artists and human beings.

Karl Mundt with University of Minnesota senior captains and coaches, Amber Jackson (R) and Amanda Gaines (L)

You can find more about Karl and his talented team of choreographers at INNOVATE Dance.

Tempo Trouble: How Fast Should Your Pom Routine Be?

This is a common question – especially among first-time coaches and choreographers. After choosing songs to go into your pom routine, deciding on the tempo of your mix is the next step.

George Mason University from Fairfax, VA

George Mason University from Fairfax, VA

As a general rule of thumb, the current trend is to have your routine be somewhere between 140-150BPM (beats per minute). When deciding which is best for you, first and foremost think about your team’s level of ability. Your dancers need to be able to keep up with the music. If they can’t hit clean, sharp movements at your chosen tempo, it’s too fast.

Secondly, take into consideration your style of choreography. Are you going to be hitting every beat? Do you like to incorporate and-counts? Try something around 140BPM for beginner/lower level teams and 144BPM for intermediate to advanced teams. Or do you tend to hold counts in your choreography and take slower transitions? In that case, faster music can keep the energy of your routine up and make your movements appear faster. Try closer to 150BPM for routines like this.

I also did some research for you! After having a closer look at some of the highest scoring routines from the 2013 competition season, here’s what I found:

COLLEGE

  • University of Minnesota (Div 1A) – 150BPM
  • University of Cincinnati (Div 1A) – 144BPM
  • University of Memphis (Div 1A) – 157BPM

HIGH SCHOOL

  • Lake Forest High School (Large Varsity) – 150BPM
  • Floyd Central High School (Large Varsity) – 150BPM
  • Rosary High School (Small Varsity) – 150BPM
  • Eden Prairie High School (Small Varsity) – 140BPM
  • St Thomas More Catholic School (Small Varsity) – 142BPM

ALL STAR

  • PACE Elite (Open Pom) – 150BPM
  • JF Oberlin University (Open Pom) – 136BPM

At the end of the day, there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s really a style choice and trends change over time. But what doesn’t change is common sense. Speed can add energy and difficulty to a routine – but be careful not to sacrifice quality and execution for difficulty.

Have you found a routine whose tempo you want to emulate? Can do! Use this online tool. Play the routine video or music track in a separate window or tab and use any key on your keyboard to tap/count for beats per minute.