The Future of Contemporary Dance: A Young Artist's Perspective

On Friday June 1st, CCDT had the privilege of participating in the Guelph Dance Festival's panel discussion on The Future of Contemporary Dance. Our Company dancers Hope Gumahad and Sydney Runions spoke on behalf of CCDT about the necessity for sound technical training, cultivation of artistic integrity, and educational support for young dancers that will benefit a future career as contemporary dance artists.

To listen to the audio recording of Sydney's and Hope's panel presentations:

- Click here to visit CFRU 93.3FM's archives

- Scroll down to Thursday June 14th, 2018 > 3:00pm - Guelph Dance Festival panel discussion

- Jump ahead to 08:15 in the recording for the start of CCDT's presentation (approx. run time: 10 minutes)

Read Sydney Runions' typewritten presentation below.

Photo by Francesca Chudnoff

Hi, my name is Sydney Runions. I am 16 and I am a company dancer with Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre in Toronto. I’d like to discuss a few of my personal concerns for the upcoming generation of dancers intent on pursuing a dance career, but on a larger scale I think these are a few topics that need to be contemplated to see if we can do better for young dancers in the future.

The young dance industry is heavily dominated by competitive dance studios that are designed to train commercial dance artists. For this reason, it has become extremely difficult and you can even say rare to find youth programs that offer training in modern dance techniques such as Limón or Graham. As someone who has experienced the competitive dance world firsthand, I can attest to the fact that it doesn’t teach dancers the skills necessary to pursue a career in contemporary dance. Many of these studios provide students with an environment where ballet class is optional, modern dance is unheard of, guest instructors are rare and improvisation is an intimidating task. Additionally, there is little to no attention paid to the importance of proper warming up and cooling down pre and post performance. As a result, I incurred many injuries that I now realize were completely avoidable during my time in competitive dance.

I also believe that it is unhealthy for so many young dancers to be constantly adjudicated the way they are at dance competitions. Youth are being taught that the best dancer is the person who can do the most pirouettes, or hold their leg the highest above their head. Meanwhile, this isn’t always the case in the professional dance world. Implanting this mindset in young artists makes them think of dance as a sport, where the objective is always to be the winner. I believe that youth should be taught that there is never a definitive winner or loser in dance and that you will never learn to grow without failing first.

Next, many secondary schools are not willing to accommodate the needs of youth who want to pursue dance professionally. These dance artists who train 20-plus hours per week are given the same workload and the same deadlines as a student who does not participate in any extra curricular activities. Even in schools that encourage participation in the arts, most teachers only view dance as an excuse to miss class, not as a possible future career. Dance is unique from other high school arts programs because it involves a lot of dedicated time with an instructor. The majority of dance classes and rehearsals need to be done in a studio space with your dance group. There is only so much of one’s training that can take place independently at home, unlike other art forms such as music or visual arts. Although there are a few teachers who clearly understand the process involved in dance as well as the time and energy commitment that are required, they are vastly outnumbered by teachers who see dance as a kind of “goofing off play time.” Perhaps that is because the majority of dancers are involved in the competitive stream and the teachers see it as nothing but fun and games. I think that when the majority of teachers think of dancers they either think of little girls twirling around or of people doing tricks. They don’t realize that mastering a technique, however seemingly simple it may appear, is the result of many hours spent at the studio. Whatever the reason for the teacher’s misconceptions about dancers vying for a dance career , it is a challenge and a problem for dancers who are also diligent students trying to juggle serious dance training and academic workload and whose goal is to achieve success both in dance AND academically.

Lastly, I get discouraged that people in general tend to have a less than favourable outlook on dance as a career and the fact that they are not shy to share this opinion with you. You can’t walk into a coffee or book shop these days without being inundated with slogans and catchphrases of “follow your dreams” and “aim for the stars”. However, it would appear that these affirmations don’t apply if your “dream” or “star” is a dance career. Instead of discussing my career plans as a dancer I often feel like I am defending them. I recall going to an information night for a high school that professed to be a school that supported the arts. As the principal was making her pitch to the prospective students and parents, she proudly stated, “Don’t be mistaken, most of our arts students end up in very successful careers outside of the arts.” I interpreted her words to mean that arts is not a viable career choice, but a good thing for your kids to dabble in while in high school. I disagree strongly with that principal, hence I did not choose to attend that high school.

I’d like to end on a positive note. I can’t take credit for this quote but I think it is a powerful one: “DANCE IS NOT TO BE EXPLAINED, BUT TO BE EXPERIENCED.” If society could learn to slow down a bit and just experience dance, experience art, and let the arts move them, then I think we would all be in a happier place.

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