This is part of the series of blog articles called “A Writer’s Guide…”, check out this article by writer Samantha Rudy to being a dancer.
Being a Dancer
by Samantha Rudy
Dance is hard to write and is often misrepresented in writing because of its many different facets.
Movements can be fluid and graceful or stark and harsh. Explaining the moves with their technical terms can take a reader out of the scene if they don’t know the terms but trying to describe the movement is just as daunting.
Writing a dance scene is best done, in my opinion, with a mixture of technical terms and explanation of movement, but to do that, you have to know the technical terms.
If you’re planning on writing about a dancer’s life, look no further; here are some basics to get you started.
Experience and Training
Experience comes in many forms and the different styles generally have different experience levels.
If you’re writing about someone who dances as a hobby, they probably hit the studio one to three times a week. If you’re writing about a professional dancer, being in the studio six days a week is the norm.
Though there are always exceptions to the rule (Misty Copeland), most professional ballet dancers have been training since they were five or six years old, four to five days a week.
Ballet is, technically speaking, the most grueling of dances because there’s no freeform to it. Movement is all technique based and must be just right.
Tap, Jazz, Lyrical, Hip hop, and Ballroom
With other styles, there’s a little more wiggle room. While most professionals start young, it’s more common to see dancers who didn’t start training until they were in their preteens, though that’s not to say they don’t train just as hard.
Dancers who start training a little later in life are at the studio as much as possible throughout their school lives, and then after graduation, spend every waking moment there.
Usually, they feel more competitive because the people around them started training younger and they feel they have something to prove.
Dancers have special shoes they wear that are the right mix of slip and traction to do turns and leaps without falling.
Ballet dancers have two types of shoes. One is simply called a ballet shoe, which are flats that cross over the top of the foot. The second is a pointe shoe. These have a hard toe that allows the dancer to dance on the topmost part of the toe, or go on pointe.
Tappers have, you guessed it, tap shoes. Tap shoes come in many different forms and colors.
The black and white tap shoes are popular because of the jazz era and heeled tap shoes became popular with Broadway.
One-screw tap shoes and three-screw tap shoes have a different sound to them (one screw is generally louder and clearer).
Simply put, jazz shoes are needed for jazz class. Black or tan, jazz shoes are soft with a low, hard heel.
A lyrical class is generally more freeform with their shoes. Some people wear their jazz shoes, while others have half soles or foot undies.
Half soles and foot undies are both footwear that only covers the ball of your foot, making it good for turns, but leaving your heel and toes open for quick stops.
Hip hop usually allows any tennis shoes, as long as they’re new and have good support. Dancers can’t wear tennis shoes that they wear every day because the dirt and rocks that get tracked in, can scratch up the hardwood floor.
Ballroom dance shoes are heeled shoes with good support and traction.
Most dancers have at least three, if not all, of these shoes in a designated dance bag that they take to the studio and gym with them every time they go.
This bag also contains a water bottle (probably with some saying involving dance etched into it), snacks, and a resistance band to help with foot and ankle flexibility.
During performances, a dancer’s clothes vary wildly based on the type of dance and the routine.
During rehearsal, however, dancers wear very similar things. Being able to move freely is the most important thing. During rehearsals, dancers will wear leggings, yoga pants, tights, anything form fitting that allows themselves and the instructor to see and critique their lines.
Sports bra (for a woman) or a leotard and a form-fitting top, layered with a jacket or sweater.
Because muscles stretch and bend easier when they’re warm, many dancers will wear a sweater and even sweatpants over their clothes during warm-ups to help warm up their body, then take off the outer layer for the rest of class.
A day in the life of a professional dancer depends on what they’re working on at the time, but generally, it starts with a low carb, high protein breakfast.
It always involves a workout at the gym, some studio time, a little bit of time updating their social media presence, and icing their muscles at the end of the day.
Somewhere in there, they might have to take a meeting with their agent or manager, they might have to do a photography shoot for a show coming up, or they might have rehearsals.
During rehearsal times, dancers don’t stop going to the gym, but they don’t work out as hard because they can’t risk injuring themselves before a performance. Instead, they focus on maintaining their strength and weight.
A Dance Class
Though every teacher varies, many dance classes are structured the same. A dancer walks in and takes off her shoes by the door, then sets her stuff down against the wall.
She grabs her shoes from her dance bag and goes out to the middle of the floor where she begins stretching until class begins.
Once the teacher comes in, everyone who was chit-chatting with each other stops talking and stands in the middle of the floor. The teacher leads the class in some aerobic and/or strength exercises, then some stretching.
The class strips off their outer layer and puts on their shoes for the technique portion of the class where they go through a host of moves (arabesques, channe turns, pique turns, pirouettes, etc.).
After technique, the teacher calls them to the center of the floor to review and teach choreography. Some teachers choose to do a closing stretch to cool down the body before saying goodbye.
Dance is often misrepresented in writing because there are many different styles and they all have their own language.
The steps overlap some (a ballchange is the same no matter what dance class you take), but you’re going to hear different lingo when you take a tap class than when you take a ballet class, and to confuse matters more, even different tap classes have their own lingo.
While I’ve been dancing most of my life, I am not the know-all-be-all, so do your research and write the dancer’s life that fits your character best.
Wishing you all the best in your writing endeavors!
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About Samantha Rudy
Samantha graduated from U.C. Davis with a B.A. in English and from John Hopkins University with an M.A. in Communications.
Though she’s always had notebooks filled with stories, poems, and journal entries, Samantha discovered her love of writing her Senior year in high school when she signed up for a Creative Writing elective (her second choice).
She’s a freelance writer and editor and has been dancing for over 20 years in various styles. In addition to her writing. she teaches ballet at a local dance studio.
I hope you enjoyed this article and if you have any questions for Samantha, drop them in the comments below. Check out all the current “A Writer’s Guide” articles on their new page for easy access.
Do you have knowledge of a skill or occupation you could write about?
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