I first met 38-year-old Duncan Cooper when Julian attended the New York City Dance Alliance convention in Santa Clara, CA, about a month ago. I was impressed with the choreography he gave the boys during his session. And Julian loved the choreography.
So, I decided to approach him and ask if he would write a post for my blog or let me interview him. He agreed to the latter, and this past Sunday we had an hour-long phone conversation. I’m going to relay most of what Duncan told me in a few separate posts.
First, let me introduce you to Duncan Cooper. Duncan started dancing at the age of five, when he began taking ballet classes at Richard Thomas’ New York School of Ballet. At the age of 13, Duncan received a full scholarship to train at the San Francisco Ballet School. In 1989, bypassing the obligatory apprentice year, he was made a full company member. At 22, after three knee surgeries, he left this position and later took on a position as principle dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem, where he danced for nine years.
In addition to teaching for NYCDA, Duncan now offers master classes around the country and teaches as part of the faculty at Alonzo King Lines Ballet in San Francisco, CA, both for the company and for its MFA program. He also offers choreography, occasionally performs and is involved with Athletes for Kids. For more information on Duncan, I suggest you visit his website. (Check out the awesome photos in his gallery…)
What Type of Dancer Does Your Son Want to Be?
The first thing Duncan stressed during our conversation was that boys must decide at some point what type of dancers they want to be. He asked me what Julian wanted to be, and “a professional dancer” was not an adequate answer.
“Do you want to be successful in Hollywood? Do you want to be a dancer on Broadway? Do you want to be a ballet dancer?” he queried. These are the questions our sons must answer.
While it’s important for children to define the area of dance they want to pursue as early as possible, and pursue it, he did qualify this by saying they must still learn as much as they can about all types of dance. “Of course, the concern is to be a jack of all trades and a master of none,” he said. “You want to be a jack of all trades and a master of at least one.”
Knowing many styles of dance leaves a boy open to discovering not only his talents but the opportunities available to him. “Even though you may want to be one type of dancer, you may be talented in another style and you may get opportunities in the other. You may want to use that as a bridge to something, or you may find out you want to that go in another direction,” Duncan explained.
Taking Your Son’s Dance Education Outside The Dance Studio
1. Find Out About The “Real World” Of Dance
If your son has figured out what type of dance he wants to pursue, then its time to take his education outside of the studio. As a parent, you must pick up the challenge to educate your dancing boy about the “real world” of dance, according to Duncan.
At this point, you must encourage your son to research what dance companies exist that specialize in that form of dance and how one goes about having a career in those companies. This may be hard for young boys, say 13-16, to understand, but he says parents must begin helping them understand the concept of “making a career, making a paycheck, and being sustainable” with their dancing. In otherwords, you (and I) must help your son develop a plan, or a career strategy.
Help your son understand the difference between “working” for a large, mid-range or small dance company. “In a small company dance, you might dance more but have less work weeks out of the year,” claimed Duncan. “You may not get the benefits you get in a larger company or in a union company, such as medical and dental benefits. Most kids have no clue about the importance of these things.”
2. Research The Types Of Dance Companies He Might Want To Join
As part of the self-education process, boys also need to search out people who have done what they want to do and look at the structure of how those dance professionals accomplished that goal. Did they go to college or start working immediately? Did the majority of dancers with one company come out of Juliard or some other college or dance company?
If your son, like my son, wants to become a contemporary ballet dancer, for instance, Duncan said, “He needs to spend a lot of time in books and on the Internet searching for contemporary dance companies. He should look up Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Complexions Dance Company, and Compania Nacional de Danza (National Dance Company of Spain). A lot of ballet companies are not doing just ballet,” he added, and are bringing in contemporary choreographers as well.
3. Learn About (And From) The Dancers Who Paved The Way
Also, Duncan suggested that young male dancers educate themselves about great male dancers and great dancers in the style of dance they want to pursue. “Look up great dancers on the Internet, like Rudolph Nureyev, Mikhail Barishnikov, or Martha Graham. Find out what their careers were like. Read a biography about them. Becoming a professional dancer is not just about learning a tendu and plie; it’s about learning how the game is played and who’s played it.”
4. Learn to Network
Don’t let your son stick to the Internet or even to books about great dancing role models. Make him start talking to real, live people. “Pull mature dancers aside and ask questions,” Duncan recommends.
“Let [your sons] know the importance of talking to their dance teachers not just about tendu and plie but about how do I go about becoming a professional dancer,” he said. “They have to learn to network now as a young adult. They need to ask the questions. Don’t be shy! Taking a dance class is not just about taking a dance class. It’s about learning to communicate with the adult staff that is giving the information beyond just the information they are supposed to offer. Never be afraid to ask a question; no question is too stupid…Go beyond, ‘Thank you, class was really good.’ Ask, ‘If I want to go here, what do you think I should do,'” he suggested.
Become A Star By Doing Homework Inside And Outside The Studio
There’s more: Our boys have to learn how to go after what they want. Despite the fact that there are less boys out their fighting for spots in companies than girls, they still have to fight for those spots. They can’t just assume they will get them or that they will be noticed.
“You want to go out there and not wait for anybody to give you anything. It’s really like anything else in life. You can get a degree in college, but if you don’t know how to be street hustler you aren’t going to last very long unless someone chooses you to be a star. You’ve got to individually make decisions about how you are going to go up there and take a hold of that,” said Duncan.
How is your son going to ensures that he becomes a star? By doing his own homework inside and outside the studio, according to Duncan. “The more you do our own homework the better you are going to be.”
For example, if your son wants to dance Gisselle, he should learn the story, watch someone great dance it, figure out how he would dance the part, and learn the part before being asked to dance it. If he wants to become a better dancer, he should watch the other kids in his classes who are better than he is and make note of what they do differently and then go home and practice it in the kitchen. And he should watch what the boys who aren’t as good as he is are doing and make note not to do those things either. He should come home for a convention and practice the choreography he learned in the kitchen figuring out how to do it better.
“There is really no excuse. Get out of the MTV world and get into the subject matter of what you want to become,” concluded Duncan.
I’d add that we need to get our son’s off of Facebook and MySpace and find a website with great historical information about dance or great videos of great dancers, and encourage them to spend time there. I know our dancing boys don’t have a lot of free time (mine is lucky to have a Sunday morning to lounge in front of the television for a few hours), but I have found that Julian is always eager to watch a good dance video with me on the computer or to watch a film about dance on the television. It’s easy to make this type of education a family affair.
As for getting them to take the bull by the horn – to network, to ask the questions, to read and study, to go for what they want, I suppose that comes with age and desire and a whole lot of parental encouragement, support and patience. Like them, we parents have our work cut out for us.
More from Duncan in the next post.