Last, but definitely not least, here’s part four to my interview with Duncan Cooper. If you don’t remember who Duncan is, please go back to this post to read the brief bio I offered in the part one.
Working on Flexibility and Weaknesses
Continuing my conversation with Duncan, I wanted to know if he often saw the kind of flexibility issues with which my son, Julian, struggles. He has tightness in the hips, and can’t get his splits. Of course, he has grown about eight inches since last July, which means his muscles have not caught up to his bones, but he has never been very flexible.
Here’s what Duncan had to say: “Some boys are just naturally flexible…You have to do a lot of stretching. When I was his age , I warmed up for 30 minutes to an hour before class in the studio before the class began stretching. After class I would stretched to cool down.
“In dance, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. And if you don’t use it, you’ll never get it,” he concluded.
In general young male dancers need to know both their strengths and weaknesses and to realize, more often than not, they are presenting their strengths, he added. “But you need to work on your weaknesses. Often a weakness for some boys is flexibility. Some are very flexible. Some are good turners. Some are good jumpers, but they might not have the other two qualities. To be well rounded in all is better than to be just good at one.”
In other words, boys must not just focus doing the things that come naturally to them but on the things that don’t. They must practice these weak points until they become strengths.
The Male Mind or Psychological Issues that Affect Boys
When I asked Duncan if he thought boys had any unique psychological issues, he laughed and said, “Yes. Sometimes we joke around that men have shorter attention spans in class than women. Maybe it’s based on a kind of ADD male testosterone issue where they get so much testosterone that sporadically they are all over the place,” he commented. “The tendency is for them to have focusing issues, especially when they are together in groups.”
He went on to add, “Men are often more challenge than women, because they start dancing later then women do.” While they might find it easier to find jobs, because there are so few male dancers, they are often struggling to catch up with their female counterparts, who likely have been dancing longer.
While this engenders a desire to move fast, “going fast” tends to be a “guy thing” in general. I mentioned Julian’s desire to move up the levels at Ballet San Jose School more quickly than he was allowed, and the ballet mistress there, Lise LaCour, not allowing him to do so. Duncan responded that this attitude was not uncommon for boys, and he cautioned, “It’s not about going to the next or another level. It’s not about going through eight levels and you get a new Karate belt. It doesn’t work that way. It’s not about getting a trophy. It’s about becoming an artist.”
Likening this process to wine, he said, “You can’t rush good wine. Wine is going to develop on its own time. It’s the same with an artist.”
Men have to learn more than just how to dance well, and this takes time, too. They have to learn to be good soloists and, as mentioned in previous posts, they have to dance with emotion and be “matinee idols,” which means being great actors. Additionally, they have to possess the ability to be a lead dancer, which means carrying a production, such as a Broadway show, a contemporary piece or a full-length ballet. “For that you have to be a good dancer and a good partner,” said Duncan. “Men are notoriously bad partners.”
That comment led to a logical question: How does a young man become a good partner? “Good male dancers will listen to what their partners need. Each woman needs something different. They’ll also know the women’s choreography. If you know the woman’s part in partnering, you know when to pick her up and when to put her down. Often guys rush through that. That’s part of the skill of learning not to rush,” Duncan explained.
Making Convention Choreography Your Own – or Not
On a different note altogether, I asked Duncan, who is on the faculty of New York City Dance Alliance, what he wants from convention attendees when he gives them choreography. When he gives the boys, for instance, a special piece of choreography, what gets a child chosen to be on stage? Does he want them to make that choreography “their own” or to perform it exactly as he has shown them to dance it? Here’s what he said:
“I’m looking for individuality. I’m looking for them to show me something different in the movement that I haven’t seen in all the other kids. Just because you are going up on stage doesn’t mean squat. It might mean I saw you do something well, but I’m not always looking for the kid that does something perfect as a ballet dancer. Sometimes I’m looking for the kid who is learning the most, who is challenging themselves the most, and that isn’t always the person who knows ballet technique the best. I want to see someone who is stretching their learning curve, and that doesn’t always come from the person who can do perfect ballet technique.
“I bring people on stage that has different skills. One might be able to turn, one might have a great leap, one might be able to do the move and phrasing in a unique way. Each dancer has something special, but it’s not just about who gets up on stage, and that’s what I want them to see.”
Duncan stressed that while being in a room full of great dancers and working with new and inspiring teachers represents the upside to conventions, the downside consists of the plastic trophies and the competition to get chosen to be on stage. “That’s not ultimately what it’s about. Your trophy isn’t going to do you any good when you go to an audition. They’re not going to say, ‘Oh, you were the gold winner at New York City Dance Alliance.’ They don’t know who you are when you are at an audition for a Broadway show,” he said. Thus, young dancers – male or female – need to learn to interpret what goes on at a convention in a different manner, to see it in a different way, and to not let any part of the convention discourage them.
As for making the choreography your own, if the instructor says to do so, go for it! “If I say to make the choreography your own, you self-discover yourself,” Duncan stated. “Show me what makes you unique within the choreography. Don’t be afraid to step up and fail. Screw the choreography up. Sometimes you have to do that to get it. Stop trying to be perfect and please the teacher. Sometimes you try to please the choreographer or teacher so hard that you actually do a disservice to yourself. You are pleasing yourself. You need to be in the moment and work with that.”
Duncan described how the director at San Francisco Ballet would offer him tips when he was working on a turn, and the turn would get worse rather than better. “I was thinking he had the ultimate answer and not relying on what I know I feel when I do the turn. He wasn’t in my body. He didn’t ultimately know where my balance is. He could give me some clues to get there. That’s why I tell kids, ‘I’m not trying to get you to bake a new cake; I’m just adding some frosting to it.’ So don’t screw up what makes you great. Don’t lose your self identity as a dancer.”
Advice for Young Male Dancers Who Find the Road a Tough One to Hoe
For all those young male dancers out there, like my son, who constantly are faced with tough choices – sports or dance, conforming or being different, summer dance intensive or summer camp, fight or walk away when teased, Duncan had some words of wisdom to offer.
“That’s life. It’s hard. They’re feeling like, ‘I’m different than all the other kids.’ Often they are all taught to wear the same clothes – what’s trendy and cool. The down side to that is that the most beautiful thing is your uniqueness as an individual and as an artist. That’s a great thing. Do what you want to do. You don’t have to follow what rest of flock is doing. Be a male ballet dancer. Who cares what those other guys think? Do what you love; that’s a good thing. Don’t conform and confine, obviously within the constraints of what is good for you. If you want something in life, put yourself out there and go get it. I wish I had heard that more as a kid. But it’s not easy.
Duncan has faced some difficult issues and decisions as a male dancer as well. “I found having three knee surgeries by 21 years old hard. I thought I was the be all and end all, and I thought I’d be dancing for the rest of my life, and all of a sudden it was being taken away from me…That was very humbling,” he confided.
Additionally, he said, “It was difficult for me, because I was an African American dancer. As I got older I began to see that the image of a ballet dancer was European…This goes back to ‘I don’t look like everyone else,’ so now I’m not going to get the part. No, you don’t’ look like everybody else, because you’re unique. Or maybe that’s when I was a kid and I got beat up in school because I danced ballet. How does one deal with that? I ran to school every day. You can roll up in a ball and cry or you can get over it and move on.”
The fact that life is hard – maybe harder for male dancers (even though the girls tend to think it’s easier for the boys) – actually can become an asset. “If anything is easy in life then you probably won’t be the best at it, and you probably won’t know how to deal with things when things get tough. That’s big lesson to learn,” said Duncan.
‘Everybody is going to have their own set of challenges,” he says. When my son – or yours – finds himself in a room filled with kids who are all better dancer, without mom or dad to help him anymore, denied all the roles he thought he would – or should – be given, Duncan concludes, “That’s when he’ll find out what he’s made of.” That’s when knowing how to deal with life being hard (and not rushing) will come in handy.