While many of our posts focusing on the economics of dance are among the most popular and commented on, we consider How to Read a Syllabus among the most important. It was one of the first posts we wrote, not because it was an easy topic to get a few hundred words out of, but because we consider it one of the most critical topics for dancers. A syllabus is a record of how a dance is put together. It includes information on how figuress are performed such as the foot positions and alignments, the technique to make the step work such as footwork and contrabody actions, and how the figures fit together through phrasing or natural preceeds and follows.
A dancer can use a syllabus as a constant record of everything he or she should be doing but that may be too much to remember all it once. In this way the dancer can focus on developing each aspect of his or her dancing to the point that it happens automatically as part of muscle memory, without worrying about forgetting other elements in the interim. As such, it’s often best to go back through the syllabus and review older steps from time to time as one becomes capable of demonstrating higher level technique.
Generally, there are two types of syllabi: written and video. We discussed written syllabi in the aforementioned article and will be focusing on video syllabi in this post. I will generally be referencing the DVIDA syllabus by Dance Vision for specific examples, but will try to keep the discussion general enough to be universally applicable. For all examples I will be using the sample video from the bronze smooth waltz DVD which demonstrates the simple twinkle (opens in seperate window).
Watching the Video
Most video syllabi follow a similar pattern: they demonstrate the step, demonstrate the step focusing on specific elements, discuss technique, and demonstrate the step again with music. DVIDA specifically demonstrates:
1. Couple dances the figure together with timing but no music).
2. Leader demonstrates figure separately with timing but no music).
3. Leader explains foot positions.
4. Leader explains footwork.
5-7. As 2-4 from follower’s perspective.
8. Leader discusses his technique.
9. Follower discusses her technique.
10. Couple discusses partnering technique.
11. Couple demonstrates figure together with music.
That’s a great deal of information! In fact, getting all of that information in class or private lessons might take two or three sessions, with quite a few more sessions until the material was fully integrated. As such (and this is where most people make mistakes when using a syllabus) you should have the same timeline set for yourself. Instead of trying to integrate everything all at once, put it in your dancing piece by piece. We will explain.
There are two major assets of a video syllabus. The one everyone thinks of is actually the lesser benefit: you can see a professional dancer demonstrate the step. To be sure, that’s no small benefit, but it pales compared to the second benefit: you can pause a video whenever you want! You can rewind it and watch a section over and over again. When you use a video, you should be taking advantage of this fact constantly.
When you first play the video for a figure, watch the section in its entirety. Don’t try and dance along with it, just take it in and get a sense what the instructors are trying to communicate. If you’re academically-minded think of this as an overview reading; the goal is not to learn the step but to identify which parts you need to pay attention to and heed on your next viewing.
Next, focus on your role (if you’re a leader this will be items 2-4, if you’re a follower it will be items 5-7). Dance them along with the video. Focus on one aspect at a time, such as foot position, footwork, alignment, turn, etc. I strongly recommend using a written syllabus in conjunction with the video at this time. The video does not break down every element of every step, such as how far one turns, the alignment one faces, use of contrabody action or sway, etc. The written syllabus provides all of this information. While one can determine most of it from watching the dancers, not every element is discerinble to the untrained eye and many dancers take liberties with their demonstrations to reflect their preferences and styling. Donald Johnson and Kasia Kozak, for example, alter the bronze rhythm syllabus a great deal.
Practice these parts until they’re automatic. In the next section you’ll be working on technique and styling which are almost impossible to implement if you’re still wondering where your foot goes or what it should be doing.
At this point you (and your partner if you’re practicing with one) should be comfortable with the basic elements. Move on to section 8 or 9, depending on your role. Go through this section slowly, pausing and rewinding as needed. Use a mirror to compare yourself with the image in the video. Because steps are often demonstrated facing the camera the image on the screen is often inverted from what you will be practicing; as such we often find it helpful to watch the TV in a mirror so that we can match what is being demonstrated without needing to mentally flip everything.
The key to this section is to go slowlym, one part at at time. For example, when at about 3:00 in our example video, Jim explains the traits and techniques of promenade position (i.e. leader and follower’s feet at 90 degrees to each other, upper body turned less, shoulders parallel, etc.). While studying for the smooth exam, my practice partner and I focused on this section of the video extensively, practicing simply being in promenade position with one another; as we got comfortable and automatic with our promenade positions we practiced moving into the position, slowly and deliberately, to make sure we wound up with our entire bodies poised correctly.
This makes a natural segue into section 10, the techniques for partnering, and is done just as in sections 8 and 9. Each aspect should be practiced until it is automatic and can be done without disrupting the previous elements of the dance.
At last, practice the entire step, which should now flow smoothly.
Review the video regularly, especially if it involves figures you are using for a performance or competition, or techniques for something else you’re working on. Far more information is given than can be integrated all at once, and when you go through a video again after several months, you are likely to pick up more information that you received the first time. Just like before, go through the video slowly and integrate each element point by point.