Linda Gagatsis spends a day in the life of a dance student. PHOTO: JONATHAN BJERG MOLLER

Gettin’ down with the dance school

In Arts & Life /

By Linda Gagatsis

I’m listening to the longest version of Janet Jackson’s “Together Again” I have ever heard. It sounds different, faster maybe? Maybe it sounds faster because as I’m listening to the longest version of “Together Again” ever, I’m watching 40-odd first-year dance students move in complete synchronicity. Am I feeling like a lazy writer more and more by the minute? You better believe it.

I’m in the McAllister Studio on the third floor of the theatre school at our fair Ryerson. As soon as I stepped into the theatre school, I felt I was in a different world, a world that didn’t’ include the likes of my radio-and-television-studying butt. I couldn’t under any circumstances mistake this building for Jorgenson, West Kerr, or even the Rogers Communications Centre. No, I couldn’t do that. Yes, I was intimidated.

I’m witnessing a full set warm-up everyone is performing so well! Nothing seems amiss, at least not to my untrained eye, that is. Just as I think “wow, cool!” Stellios, the jazz dance instructor, barks out words that could be part of the English language but sounds more like German, Swedish or Dutch.

The words are like orders, commands and criticisms, nothing too nice at all. It seems as though the dance students aren’t performing up to standards, according to Stellios. I study the dancers’ faces. Some look serene, some look happy, amused, others look … uh oh, confused. Hmmm…

The music stops.

I’m on assignment for The Eyeopener. I’m supposed to be here finding out what the average day in the life of a dance student is like. My original task (don’t laugh) was to take part in a first-year jazz class. It was supposed t be the easiest of all the dance classes.

Nadia Potts, the director of Ryerson’s dance program and former ballerina with the National Ballet of Canada, quickly squashed that idea. And with good reason. After 15 seconds of watching their warm up, I realize me being as flexible as a dry stick might have something to do with her reluctance and, oh, apprehension of having me risk injury. I’d say climbing those three flights of stairs to get to the McAllister studio, one of the dance classrooms, without being winded we be a prerequisite for Jazz 101. A pre-requisite I — being a lazy, out of shape RTA student — just didn’t have.

As I watch the dancers to their thing, I being to really appreciate just how much they have to be “there” while in class. Listening. Moving. Reacting. Concentrating. Hey, if I’m tired while in class, I can slump forward, bury my head in my book, close my eyes, zone out and go on a mini-vacation. I could be in Fiji for a blissful 50 minutes. Not so for a dance student. They must be there in mind, body and spirit, 110 per cent of the time. No mini-vacations for them.

There are 41 students enrolled in the first year, 33 in the second year and 22 in the third year of Ryerson’s dance program. That’s a total of 96 students in the program. These students are working towards a three-year diploma, whereas the students starting the dance program in September, 1999 will be enrolled in a four-year degree program. Of the 96 students in dance at Ryerson, six of them are male, four of which are in the first-year jazz class I am watching. Nigel says he’s used to being surrounded by girls all day. He speaks of a perk that can also be a downfall. “It’s easier to get noticed [everyone hopes to get noticed] because I am one of the only guys. But that also means being picked on constantly,” says Nigel. “As a guy, getting a foot in the door [in the dance community] is much easier.”

The dance students have approximately 12 hours of dance a week — a number that dramatically increases when they get involved in one of the two performances put on each year. On top of their busy dance schedule, they must fit in their academic courses that include anatomy, history of dance, music theory or chorale singing plus their liberal studies courses. They not only have to be fit but they have not attend those boring electives, too? Maybe other students aren’t that different after all … besides that whole having to be physically fit thing.

I asked a few dancers if they worked out on top of their dance hours. I wasn’t all shocked to hear the answer was yes. Janine, a third-year student, says, “Dancing doesn’t keep me in shape.” Pardon? Surely 12 hours of working up a sweat keep you in shape. “It’s about working on different things; endurance, strength,” explains Janine, “…most people in our program are pretty body-conscious.”

The body-consciousness does not surprise me at all. If I had to stare at myself and others in tights all day, I’d be pretty self-conscious, too.

Body size is even a part of a teacher’s assessment of the dancer. According to Nigel “teachers make personal comments towards body proportions.”

Yikes, sounds tough. At the end of each semester, each dancer has a 15 minute interview with the faculty and basically, according to Nigel, this gives the faculty the chance to tell the dancers exactly what they are doing wrong. There are auditions to get into second and third year, and if the faculty doesn’t think you should be at Ryerson, they won’t ask you back. Double yikes. I guess it makes sense to want to weed out the winners from the losers. There must be a reason for all this harshness. Nigel says it’s the teachers’ way of “preparing [the dancers] for what’s out there.” All the things that matter in dance school matter 10 times as much in the outside world and if it’s a bit easier then it’s a pleasant surprise, laughs Nigel.

To my soft, procrastinating RTA self, being a dance student sounds and looks hard, mentally, emotionally and, above all, physically. “You only do it ‘cause you love it,” Janine says to me, before a class. “Each class is a performance. You must show up. You must be on. It’s fun. It’s hard work, but it’s fun.”

Nigel agrees.

“You have to love it to death,” he says.

I’m in awe. As the dance students in this first year jazz class perform their routines in groups of four and five, the others watching are cheering, clapping, whooping — giving and showing their fellow dancers appreciation, confidence and respect.

As I’m listening to the longest Janet Jackson song ever and watching the spandexed dancers concentrate one executing perfect dance moves in perfect synchronicity, I jot some notes. My left foot tapping to the beat of the music is about as active as I get. I realize I’m as athletic as a stuffed toy. I begin to zone out, take a mini-vacation… I can do that. I’m not a dance student.

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