Utilizing Acrobatic Skills in Dance

Students and teachers alike strive to achieve acrobatic skills that can be used in choreography, but when and how to use these skills can be challenging. There are many demands placed on studios to perform “stunts” and “tricks” on stage without artistic intent.

Acrobatic dance is not just an exercise of physicality. The fundamental difference between a sport and an art form is the intent, the expression and the purpose. Often acrobatic skills are used in choreography for the sensational response, rather than artistry.

Just because a dancer can, doesn’t mean they should.

Cirque du Soleil has revolutionized the world of circus by turning circus acts into performances with themes and storylines that run throughout, making the whole experience an exciting adventure. The “circus acts” do not stand alone but instead play an integral part in the whole performance. Likewise, acrobatic skills should not stand alone in a routine but be an integral part of the whole story.

Creating dance works for all ages and all genres utilizing acrobatics should be underpinned by a rationale, with a relationship to the expressive intent of the dance, music and style.

In eisteddfods and competition, inappropriate use of acrobatics can result in a blurring of styles, leading to ‘bad press’ and queries about what levels of acrobatics should be permitted in any one dance section. Often these routines are rewarded, which can lead to teachers feeling pressured to include multiple “tricks” and compromise artistic integrity and the dancers’ security.

Choreographers need to consider all aspects of using acrobatic skills in routines.

Paramount is the safety of the dancers. Putting students at risk by overextending them past their capabilities, choreographing skills that travel toward another dancer, not allowing enough counts for correct preparation or execution of the skill are all elements of consideration when working with acrobatics. Not to mention the suitability of costuming, footwear, stage surface, lighting and fitness of the dancer. (i.e., there is more to consider than just putting an aerial cartwheel into an established jazz routine because a student achieved the skill last Saturday.)

When incorporating acrobatic skills into a routine it is also important to consider what the highlight or feature of that skill is. Is it the lovely extension through the legs and flexibility through the spine or the power, lift and dynamics that is the focal point? Understanding this can then assist in setting the direction of a skill. For example, a front walkover demonstrates a lovely flow with stretched legs and feet through a split position followed by the full range of the spine through the back arch. If this skill is choreographed to travel downstage directly toward the audience, all of that line is lost. (The audience is left with the view of legs, crotch and flailing arms.)  Choreographing it to travel to the side or the diagonal with the takeoff leg being upstage allows the audience to fully witness the split line and extension through the legs and the rhythmic flow of the skill. A front walkover executed with good technique is a very beautiful, elegant dance move. Dynamic, quickwork skills are less affected by the direction of travel, however, the angle of the body and legs through the air needs to be aesthetically pleasing. Consider how the dynamics and effect of the acrobatic skill can communicate the artistic intent of the dance.

The flip side (no pun intended) is that there seems to be limited opportunities for our young dancers to perform in appropriate context and gain the experience of acrobatic performance. The exception is in Perth and Queensland where many dance competitions have stand-alone acrobatic dance sections across all age ranges. Performing acrobatics is not only thrilling to watch but thrilling and exhilarating to perform. We want to encourage our dancers to strive to achieve new skills and have the experience of performing these skills, but also to educate them on the appropriate use of these skills.

Teachers train technique in order that dancers can execute skills artistically, creatively and with flair, not just to “Show Off”.

Finding the right outlet is a challenge for the dance community, but as more eisteddfods and competitions schedule stand-alone acrobatic dance sections, more opportunities will arise for the true art form to emerge.  Let’s find ways to support our dancers and choreographers to gain experience in choreographing and performing acrobatic dance in the most appropriate environment.