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A Quick Quiz to Determine If You Are a Dance Insider

A Quick Quiz to Determine If You Are a Dance Insider
Like any rarefied field, dance has its own particular jargon. So in their efforts to describe or sound more knowledgeable about the subject, people are apt to rattle off terms like "plié" and "grand jeté" or to sprinkle their conversation with words such as "kinesthetically" or "Fosse-esque." However, it's not in the employment of specialized terminology but rather in the use of the tiny, ordinary words that one's level of dance expertise is often more accurately revealed. Over the years, I've encountered five common language discrepancies that almost always distinguish the dance world insider from the layman. Which are you? How well you do on the following five-question quiz may be a good indicator.

Question #1: Would you say (a) "That choreography was created on those four dancers" or (b) "That choreography was created for those four dancers"? If you picked (a) it is likely that you're an insider. Rarely does a choreographer create a dance for the dancers. He creates it for himself, to fulfill his artistic vision, or for a production, a scene, or even a character, but usually not for dancers. There are two exceptions: a solo routine that a choreographer might make for a competition dancer, designed to show off that individual's skills; or a special solo a choreographer might be invited to create for an esteemed ballerina as a "gift" in her honor, or for a special anniversary or gala performance. Most lasting choreography is danced by many performers, and even though the original dancers may have contributed to it in significant ways, saying that it was created for them is simply not correct.

Yet while the phrase "choreographed on"—whether followed by dancers or even the name of a company—is logical and commonly used within the dance world, for some reason laymen insist on changing the phrase to "choreographed for." This error is a pet peeve of mine. I have had it changed on me numerous times by editors of my writing—though never in this publication! This compromises my credibility as an authority or at least a "card-carrying," lifelong member of the dance community. On one occasion such undermining was exacerbated by juxtaposition. Following a sentence I had written, wherein the editor changed my "on" to "for," came a quote from the ballerina Suzanne Farrell. She described a work as "the first ballet Mr. B. made on me." Ironically, as the celebrated muse of George Balanchine, Farrell enjoyed such a special artistic and personal relationship with the great choreographer that she might rightly have described a Balanchine ballet as having been choreographed for her. But she didn't. She is a dancer, so as would be expected, she said "on."

Question #2: What are "the splits"? This is an honest question, as I really have no idea what people mean when they refer to the splits. No one in the dance world ever uses that term. So if you know the answer to this question, please tell us. Whereas we might say we are doing "a split" (and might specify doing it with the right or the left leg) or even a straddle split or a split jump, I have never heard any dance teacher or choreographer say "the splits." But for those outside the dance community doing "the splits"—whatever they imagine them to be—is frequently set out as the standard by which dance ability is measured. Though I had for some time thought this was an old-fashioned term from before I was born, just a few months ago a woman told me that the reason she chose not to study dance was because she knew she could never do the splits.

Question #3: How frequently do you use the word "moves," as a noun, to describe steps or elements of a piece of choreography? The dancer answer here is never. Steps, movements, gestures, physical vocabulary—these are all legitimately terpsichorean ways of describing dance. Only laymen compliment a dancer's "moves."

Question #4: On which syllable do you place the primary accent when pronouncing the word "ballet"? If you have ever taken even a beginner ballet technique class, squeezed your foot into a pointe shoe, or spent any time around balletomanes, you will naturally accent the first syllable. Most Americans, on the other hand, place the accent assuredly on the second.

Question #5: When changing into dance gear, are you donning (a) "a leotard" or (b) "leotards"? If you answered in the plural, the dance world will assume you are in possession of multiple torsos. Dancers use the word "leotard" to refer to the stretchy garment that covers the torso (and sometimes part of the legs as well). Yet while a leotard can be accompanied by a separate pair of tights (covering the legs), the two garments together are called "leotards" only by those who've never worn them.

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