How to Train Non-Dancers for Screen + Stage

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The first experience I ever really had as a ballet teacher and coach was working as the associate choreographer on “Black Swan.” It was my job to teach Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel the choreography they’d be doing in the film while also bringing out its nuances and elevating the quality of their work. The following year, I became the resident choreographer of the “Billy Elliot” national tour, in charge of the ballet and modern dance elements of the show for the five boys alternating the title role.

Both of these projects required me to give beginner-level students a decade’s worth of information in only a few months and training their bodies to be up to delivering quality dancing while looking as fit as possible. Both were hugely challenging but taught me a skill set that continues to inform my work with young professionals and actors, to get them “performance ready” after a focused rehearsal period.

On day one, start with a very honest discussion about what the goals are and what needs to be accomplished by certain weeks. Regardless of the dancer or actor’s age, this sets the dynamic that they are equal participants in the project, as well as adults. The tone should feel positive but serious and there needs to be a clear commitment from them that they will show up ready to work.

It’s also important that you are both realistic about what they’re signing up for, that there will be times when it’s going to be very hard, that the glory comes with a heavy amount of work. As their coach, you need to be motivating and nurturing, and be a good enough communicator to understand that if one tactic doesn’t produce an intended result, you need to think of a plan B or C or even D. They need to trust you and understand you’re their number one champion and teacher. Any fear-based approach will undermine how they view the art form and sabotage communication, a vital part of making them a successful dancer. They need to trust you enough to tell you if they’re burning out, scared to do a step, or simply ask for advice.

READ: 10 Ballet Tips to Help You Nail Dance Auditions

Students should feel comfortable telling you if they’re in pain. Sometimes younger dancers have a harder time articulating the sensations they’re experiencing, go give them a pain scale (1-10) to describe the intensity. Early on, an important conversation to have is good vs. bad pain, and what can be worked through.

Have students keep a notebook of their corrections each day. The barrage of information can be overwhelming so writing out a concise list of corrections can help them know what to focus on. This is essential if there is a short rehearsal process but beyond that, it can be frustrating as a teacher when you hear yourself calling out the same corrections over and over.

Proper nutrition and hydration are as important as class or rehearsal. Nutrient-dense food will go a long way in influencing how their bodies look and respond, and the schedule should be set up so they’re never dancing on a full stomach. And encourage them to drink water throughout the day. Diluting Gatorade or fruit juice with water is also a good way to get them some electrolytes.

If you’re training teens, their bodies are already working overtime so make sure your students are getting at least eight hours of sleep. Talk to them about setting a regular bedtime for themselves so their muscles (and brains) can recover.

They also need to be cross training. I don’t think I ever appreciated the benefits of cross training until I was in the latter half of my dance career—who knows what injuries I could have avoided had I incorporated other strength-building activities into my maintenance routine. This supplemental training keeps the body in a more neutral and balanced state and keeps it from plateauing. As ballet dancers, we’re in a turned out position 99.9 percent of the time, so working in a parallel hip alignment is important when out of the studio.

Finally, at least one day a week should be devoted to gentle stretching, getting a massage/acupuncture, or using the steam room/sauna, all of which are hugely effective at reducing muscle soreness and inflammation.

Coaching young professionals and actors isn’t easy but I want to honor my art form and pass it to other artists as something precious. I enjoy the exchange that happens in the studio between a coach and student and love the sense of what can be accomplished with good instruction and hard work. Even with limited experience and short preparation time, these tips should teach professionalism and respect of the craft, something your students will carry with them long after the project ends.

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Kurt Froman
Kurt Froman is an acclaimed dance coach and choreographer who just completed working with Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence on the upcoming film, “Red Sparrow.” Kurt's prior film and TV tv work include coach and associate choreographer on “Black Swan” for Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, Christina Ricci for Amazon’s “Z- The Beginning of Everything,” and Rooney Mara for the Terrence Malick film, “Song To Song.”