Attention Span

I’ve read some posts recently that made me stop and think about “Attention Span”. There was a post made by a young teacher in which the teacher asked for suggestions of possible songs for a recital number that prompted me to write a post. The teacher was looking for two songs to cut together to create the Music for the number. Now please understand that this post is absolutely not a criticism of this teacher’s idea of cutting two songs together. I would never presume to tell a teacher or a choreographer what music they should use when creating their work. What got me thinking was the teacher’s reason for wanting to combine two songs. If the idea was to combine two songs that just sounded great together, or to combine two songs that in someway related to each other thematically or musically, or told some sort of story, I would probably applaud the creativity. But what caught my eye was that the teacher said that as a choreographer and as an audience member, using only one song was boring. Now it’s very possible that in the end this teacher will create a fantastic number using two songs that work beautifully together. I am not at all criticizing the idea of using two songs. What is concerning me, and making me think (and write) is the idea that someone could be bored by using only one song in a number. Especially since the kind of studio where this teacher taught will typically produce numbers that are between 2 1/2 and 3 minutes. I have been mesmerized by brilliant choreography set to very long pieces of music both in the ballet world and the modern dance world as well as extensive and lengthy numbers from Broadway musicals, using one piece of music .

In this excerpt from Sweet Charity, Bob Fosse creates a nearly six minute number that is positively stunning. There is “one song” and interestingly, there are no pirouettes (or turns of any kind), no legs higher than 90 degrees (for the most part no legs higher than 45 degrees), and only a couple of jumps done by a soloist. The number is positively brilliant, completely engrossing, beautiful in its style and construction.

When it comes to attention span and focus in the studio, I have always been keenly focused in class. In fact, the study of dance and the training of dancers is pretty much an obsession, leaving little room in my brain for other concerns. Is this unique to me? Is this unique to people of my generation? I keep reading that the digital age has shortened the attention span of the younger generations. This just seems to be evidence of that. Another example: Regardless of the rules that my studios have prohibiting the checking of cell phones during class, I constantly see students trying to get a quick peek at what is going on on their phone in the middle of class. They clearly can’t seem to be able to focus intensely for an hour or an hour and a half class without the additional stimulation a cell phone provides. Once, while taking a professional level class at Steps on Broadway in New York City, I saw a rather famous principal dancer from American Ballet Theatre checking her cell phone while the teacher was demonstrating the adagio. Apparently this teacher (perhaps the finest teacher I’ve ever had the good fortune of taking class with) was not interesting enough to hold his dancers attention. (I really don’t care how good a dancer is or how successful their career is, when they are in class they should be focusing). It has started me to try think of strategies for helping dancers learn to focus. I teach in three serious pre-professional programs. My students’ careers are in my hands and in the hands of my colleagues. I know for a fact that in the professional arena the competition is brutal. Training dancers with an intense ability to focus, the way I was focused in class 30 years ago, would definitely give these dancers a competitive edge when it came to securing employment. But how?

2 thoughts on “Attention Span

  1. I liked this post a lot. I was recently discussing this seeming “attention span” problem with a fellow dancer/actor. I don’t believe the problem is actually an attention span issue, though. I think, simply, we are all addicted to the dopamine hits that come with checking for new texts, comments, tweets, etc. The instant gratification from that, while having a dance class in the background, probably feels like a win-win for some students. I think a simple solution, a natural consequence, would be to stop class for that dancer right away. (At least for children, adults are a different story.) If the dancer knows they have to make a choice, and will not be able to have whatever they want, whenever they want it, I think it would highlight what is more important to them, and encourage them to stick to it with more focus. And that choice may very well be that they aren’t that excited about dance class and they choose to leave. So be it! The other serious students will surely benefit from the absence of such students. I know studio owners worry that enrollment will decline when teachers take these approaches. But I believe it creates a “value-added” type of class ; quality of a class with good results for students can warrant a higher price tag, so there can be a decrease of concern over quantity of students. At least in an ideal world!

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