Learning the Charleston, or, How I Work With a Dance Tutorial

I'm currently in rehearsal for Agape Player's production of "Thoroughly Modern Millie", which opens at the end of this month.

In the show, I play two roles:   Miss Flannery, the grouchy office manager, and a 20's flapper in the ensemble.  I whimsically decided to name my flapper character 'Buffy Vanderslut' (pronounced van-dehr-SLOOT).

I am in several dance numbers.  My process in all of the choreography is that I break it down, and practice in chunks.   I work on hitting my marks and poses, I work on having relaxed and fluid arms.   I came to dance later in life, so I try not to leave anything to chance, or improv - because when I do, my dancing looks very weak.  

In the title song, Thoroughly Modern Millie, I've spent a lot of time cleaning up my movement, and trying to work in that 1920s devil-may-care, Jazz-Age attitude.    In this number, we do a Charleston step.   It's not for very long - maybe four bars.   But watching other cast members, I quickly realized, there are Charleston steps, and there are The Charleston Steps.

I really want to do a proper Charleston.   So, I searched on YouTube, and found several great tutorials, but this is the one I keep referring back to...

The thing is, it's only a couple of minutes long.   How do you learn and drill a dance step to a tempo that is faster than a tutorial?   This is my current break-down, to learn and practice...

1.  After I stretch, I watch the video a couple of times and mark the movements.   The first time, I just watch.   The next few times, I try to mark just the feet.  By 'mark', I mean, I just sort of imitate the movement.   I do this a couple of times.   Then I watch the video a couple more times, and try to mark the arm placement.    This usually takes me about 5-8 minutes.

2.   Then I break this video down into chunks.  

00 - 0:44    This is the basic step.    I spend maybe 5-6 minutes on this part of the video.   I do the movement along with the video, then I pause it, do the step repetitively on my own, a few times, and add the arms, which are pretty simple.   Then I do the movement with the video again, making sure the arms are correct.   I also practice keeping my head up, looking through the wall, and smiling, so that I can connect with the audience when we actually perform.

0:45-1:13   This is the swivel movement that I'm trying to work into the steps.   I do the movement along with the video, then pause, and drill the swivels for maybe 5 minutes, stopping for periodic calf stretches.   Then I move on to the next part... which is where the real struggle begins.

1:14-1:22    This eight seconds requires more time and effort than the previous two chunks put together.   I try to mark the movement with the video, then I pause and drill.   I usually get progressively worse over the course of 3-4 minutes, and when that happens, I intersperse the movement in the previous segment (just the swivels), with this movement (one leg moving up and down)

1:24-1:27   This is seriously the mindf*ck part for me.   I work this into the previous drill:  swivels for 16 counts; switch to right leg for 8 counts, switch to left leg for 8 counts, and then this segment, which I find hideously tricksy, switching back and forth between the right and left legs.

1:28-2:38    The rest of the video...   I am still working through this.   I cannot do it up to the tempo she does it at (which I think is slower than the tempo for the show).    How I am working on/will eventually work on these movements:

Do a basic Charleston (as seen at the beginning of the video) for 16 counts
Do swivels for 16 counts
Do same-leg swivels for 16 counts
Do alternating leg swivels for 16 counts
Do a basic Charleston again
Work the swivel into the basic Charleston.

Repeat all of the above, adding the arm movements.

Once I get the step consistently, I will work with a metronome, using the advance-two-speeds, lower-one speed method.

I am finding that for this particular dance, 30 minutes of practice is about my limit, before my hips flexors tell me to go find something else to work on. 

At this writing (three days into the learning process), I can do the footwork, but not fast, and not for more than about 16 counts.   I only need about 16 counts, but I want to build up to 64 counts of really solid, stylish, swivelling Charleston, so that the stamina is there.

So... that's how I learn dance steps, using video references.


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