Q&A with Sheila Barker: The Principles of Her Intense Dance Warm-up
Whenever you think of the name Sheila Barker, what are some thoughts that ring true for you? Do you associate her with being one of the most popular instructors at New York City's Broadway Dance Center, having trained a countless number of dancers over the decades? Do you recall her spunky, off-the-wall energy that may have drove you into laughter? Maybe it's her groovy, syncopated jazz choreography, or her technically challenging lyrical combinations that you reminisce about.
Whichever rings true for you, for anyone who knows Sheila or has experienced a Sheila Barker class, one thought comes to mind for sure… her class warm-up! I personally have experienced Sheila's warm-up many times in my days of dance training and after swimming out of a floor pool of sweat – I was ever so thankful.
With Sheila Barker being on the faculty for Man In Motion's Dance In New York City One-Day Intensive on June 25, 2017 at Pearl Studios, I thought this would be a great time to ask her a few questions about the Sheila Barker warm-up that we have all come to know and love.
JASON: Before we get started, how would you suggest that we “warm up” for this interview?
SHEILA: (Laugh) Just go. (Laugh) Interviews are always what they are. You just hit it. That’s all I can say. That’s what you have to do. And then you figure it out – and it gets its feelings from there. But you still need to know the purpose and have the commitment. That’s it.
JASON: How did you come up with the idea to develop warm-ups that are different than other instructors, and that you are so known for?
SHEILA: Well, my belief is that the purpose of the class as a whole is to get to the end result. The end result is what people love to do, and that’s performing. Therefore, the beginning (the warm-up) has to be sure that it sets you up and gets you ready for that end result.
And in my training and learning and in being a performer and being an artist, I found that the classes that I liked, the ones that helped train me and get me right technically which helps you to move, were about having a warm-up with a structure that mattered. It made me feel like I could do anything by the end of the warm-up.
JASON: In your own words, how would you describe the Sheila Barker warm-up?
SHEILA: I would like for my students to understand the sensibility that when they come into class, I must get them to be energized and focused, so I can work on giving them a complete and full warm-up from head to toe. I must get them to understand on a technical basis how to move their bodies, understand isolation to get their strengthening and then get their stretching, and then understand the next step - how to move from one step to the next.
And their minds need to be warmed up, too. I’m not just warming up their bodies – because the mind and the body have to work together, as I start to push and put in common steps together.
JASON: And so with all the elements that make up your warm-up, do you feel like you are accomplishing all of those goals?
SHEILA: Well sometimes, I do have to change what my combination is. I’m not stuck on feeling that my warm-up does everything. Sometimes as a student, you have to deal with what’s going on outside in order to get warmed up. But my warm-up is purposeful for what I’m working on and what I need to help the students with today, as far as what I see is weak in my class and what is necessary for my combination.
JASON: Are there times when you make changes to your warm-up or do something a certain way based on observing the class at the beginning?
SHEILA: Yes. There are times when I see that a class may be weaker, and then I need to tweak (the warm-up) because I know what my combination is. Because I think we should have flexibility. I know the standard practice is for instructors to do the same warm-up all the time, but I guess I am a little more open to working with each individual class. I do have a beginning that’s set, but if I’m going to go after my plies or whatever, or I think I need to add a little something more here or there because of what my combination is or what a student needs or what we’re working on as a whole, then I want to be able to do that. And I am going to do that. I think teachers should be able to think like that and be able to do that.
JASON: What are some of the influences that have contributed to developing the Sheila Barker warm-up?
SHEILA: Influences include different styles of jazz and different teachers. There are influences of modern and influences of ballet, as well as the influences of all different styles of classes that I have taken. And then there are the influences of the style that I am working on today, along with music.
I just get influenced by what I see artistically. I think now that the dance world is influenced by the athletic world, like with the Yoga and Pilates and new kinds of things like that. It’s interesting how they have become a part of our dance world, which is about strengthening.
So all those elements have been an influence, as well as the old teachers and how they worked their jazz into their warm-ups, like Frank Hatchett, Luigi, Joe Tremaine, all those on the west coast and east coast, right on over to the musical theater folks.
For me, I’ve taken all these things into consideration in putting my warm-up together.
JASON: Obviously, music is key to any dance warm-up. How does music contribute to your warm-up and what kind of an influence does it have?
SHEILA: Well, if the kids don’t like the music and you don’t like it, then you can just forget it. (Laugh) I don’t care how good your warmup is, it is not going to work. (Laugh)
I like to start a class at mid-tempo, sometimes a little higher - and then I may bring it down a little, while still giving it a little edge. I may go from mid to high, and then I have a bumping song for my isolations to get them pumping – and then I’ll bring it down a bit for the floor. And I may put a little bump in it for sit-ups or whatever.
I like the tempo to go up and down, but I like it to be warm, I like it to be fun, and I like it to be soothing for the kids – but I also like it to be encouraging and push them. And sometimes with the music, I may throw in an improv section, so they have to want to feel it, too – and it could be mid-tempo, it could be funky, or it could be anything I choose. It has to support what I want to give, but it has to make them feel like moving.
JASON: So what songs or artists are currently on your dance warm-up playlist?
SHEILA: Oh, I’ve got tons! (Laugh) I can go from Kidnap Kid, to Adele to J.P. Cooper, to Bruno Mars, to Richard Elliot, to C.R. , to Alicia Keys... Lauren Hill. I mean, I’m all over the map. I am dance, I am electronic, I am songwriter, I am pop, I am R&B, I am jazz. I love finding new artists and new music to incorporate. I don’t just stay with one person.
JASON: Does the music always coincide with the class that you’re teaching?
SHEILA: Oh yeah. And it’s like I choreograph the setup of my playlist (Laugh), like I choreograph my class. The setup of my playlist has to make sense, so it moves from one song to the next, it’s like an even flow - even though it may be a different tempo.
JASON: What are some essential elements or exercises that you think may be lacking in other instructors’ warm-ups, or generally how could they be improved?
SHEILA: This is a difficult question because I generally don’t see other people’s warm-ups. I can only speak from reactions to what other people are saying - and what we may talk about collectively as artists and teachers about what we see.
Personally, I have problems with isolations. I feel that kids move in one way and they don’t know how to move without moving in one piece. We’ve got to find that range and find their groundedness… And we’re losing that connection – and we need to bring that back.
JASON: Do you have any other comments to wrap up?
SHEILA: With teaching in general and the warm-ups in particular, it’s what you feel that you need to just be true to the understanding that we are guiding kids and that we’re making them stronger. We need to make sure that they’re healthy and that what we’re doing makes sense and that we’re not hurting them.
Dancers that attend the Dance In New York City One-Day Intensive on June 25 and participate in a class led by Sheila Barker will experience firsthand all the unique elements of her class warm-up.
Dance In New York City includes a schedule of up to 15 classes and dancers may choose a track of classes that interest them most.
Our top-notch faculty will include those from Broadway Dance Center, FOX TV's - So You Think You Can Dance, On Your Feet (Broadway), Miss Saigon (Broadway), and many more!