Probably like anyone who is reading this, I have been a big fan of Karl Mundt and his work for a long time. This will go down as one of my absolute favorite podcast episodes because he did not disappoint me on any level, which you can’t always say about someone that you’ve admired when you meet them or have a chance to get to know them. He was so generous with his time and his knowledge. We are so lucky to have this beautiful soul in the dance team world!
Karl’s dance story: Karl got into dance relatively late. He started out as a gymnast and grew up doing musical and dinner theater. He attended Roosevelt School of the Arts and took dance classes there, then moved to LA and got an agent. “That didn’t go super well for me. I wasn’t quite ready. I didn’t know what I was getting into.” There’s a lot of rejection and that was hard. He was happiest when he worked at Broadway Gymnastics in Santa Monica. A lot of dance gigs were shorter durations, and he was happiest when he had a stable job. “I moved back to Fresno, got my degree becasue that was important to me, then moved back to LA, and then to NY and that’s where I really had my dance career. I worked for Joe Lanteri for New York City Dance Alliance, which is a convention tour, and he also does New York City theatrical events. I did some Broadway type revues in NY, Atlantic City and the Washington DC area, and did some commercial work. I did that for 2 1/2 years. There’s nothing like the rush of being onstage. I just loved being a live performer. If I’m really being honest with myself, I didn’t necessarily have the thick skin to deal with some of the rejection. And maybe I think part of it was, you have to do a lot of work. My friends who really made it and have had successful careers as performers, they really put in the work. For me it just wasn’t in the cards. I didn’t achieve all my goals, but I got close. Sometimes you can get a step or two below that and that should count for something.”
How he got into dance team: Jennifer Ramirez, coach of Los Alamitos. hired Karl in the late 90s. “That’s how I got into it. Working with Los Alamitos I was like, I love this! The thing about dance team is there is that athleticism and the level of polish. I just loved the hours that went into perfecting one or two routines. Then you see it in all its glory and all that it can be.” In 2000 he began his relationship with University of Minnesota and got a lot of requests for summer intensives and needed some collaborators so Innovate Dance was born and they just finished their eleventh season.
What does off season training look like: “Summer intensives are 1-3 days. We do a lot of conditioning drills, technique, we work balance. There will be progressions across the floor and we string together different skills, we try to be purposeful and we come up with new material every year and will level it beginner, intermediate and advanced. We do combinations. Something that sets apart Innovate is that we brainstorm. We’ll do a 30 minute class and we give you a creative skill and we build on it. It’s a good way to come up with material that’s original for the program. “
Choreo Process: “The brainstorming session is the beginning. Sometimes it’s individual or in small groups. I give them a concept of what I want to see and then they interact with each other. In choreography, sometimes you don’t have a lot of time for things to develop, so we get a lot of jump start from the material of the brainstorm session into the actual routine.”
Music: “If we haven’t made a final selection, we’ll use final options during the brainstorm session and let them improv. You can tell when they’re collectively feeling it. Once the music is selected, I’ll do my own editing because it’s usually one piece of music. That’s when the choreography starts. I’ll edit it down to the parts I want to use and listen to it on loop. Where do I see a turn combo? Where do I see the first in unison?” Do you always pick the music or does the team? “Mostly I pick it. Sometimes the team does. Everyone involved has to be inspired. Choreographer, coach and dancers have to all feel it.”
More about the choreo process: “Sometimes you can be overprepared. That’s not how I work best. You can get stuck there. Have the concept and let it develop. And then collaborate with the dancers you’re working with. Know your own strengths as a choreographer. Detailed movement has never been my strength. I’m a visual person and I need to see it on someone else’s body. Give the dancers a bigger concept and see what they come up with.” Karl also relies on his collaborators to bring the necessary skills that he does not possess to the projects. He handles the big picture, staging, layering, how it comes together, the sequencing, and the musicality.
Certain components that must be in routine: “A strong beginning – you need to capture them right away. There are 40-50 teams in one category. You have got to capture attention in that ever important first 10 seconds. Finding something really memorable to do there like a skill. If you can, make people gasp in an opening. Openings for me look like layering a lot of times. The emotion matters though too.” He brought up simple opening he did with BYU. It was just about capturing the passion. “There’s no recipe for what the opening has to be, but it has to capture my attention.”
Layering: “Openings of routine – 9.9 times out of 10 I will have a map out of what that’s going to be. I tend to look at things from a bird’s eye perspective. I use coins and will film with the iPad from above as I move them. How are people going to come from this to this?” The details are worked out with collaborators and dancers. “Don’t be afraid to tweak it and say, ‘You need to go a count later because you’re competing.'”
How to keep track of inspiration: “The voice memo is big. When I have a concept I do a voice memo or a video if I need to remember the visual of it. You never know. Creativity doesn’t always show up when you need her. When she shows up I welcome her and hope I can capture the gift she’s giving at that time.”
Perfect balance of skill and artistry: “Coming from my initial dance background of theater, artistry and story telling were always so important. I love the athletic side, it’s where I’ve made my career. I think it’s a wonderful blend. I love the tricks and big jumps that make our sport special, but if that’s all I see with nothing behind it, it becomes hollow. We cannot separate the art from what we do. That’s one of the biggest mistakes I see. Having no passion or art behind it. You have to have that artistry. It informs everything that I’m thinking about while we build these routines. If you just bombard people with skill after skill then it becomes ‘where is the story?’ For jazz and lyrical the storytelling takes center stage in those categories. It’s important to give people the chills and the goosebumps through not only breathtaking skills but also through resistance and heartfelt movement where they are commiteed in their heart and it’s coming from a real place.”
How do you find that balance? “As dance educators and choreographers, part of our job is to help cultivate that in others, in the young people that we work with, whether that’s giving them the permission to be vulnerable, whether that’s trying to get them to open up and share in a safe space where they feel comfortable because I think that part of that artistry comes from us not feeling self conscious. When I feel self conscious I am not giving you my heart, I’m giving you my thoughts and my analytical side.”
Trends: “Interaction between dancers. We want them to project to judges and audience members, but I think those moments where you connect with members of your teammate, when there’s really a moment of connection or interaction. It adds complexity and visual interest, but also the other thing that comes from that, during the process of building that, those kind of interactions happen in the choreo session. It’s more collaborative. What does she do that I want to showcase? How can she be a part of what I’m doing?”
“Formations should be clear and puposeful. They want variety. It’s okay to not always have your layers be perfectly symmetrical. Does it make sense? Does it seamlessly morph from one thing into the next?”
About being innovative: “When helping with training and inspiration – one of the mistakes that people make is taking something they saw that they think is cool at last year’s nationals and then they put that in their routine because they thought it was so cool, but we’ve already seen it. When we get inspired by really top notch programs and take what they do with very little revision or innovation to it, that is a big mistake that people make because the judges will remember it too. Just change up the dialogue. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. People will take notice of the unique quality of something, a skill especially, and that will make you stand out.”
Cleaning: “My favorite sessions with routines are the followup because they’re already clean for the most part, but it’s more about how do I help the cleaning get even stronger through emotion and connection because that sometimes gets lost on the day to day grind of cleaning.”
Most effective cleaning tool: “There’s nothing quite like videoing, showing them right away, making the correction, then videoing and showing again. That’s the way you’re going to catch it right away.”
Clean full out: “When that music is on, your expectations are that they’re full out, they’re feeling it and they’re connecting because a dancer’s who is in it and their hearts in it, it’s going to be different than one who is going through the motions. When they’re all engaged, when they’re all on the same page emotionally, they tend to be cleaner and more together. Synching is not just steps. It’s synching the emotional and the mental aspect as well. Get everyone in the same mindset. And under extreme moments they will go to their default. Make full out the default in rehearsal process.”
Mental aspect: “If I could leave your listeners with one thing that they take from this, it is so important to not leave the mental side of it, the confidence, the focus, the toughness if you will. You can’t wait until a couple weeks before because what happens is when we feel pressure and when we have those doubts that will naturally and inevitably come up in a big high stress event like a competition, we have to learn as a team and as an individual how to handle that. If you leave that until right before the competition, it’s not going to be in their default setting. The very first thing that can build confidence in dancers is as a group to take a few moments to breathe together. Breathing and learning to calm and center can help cut out a lot of that chatter and stop a negative thought pattern. We really want to get the dancers to focus on and visualize on what they want to happen not on what could go wrong. When we focus on ‘don’t don’t don’t’ then the mind is thinking of what you want to avoid. Visualization is really improtant and how we talk to ourselves. Coaches, if you see improvement, even slight, you need to let them know they’re on the right track to inspire and keep them going. Some of the mental breathwork and positive mentalization should be integrated into your traning. 4-6 weeks before, have the more concrete preparation and walk them through scenarios where you recreate everything at nationals. That’s the video to dissect.”
Favorite routines: “It’s hard to pick one, but during Covid I’ve been posting throwbacks to Instagram. I have 3.”
Eden Prairie, 2006, This Woman’s Work “The dancers played a big part of that. The coach is a dear friend. It doesn’t get old to me.”
University of Minnesota, 2012, Garden of Eden “On a personal level as a choreographer, I feel like creatively especially with the opening of that dance, as well as another part of it where three dancers walking forward and then there was some turns behind it, and the way the side groups came in before the end, I felt like it was some of my best work and I felt very creative and it was flowing in a way that made me feel good. That team was incredible.”
Brigham Young University, 2019, Praying “The final one would be Praying with BYU because it was the first and only time I’ve had a video go viral, and not that that should matter, but it was kind of exciting! Witin a week it had 3 million views and a lot of shares. That was a really special routine. I love that program. It was the first time I was with them at nationals so I got to be with them through all their devotionals and all their preparation and they delivered when it counted.”
You can view these routines and a lot of other great ones too on Innovate Dance’s video page: https://www.innovatedance.com/videos
Teams that excel on every level, what do they have in common? “The first and most important thing is they know very intimately how much work is going to go into achieving what they want and that they’re all willing to do it and it’s become part of the culture of the team. They don’t have a big ego. The best dancers are also the hardest working and they want to please. They are constantly striving to get better themselves. The work ethic and the humbleness. The connection that they have as teammates. They have to be bonded and they have to know that they can trust and turn to the person standing next to them and count on them with confidence. Your dancers also need to be training. They need to have the foundation that you get from ballet and good technique and it needs to be something that’s very important and highlighted in your program whether it’s because they came in with that training or it’s because you also continue to cultivate and not let go of those technique classes that are so important.”
You’ve studied Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and apply it to you work. Tell us more about MBSR: “The key to this is being aware of your direct experience as it’s happening. We’re planning or remembering and we spend a lot of time in the past or the future. What is happening right now? It can help redirect my thoughts to my body, my breath and this moment. You also learn about your triggers and habitual thought patterns and how to handle that. There’s nothing wrong with having goals and the mind is going to think and do these things, but you’re deeper than that. I’m a spiritual person and I believe that we have a soul and I believe there is a deeper part of who I am as a person and who you are as a person and I can tap into that whether you call it a soul or whatever you call it. Even if you’re not religious at all, this program can work for you because you can name it however you want. You learn about yourself and learn ways to calm because stress can be damaging to our bodies, and if we can soften and get some relief from that through connecting to right now, right at this moment, that’s a win for us as humans, but also as a dancer.”
What are some big lessons you’ve learned that you’d like to pass along: “If I could leave your listeners with anything, with things that I’ve sort of learned through this career, and I feel so grateful to have had it, I can just even tear up just thinking about how lucky and fortunate I have been to be able to have had the courage to follow what I love to do even when it can be a little bit scary to do something like this. I could have gone into teaching, and that wouldn’t have been bad at all. I chose to take the chance and keep dancing and that led to this career and some of the things that I think that I’ve learned: 1. Stay humble. The ego can be very destructive and it can stop us from growing.
2. Never make an assumption. Don’t make up a story in your head. Go to the source. Keep the communication good. Try not to let resentment build up. It’s really easy for us as humans to make these assumptions when they really aren’t based on any truth.
3. Motivate your dancers with a firm but positive approach. I want people to achieve the most excellence they can and I don’t think we should mistake being positive and motivating and uplifting with weakness. You can still hold them to a high standard and do that.
4. Never understimate the power of a few good deep breaths and its ability to help calm in the moment.
Parting thought – I wish everyone who’s listening all the best as we continue to navigate through these very challenging times. I know this too shall pass and if we can approach our relationships with others with a loving kindness and respect I think that is going to be serving us so much as a country and as a world in ways that will be very profound if we can remember to do that. “
Karl’s website: https://www.innovatedance.com
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