How-To

Music for Class: Al Blackstone

Photo by Jeremy Davis, courtesy of Al Blackstone

Shifting between hard-hitting jazz and gooey contemporary movement, borrowing modern dance's bare feet and layering character portrayals as bold as those found on Broadway, Al Blackstone's choreography samples several techniques. “I always like to tell the story that my mom, dad and sister were truly my teachers because they surrounded me with the different styles of the dance world," says Blackstone, who literally grew up at his mother's Denise Daniele Dance Studio, then attached to their house in New Jersey. “My mother would take me to see a Broadway show, my dad taught me ballroom and my sister was training at Ailey."



But it wasn't until he took Andy Blankenbuehler's class that he “fell head over heels in love with musical theater." From there, his career progressed steadily: first some regional theater and then the national tour and Broadway production of Wicked. Fresh off that contract, he pocketed the top 2011 Capezio A.C.E. Awards honor at the Dance Teacher Summit, which led to producing his first evening-length work, Happy We'll Be. Now he's teaching at Broadway Dance Center and Pace University and will join JUMP Dance Convention in the fall, offering studio dancers an introduction to his witty, lighthearted style. “Contemporary is so big right now, and students are so used to doing angsty, dark dances. But it's nice to play on the sunny side of the street," he says. “You can feel the relief in the room. And it's important that they know how to do that. Ultimately, it's more likely what they'll do if they become professionals."

WARM-UPS

Artist: The Album Leaf

Song: “Micro Melodies"

Artist: Paul Pena

Song: “Gonna Move"

“I always start with 'Micro Melodies' because it's a palate cleanser. It doesn't have lyrics, and it's very soothing, which calms the body and allows you to focus on breath and slow stretching. It's sometimes difficult to do character work if you don't first find a centered, calm place. 'Gonna Move' is the last song I use during warm-up. It's a fun, upbeat song that I like to do easy steps to—step touch, hip rolls and ponies."

REVAMPED CLASSICS

Artist: Rufus Wainwright

Album: Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall

Artist: Eau Claire Memorial Jazz I featuring Justin Vernon

Album: A Decade With Duke

“I love finding music that somehow bridges today to the classics. And the old standards are great for dancers of all ages. Rufus Wainwright has a very modern voice, but the orchestrations are classic. I want something that young people can connect to that still has an old-fashioned sensibility."

CHARACTER STUDIES

Artist: Bobby Darin

Song: “Talk to the Animals"

Artist: Tony Bennett

Song: “The Trolley Song"

“My process begins with the music. I feel like in every song there's a story that's trying to get out. Bobby Darin has the perfect blend of dynamics and humor. This is from Doctor Dolittle, and he's making animal sounds throughout, which is great for kids. When I taught 'The Trolley Song' at BDC, we made it about a lonely commuter who gets on a train to work and sits across from his favorite movie star."


Dance Buzz
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."



But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

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In order to keep us all inspired to stretch our toes until they are drool-worthy, DT compiled a list of five dancers whose feet we have a very real crush on. Honestly, these guys should get their toes insured! Truly, they are perfect.

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What are your non-negotiables? Share on Dance Teacher's Facebook page.

It could be argued that half the battle of owning a dance studio is getting people to follow the rules. To ensure your business will run like a well-oiled machine, it helps to have clear expectations in place for students and their families—and, most important, to make sure everyone knows them from day one. Of course, every school is unique, and behavior that may be acceptable to you might be out of the question for someone else. "There are so many studios out there," says Dana McGuire, a studio co-owner in North Kansas City, Missouri. "Know and stand by what you're about." Here, four seasoned studio directors discuss the issues they consider non-negotiable.

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