A group of friends who decided to continue dancing after college now run a major professional touring production and more.
“I never anticipated dancing as my career,” says Amit Shah, the founder and creative director of AATMA Performing Arts, named after the Sanskrit word for soul. Shah was a pre-med major at Rutgers University when he realized he wasn’t ready to let go of his creative side just yet. “I felt I had more to offer the world than a medical degree,” he says.
And he wasn’t alone. He recruited friends who all shared his passion for dance, without being on a professional track. What began as a small troupe in 2010 has now become a large-scale organization. The Bollywood and Indian dance company is based in New Jersey, with outposts in New York City and Los Angeles. They offer dance classes for kids and adults and produce a major touring show, Mystic India.
Assistant creative director Kruti Shah (no relation to Amit) majored in evolutionary anthropology in college. “I’d danced since I was 6, but in college, dance was more of a hobby,” she says. When Amit reached out to her, she jumped at the chance, and as the organization grew, so did her role within it. “Now I run the school. I teach, I choreograph for the company and I run rehearsals,” she says. “AATMA helped me realize I could make a living with dance and be successful. It changed my whole life.”
Despite the organization’s focus on Bollywood and Indian dance forms, staff and company members have diverse training histories. Some performers and teachers, like Amit, come from a purely Indian dance background. Others, like Kruti, grew up studying ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary, hip hop and other styles. Classes offered reflect this diversity, incorporating Indian and Western styles into almost every session. “We want our students to get the best of both worlds,” Amit says.
Many of the students are Indian-Americans who enjoy Bollywood movies and music and want a cultural experience. They start out taking Bollywood and then become interested in learning other dance styles. The junior and senior troupes perform in a recital showcase each June, as well as in community performances, and they participate in Indian dance competitions such as Naya Andaz and Dance Pe Chance.
The professional company currently has 65 members who perform in local shows and have the opportunity to tour with Mystic India. Pay for local shows is by performance. Since nearly a third of the company members also hold down outside employment, cast and choreography can vary, depending on which dancers are available. Performers in Mystic India commit to a yearlong contract and travel frequently in the U.S. and abroad for as many as 200 shows a year.
AATMA recently launched Bollywood Beats Boot Camp, a one-hour cardio class that is available at select gyms in New Jersey, Manhattan and Los Angeles. And, with AATMA having had a company presence in Los Angeles for more than a year, plans are in the works to open a school on the West Coast.
“Seeing the progress the students make puts a smile on my face,” says Amit. “Plus, one of the biggest compliments I’ve received was having a parent say their child used to be ashamed to be an Indian-American, but through our program, they became more comfortable being themselves. It’s so rewarding to cultivate a new generation in the U.S. that isn’t afraid to share their Indian culture and music and art with other people.” DT
Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn, NY.
You’ve seen it on “So You Think You Can Dance,” but do you really know what Bollywood’s all about? “As a technique, Bollywood is a mix of many different genres,” says Kruti Shah, AATMA’s assistant creative director and the head of the organization’s student programs. “Bollywood is a melting pot of Indian classical forms, hip hop, jazz—and anything else you can think of!”
Because Bollywood has its roots in Indian classical dance, AATMA encourages students to study Indian classical technique. “It’s just like taking ballet is important if you’re doing contemporary and modern,” Kruti explains.
There are eight officially recognized forms of Indian classical dance, each from a different geographical region of the country: bharata natyam, kathak, kathakali, kuchipudi, manipuri, mohiniyattam, sattriya and odissi. “Each style has different hallmarks, including specific hand positions, footwork, even facial expressions,” Kruti says. “All of that is incorporated into Bollywood choreography.” —KH
Photos courtesy of AATMA Performing Arts
In South Carolina, the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities thrives.
South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities dance students in concert
One might not expect to find a residential arts high school in South Carolina that’s backed 100 percent by the state government. While many states have been eliminating their governor’s school programs due to budget cuts, the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities is celebrating its 13th anniversary as a year-round program.
Since the school opened its doors in Greenville in 1999, the dance department has become known for exceptional classical training. Former students include New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns and American Ballet Theatre corps members Joseph Phillips and Gray Davis. Other former students have gone on to join Boston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and Miami City Ballet.
The school stands out not only because of the quality of the training, but also because the state of South Carolina makes this training available to students of all backgrounds. “Because we’re state-funded, we can take talented people who could not afford serious dance training otherwise,” says dance department chair and artistic director Stanislav Issaev. “Everyone here is on full scholarship. If people really want to dance, we can train them.”
Building a School
The umbrella term “governor’s school” refers to any residential program for gifted high-schoolers funded by the state. As of 2012, governors’ schools for the arts exist in New York, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, California, West Virginia, Delaware, Missouri, North Dakota, Vermont and South Carolina; many other states offer similar programs for academic enrichment, though the focus, intensity and duration vary. But with the economic downturn, many are losing funding—arts and academic alike. Currently, the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities is the only residential year-round governor’s school specializing in the arts.
Established in 1980, SCGSAH was originally a summer intensive housed at Furman University. In the mid-’90s, then-director Dr. Virginia Uldrick, a musician, teacher and arts activist, felt that her state could offer more to its student artists. She approached state lawmakers to discuss the expansion of the program into a residential high school.
“The state’s eventual answer was, ‘We’ll give you funding if you can raise half of the initial investment on your own,’” says Julie Allen, interim dean of SCGSAH. “So, the school was originally built as a public/private collaboration.” After Greenville was chosen to house the school, the county and city jointly donated 8.5 acres for the new campus. And in 1999, after years of research, meetings and unprecedented fundraising efforts on Uldrick’s part, a school was born.
Today, the dance program at SCGSAH is open to 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders, while students in the other disciplines—drama, creative writing, visual arts and music—can attend in 11th or 12th grades. The school’s maximum enrollment is 242 students, approximately 35 of whom are dancers, and all students live on campus. Although the school continues to raise money from private entities to provide scholarship support for food fees and summer programs, the yearly operating budget comes entirely from the South Carolina state legislature.
Crafting a Conservatory
Uldrick’s vision was to hire teachers who were masters in their fields. To lead the dance program, she selected Issaev, a Russian native who started his performing career with the Moscow State Ballet Theatre and moved to the United States to join Atlanta Ballet as a principal dancer in 1990. Issaev was on faculty at the University of South Carolina when Uldrick approached him about heading up the new program—an opportunity he jumped at.
To help build the program, Issaev turned to Robert Barnett, former director of Atlanta Ballet, for advice and mentorship. The program was modeled on Robert Lindgren’s University of North Carolina School of the Arts dance department. The ballet curriculum is Vaganova-based, though Issaev says that it’s “updated Vaganova—very modern, and faster than a traditional Russian ballet class.” Students are also exposed to George Balanchine’s style and works through guest teachers and choreographers like Barnett, who performed with New York City Ballet.
Students have academic classes in the morning and arts classes after lunch. During the week, it’s all about ballet: technique, pointe, pas de deux, men’s class, character class and rehearsals. Saturdays are devoted to modern—Horton technique and Cunningham—with classes and repertory 10:30–5. Dancers are divided into intermediate and advanced levels by ability, not grade.
SCGSAH’s residential high school is open to any high school student (through a rigorous audition and application process) who is a resident of South Carolina. Some students are invited to attend the high school after attending a five-week summer dance intensive, which is open to dancers from 7th to 12th grades and features the same curriculum, taught by the same faculty, as the year-round school, with the addition of guest artists.
“We’re looking for natural ability and talent—coordination, musicality, flexibility,” Issaev says. “Prior training is important, but so is effort and desire. If someone really wants to come to our school, you can see it.”
By nurturing dance talent while promoting academic study, SCGSAH aims to create well-rounded graduates who have an array of opportunities awaiting them. Says Allen, “We want them to be prepared for whatever the next step is: a dance company, a conservatory, a major university or a liberal arts college.”
Allen sees the school’s success as a credit not only to the faculty and administration, but also to the state. “South Carolina may not be known for the arts, or frankly for innovative education, but our legislators have chosen to give us the resources to do this,” she says. “Students who go on to be successful talk about their time here as being formative. That has to do with the arts, yes, but also about finding their place and voice in a community that allowed them to grow.” DT
Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn, NY.
Photo: Students from the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in performance, by Matthew Leckenbusch, courtesy of SCGSAH
Harlem School of the Arts' dance program director dreams big.
Aubrey Lynch II prepares Harlem School of Arts students to perform at the Apollo Theater in New York City.
"Dance with your back," Aubrey Lynch II calls over the music during an evening rehearsal with a trio of teen dancers at the Harlem School of the Arts in New York City. "Your arms are a little spaghetti-ish—we want wrought iron!" He's encouraging and kind, but he also demands passion and proper technique.
During the night's final run, one student becomes emotional. Her performance is heartbreaking and real, and Lynch uses it as a teachable moment for the other two dancers. "Tears mean courage," he tells them. "What you just saw was very brave and very beautiful. The audience wants us to be vulnerable. People look at dancers to tell the human story."
Lynch knows what audiences want; he comes to HSA after performing with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and in the original cast of The Lion King on Broadway. In his first year as dance program director, Lynch has used his professional expertise to imbue a venerable community center with a serious conservatory atmosphere. "I want the students to have fun, and to get real dance training at the same time," he says. "Most of all, I want them to feel empowered. They should leave here feeling like they have been seen, they have been heard and they are accepted as who they are, wherever they are in their training and their lives."
A Historic Institution
When he joined HSA's staff last summer, Lynch became part of a Harlem legacy. Founded in 1964 by Dorothy Maynor as a free after-school program, HSA held its first classes in the basement of St. James Presbyterian Church. New York City Ballet's Arthur Mitchell joined the faculty in 1966, and the school grew from there, breaking ground on its custom-designed facility in 1975. (George Balanchine offered advice on the design of its three dance studios.)
Today, HSA is a crucial part of the cultural fabric of Harlem. Students ages 2 to 18 come after school to study dance, music, theater and visual art from experienced, professional faculty. Total enrollment is around 600 students—roughly 175 dancers—and HSA's outreach programs reach another 2,000 public school children. All students can take an array of dance classes recreationally, and kids ages 12 and older can audition for HSA's structured pre-professional program. Although the school is now tuition-based, a number of scholarships are offered, particularly to students on the pre-professional track.
Because of its longevity, HSA has a unique family feel. "In the dance department, I've seen people who brought their children now bringing their grandchildren," says Yvonne Curry, a tap teacher at HSA for 14 years. "People in the area know about and respect Harlem School of the Arts."
A School in Transition
In 2010, HSA's funding ran out and the school was forced to close its doors for three weeks. It was brought back to life by generous private donations but needed revamping. Yvette L. Campbell, a former member of Elisa Monte Dance and the founder and director of The Ailey Extension program at The Ailey School, took the reins as president. She hired new program directors, including Lynch, who in turn hired an array of prestigious dance faculty, whose affiliations include New York City Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Ailey and Complexions Contemporary Ballet.
To increase the overall seriousness of the program, Lynch enforced the dress code, lengthened class times and shifted the focus toward technique—even for recreational students. "I knew we had to be patient with the kids who were used to a different kind of training," he says. "I told my teachers, 'Bring me your best tools, but meet the kids where they are.' I don't want to lose the community center feel, but I want the training to be real."
Students on HSA's pre-professional track are getting a true taste of conservatory-style training. They take ballet, modern, African and jazz classes each week, go on dance-related field trips and have additional performance opportunities. "I've designed this program so that if you take the classes in the order I've set them out, you can be a dancer, if you want to be," Lynch says.
A major component in HSA's revamping is the addition of a musical theater program, which Campbell and Lynch hope will unite the school's four disciplines into a fifth. Although only two musical theater classes were offered this year, the program's expansion is in the works.
"We eventually want to create a full production each term, with set design and costuming coming from the visual art students, the music students playing and singing, and the actors and dancers onstage," Campbell says. "Dancers are sometimes afraid to speak and sing onstage, and actors and singers might be afraid to move, but you have to do all three on Broadway. If we can get our students over those fears early, they'll have more performance options in the future."
Lynch's background has also enabled a partnership between HSA and Disney Theatrical Group that brings in the cast and crew of The Lion King. This semester, participating students have learned about African and Asian cultural arts (including dance, music, storytelling and mask-making) and have studied the songs and choreography from the Broadway production. The project culminates in June in the first-ever children's production of The Lion King, a collaboration of HSA students, faculty and Disney guest artists.
A New Vision
In recent years, HSA has become a training destination not only for the local community, but also for students commuting from Connecticut, New Jersey and surrounding New York areas. "I think people come from all over because it's a very hands-on organization," says Horton Technique teacher Freddie Moore. "We get to know students and their families and show them that we really care. HSA is known for that, and it will continue with Aubrey, who really has a heart for people and is a go-getter."
Lynch's dream is for the school's reputation to soar even higher. "When our kids audition for high school, college or companies, I want having HSA on their resumé to mean something," he says, "and for you to see the training on their bodies." DT
Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn, NY.
Photo by Giuliana Mackler
Keep male students engaged in dance class.
It’s your first day at a new school. You’ve gone over your lesson plan and moved the desks out of the way. Now, you’re staring at a sea of young faces, several of whom—mostly the boys—are eyeing you warily.
Chances are you’ve encountered your share of similar situations, since it’s not uncommon for students to be anxious when trying something new. But teachers across the nation say that male students aren’t as reluctant to move as stereotype might suggest. “Every kid wants to jump, turn, use his imagination, laugh and sweat,” says teacher Adam Holms, who for three years has led a summer residency at the Los Lojas Community School in Ecuador. “Dance class takes the best aspects of physical education but puts an artistic spin on it.” Still, there’s no question that boys have different learning needs than girls and possess a different physical energy that needs to be harnessed or explored within class.
Use a Hook
When Lynn Reynolds started teaching at West Briar Middle School in Houston, male participation in her elective dance program was nonexistent. In her third year, she enlisted three boys to partner girls in a tango performance number. The next year, she decided to try to attract even more boys by launching a hip-hop and break-dancing class. “I started hip hop with the girls and let the word of mouth spread,” she says. “Once I had a few boys, I took them into gym class to show off their b-boy moves. This year I have 75 boys enrolled.”
Sometimes what will hook students will change from school to school. Amanda Selwyn, artistic director of New York City–based organization Notes in Motion Outreach Dance Theatre, works with school faculties and administrations to tailor dance workshops and residencies to the specific needs of each student population. At one high school in Brooklyn, the principal requested that Selwyn open with a Latin dance unit, to cater to the predominantly Latino population. Although 10th- and 11th-grade boys might normally be reluctant to participate in mandatory dance class, in Selwyn’s case they were eager to dance with and impress the girls.
Provide Role Models
Holms, Reynolds and Selwyn all recommend showing boys of all ages pictures and videos of professional male dancers. Selwyn leads units on male choreographers. “I say, ‘Here is a strong, masculine man who dances for a living; you can dance, too,’” she says. “Boys are especially impressed with athleticism.”
Reynolds has decorated her dance classroom at West Briar with posters of male ballet, modern and hip-hop dancers alike, to show boys the various avenues male dancers can pursue.
NYC teaching artist Karen Curlee, who co-directs outreach organization Together in Dance and leads non-elective 10- to 20-week residencies in schools for grades K–5, often has students watch videos of classic dance works and then choreograph their own sequence based on what they saw. She shows dances such as “Sinner Man,” from Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, and Martha Graham’s dramatic Steps in the Street. She finds that young boys enjoy emulating the strong, passionate moves they see onscreen.
Make Dance Physical
“With the dearth of phys ed, outdoor play and recess, boys are so happy to get up and get moving,” says Curlee. In her creative-movement classes for elementary-aged students, she emphasizes the joy and fun of movement rather than the fine points of technique. One of her lesson plans involves showing Paul Taylor’s Esplanade and discussing the idea of everyday movement as dance. She notes that when asked to create their own sequences, boys often incorporate sports moves—dunking a basketball, kicking a soccer ball or sliding into home plate. “I support and encourage those choices,” she says. “They’re creating locomotor movement using shapes that are instinctual to them.”
When teaching technique, it’s best to start by letting boys move as they want, then refine their moves. During an across-the-floor series Holms might challenge boys to jump over an obstacle, and then say, “Wow, you jumped really high—but can you come down with pointed feet and make no sound?”
With energetic boys, you may have trouble getting them to slow down. “Boys want to move big,” Reynolds says. “They attack movement. Getting through warm-up is the hardest part of class. They want to get to the ‘real’ stuff.” Stress the importance of warming up, but let boys know that they do have something to look forward to. Reynolds says her boys are more willing to slow down for warm-up or to learn choreography if they know that they will get to do bigger moves at the end of class.
Create a Community
Boys of all ages need to feel like they’re part of a group. Give them opportunities to perform for and receive feedback from each other. In break-dance class at West Briar, boys enjoy the cypher, a circle in which each boy gets to present his best moves while the others cheer him on.
Holms suggests not asking students to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself: “If I’m sweating right along with them, they say, ‘He’s doing it; I can do it.’” Positive encouragement works best. Boys need to be challenged, but if they’re new to dance, they may be more likely to open up if they know they won’t be told what they’re doing is wrong.
In Curlee’s creative-movement classes, “it’s about meeting boys where they are and having them find their own creativity and voice,” she says. “I’m not judging or giving steps that they have to follow. They create their own work from their own body vocabulary, and they gain confidence and self-esteem from that.” DT
Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer in New York City.
Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Amanda Selwyn and Notes in Motion Outreach Dance Theatre
Philadelphia’s Headlong Performance Institute crosses disciplines to create whole artists.
The first assignment students get when arriving at Headlong Performance Institute is to create a three-minute self-portrait. They can use whatever idiom they choose—dance, theater, song, visual art or a mix of genres. And that’s just the beginning. They’ll spend the next 14 weeks studying movement techniques, commedia dell’arte, clowning, contact improvisation, dramaturgy, mask work and other cross-disciplinary artforms, all while seeing dance and theater performances and learning the practical skills they’ll need to succeed as artists.
The semester-long experimental dance and theater program based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has a broad scope, but its mission is simple: to create mature artists who are comfortable using whatever discipline necessary to get their vision across. “We train the body, voice, face and mind to help students learn to use all of themselves onstage,” explains Andrew Simonet, one of the institute’s founders. “Many choreographers and directors today want you to be able to develop relationships onstage, to be able to speak, to move articulately and to generate ideas.”
For dancers, this means learning to embody a character, vocalize onstage, speak about art and collaborate with artists in other disciplines to create work that defies categorization. No matter the discipline, every student is challenged—and changed.
In the Beginning
The program is the brainchild of Simonet, Amy Smith and David Brick. The three Wesleyan University graduates also run Headlong Dance Theater, a company they founded in 1993 that’s known for tackling heady topics with wit and wry humor. HDT had done short-term college residencies, and, according to Smith, the institute came out of a desire to continue working with college students, but in a more intensive format.
They began brainstorming a curriculum in 2006 and reached out to four fellow Philadelphia artists: Aaron Cromie, an actor, director, puppeteer, maskmaker and commedia dell’arte performer; Quinn Bauriedel, co-artistic director of Pig Iron Theatre Company; Emmanuelle Delpech-Ramey, a former Pig Iron member who now makes her own work; and Mark Lord, HDT’s company dramaturge and director of the theater program at Bryn Mawr College. The multidisciplinary team reflects HDT’s philosophy that artforms should overlap. “We believe in the expansion of forms of dance and theater,” Smith says. “Our culture often identifies them as two separate forms, and they’re really not. I’ve always wanted the dance field to expand to include theatrical elements, for dancers to be trained to use voices and faces, and vice versa—for actors to use their bodies.”
How It Works
The institute launched in fall 2008 and students earn four full course credits (generally 12 or 16 credit hours, depending on their home institution) through Bryn Mawr College. Students apply by submitting an artistic statement and a work sample, which might be a DVD of dance or theater work or even a piece of visual art, as well as letters of recommendation and a transcript. Generally, the institute receives 20 to 25 applications a year; the average class size is around 15. The program accepts both current college students and college graduates (students have ranged in age from 19 to 37)—which means dance educators looking to broaden their skills can attend the program, or they can recommend it to students. To succeed at the institute, Simonet says dancers need “courage; an interest in expanding what you can do and what you can create; comfort in what you do well and in trying new things; and an interest in making art that is about something.”
The curriculum is extremely ambitious. One day might begin with yoga or Pilates, progress to a two-hour clown or mask class and then finish with “Creative Process” class, in which students create and analyze their own work. On another day, students might do dance improvisation and then have a class in art theory. The institute’s “Life of the Artist” course covers budgeting, fundraising, resumés, taxes, day jobs, grant-writing and other practical aspects of being a working artist. Each Friday, a salon series gives students the chance to present works-in-progress for feedback. (Between weekly assignments and final projects, students spend about eight hours a week in the studio rehearsing, outside of regular class hours.) The semester culminates in a multidisciplinary, collaborative performance at Christ Church Theater in downtown Philadelphia.
Though the program follows a basic framework, faculty members are flexible about tailoring the experience to each group of students. “We ask, ‘Who are you, as an artist?’” Simonet says. “They can’t answer that by making the kind of work I make. Headlong Performance Institute supports students finding their voice.”
Creating Artists—and Community
Working outside of one’s comfort zone is challenging—but it also facilitates growth. “What I loved about the program was that I could really fail there,” says Britney Hines, a Dickinson College theater and dance alum who attended in fall 2009. “It was such a good lesson to show something [to your peers and faculty] that you’ve put a lot of time into and see that it just doesn’t work—and then to use constructive criticism to bring it to that next phase.”
Marcel Williams Foster, a dancer and actor from Colorado with a biological anthropology background who also attended in 2009, experienced a similar transformation. “I came in with a lot of professional experience, including publication in scientific journals,” he says. “My approach to choreography was to come into the studio with my thesis, thinking, ‘My idea is precious and nobody’s going to touch it.’” Foster says that the institute faculty helped him find a sense of play in his work. “I learned to go into a piece with a clear idea, but also to be committed to seeing it change and transform.”
Foster and Hines both chose to stay in Philadelphia after the program and launch new ventures of their own. They co-produced The Jane Goodall: Experience, a theater piece in which Foster, who conducted primate research in Tanzania prior to attending the institute, portrayed Jane Goodall. The show was performed at the 2010 Philly Fringe Festival. Foster, Hines and other institute alums also run Hybridge Arts Collective, which puts on a multidisciplinary salon series, Last Mondays, where up-and-coming performers can present work.
Even if a student arrives a trained dancer and chooses to stay in the dance realm, she’ll leave the program with a new arsenal of creative tools. “My dream is that we’re helping to create a generation of artists who work in an ensemble collaborative fashion,” Smith says, “using the techniques we teach to create work that we can’t even imagine.” DT
Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer in New York City.
Photos from top: by Andrew Simonet, courtesy of Headlong Performance Institute; by Lauren Dubowski, courtesy of Headlong Performance Institute