When Misty Lown founded Misty’s Dance Unlimited in Onalaska, Wisconsin, purchasing her space was not an option. “I was fresh out of college, and I didn’t want to be tied to a permanent situation,” she says. Instead, she decided to lease with an option to buy after five years. Nineteen years later, she not only owns her own location (a different, bigger space than her original rental), but she offers consulting services to studios through her company, More Than Just Great Dancing. Transitioning to ownership made sense for Lown, but it’s not right for every studio owner. Here are factors to consider when weighing your options.
When to Rent
As a first step. Buying space usually requires a substantial financial commitment, so renting offers a better first step for new studio owners. It lets them test the market and location, grow their clientele and start to make a profit (which usually takes a few years).
For flexible growth. Tiffany Henderson, who rents the eight locations of Tiffany’s Dance Academy (seven studios in California, and one in Boise, Idaho), says renting gives her businesses the freedom to grow physically as they grow in popularity. “If you’re buying, you have to predict exactly how big you’ll get,” she says. “But if you lease, you can always start small and then move to a bigger space—or downsize if necessary.”
Having a landlord comes with trade-offs. While you cede some leeway in terms of changes you can make to the physical space, you also gain someone to turn to if something needs fixing or updating.
When to Buy
Buying guarantees more control over your space. “The biggest hurdle for me was coming up with that down payment,” says Lown, who extended her lease a couple of years until she had earned enough money. “But over time, I knew I could own for close to the same monthly price as renting, so it became a matter of, ‘Do I want my money to build somebody else’s future or my own?’”
Tax advantages. Purchasing a building is generally done via a commercial mortgage with monthly payments similar to rent. The initial down payment will generally be about 20 percent of the total building price. Lown warns that taking out a loan can be an expensive process in itself. Expect attorney fees, inspection fees and title search fees and closing costs like bank fees, processing fees or appraisal fees, which can vary a good deal. “There were also new costs once I got inside, like building insurance and the water bill, that I hadn’t accounted for,” Lown says. But owning has financial pluses as well, like tax deductions for mortgage interest, property depreciation and maintenance costs.
Building equity. Once the initial loan fees are paid, monthly costs should be comparable to renting. And as owners pay their mortgages, they build equity in their property—the amount of the building you truly own. “We see so many school owners who get to the end of an amazing, productive and meaningful career as teachers, and they don’t have an exit strategy,” says Lown. “Having a real estate component to your service business mitigates some of the risk. When you get to the end of your teaching days, if you’re not able to sell your business, at least you still have an asset with value.”
4 Considerations When Negotiating Your Lease
If you rent, read your lease carefully before signing—and discuss with an attorney any terms that concern you. You will have the greatest leverage to negotiate when you first sign the lease.
Beware of hidden costs. “Some commercial lessors will come up with a lower cost per square foot, but they’ll make you responsible for certain operating costs, like snowplowing,” says small-business consultant Thomas Gray.
Check maintenance details. Be sure you know exactly what utilities are included, like heat and water. Plus, confirm that regular maintenance and improvements will not only be done, but will be done in a timely manner without extra cost. For example, Gray says he’ll often stipulate that roof leaks need to be fixed quickly to avoid damage to studio floors.
Avoid competition. If you’re in a strip mall or retail complex, you may also want to negotiate an exclusive-use clause, a provision that can prohibit your landlord from leasing to another tenant who offers dance classes.
Provide for an early release, just in case. Most landlords ask that you commit for several years, so review the sublease policy closely in case you want to move sooner, a lesson Henderson learned the hard way. When she opened her business, she signed on to rent a one-room studio for three years—and quickly outgrew the space. She decided to switch locations and sublet the original. “I thought, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’” she says. “What happened was that for the next three years, my landlord said no to every person I brought to him, and we paid $3,500 a month for a space that just sat there. I wish I’d known to make sure the lease was written in a way that I could have more control.”
Location, Location, Location
Renting or buying, location remains the most important decision when choosing a studio space. Parking availability and public transportation factor in, as does whether to pay more for space in a high-traffic area. A location off the beaten path may cost less but require a bigger investment in marketing. Small-business consultant Thomas Gray recommends scoping out neighboring businesses to judge whether the trade-off is worthwhile. “If you’re in a strip center, you want the stores nearby to attract your target market. Toys “R” Us is a great neighbor if you’re teaching kids.”
Follow the crowd. Certain businesses, like grocery stores, dental offices or daycare centers, scout demographics systematically before moving in. “KinderCare, for example, is a national daycare franchise that has very specific criteria for where they’ll put their centers—a certain population density, median income or distance from schools,” says studio owner and consultant Misty Lown. “They’ve already done that research, and you can take advantage of that.”
Make a tomorrow decision. Lown also advises studio owners to call their school districts and ask, “Where are you planning to build elementary schools in the next 10 years?” “Their answer might be counterintuitive, maybe on the outskirts of town where the next 500 homes are going to be built. But who’s going to live there? Young families looking for a dance studio,” she says. “You’re not making a today decision; you’re making a tomorrow decision. And finding that new blue sky takes some digging.”
Music to inspire creativity
Billy Bell’s dance career revolves around creation—crafting new opportunities for himself, inventing new movement and inspiring new dancers. After his remarkable technique and ethereal movement quality got him to the Top 5 on “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 7, he founded his own company, Lunge Dance Collective; performed for two and a half years with the recently disbanded Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet; and, in February, joined the cast of the interactive show Sleep No More in New York City. Despite his performance schedule, Bell still finds time to teach improvisation—the ultimate incubator for creation.
As a faculty member for several popular conventions, Bell is an expert at adjusting his class to challenge whoever’s in the room. “If I see that students have a gap in their knowledge, I’ll dive more heavily into that—so I guess I sort of improv my improv class,” says Bell, who carefully selects tracks for movement, but often leaves the order of the music to chance, as well. “Sometimes I’ll just click shuffle on my iPod. That way, my students never get to adapt, since they can’t predict what’s coming next. Something completely atmospheric could lead into something like Justin Timberlake.” DT
“I use this for deep inhales and exhales at the beginning of a warm-up. It’s short, and it just makes you want to breathe for a second. It’s the perfect song to start class with positive energy.”
Song: “Jazz Night”
“If I do a more structured warm-up, I’ll use this for abs, arms and upper-body strength conditioning. It’s great for increasing stamina and getting blood flowing.”
Album: The Drive
“This is an album of buzzing tones. I’ll use this kind of music when I choreograph, since working in a silent room feels stifling. Having an ambient buzz playing low in the background during a rehearsal opens up my headspace.”
“This song is also pretty much just buzzing. My improv classes are typically built into two sections—the ‘thought’ section, which is about making conscious choices, and the ‘drive’ section, which is about instinct. For the ‘thought’ section, I like using ambient tones like this.”
“I like this as a transitional song between sections of class. It’s somewhere between a song that’s ambient and one that pushes you. It gets students from that completely cerebral land to a more physical one.”
Song: “Chambermaid Swing”
“Parov Stelar is a really fun electro-swing artist who I like to use for the ‘drive’ section of class, which is more about impulses. I’ll give certain tasks, like ‘spoking,’ in which you’re not allowed to bend your elbows or knees as you travel across the floor. Limiting choices can help kids learn to improvise. This song pushes them across the floor, but it’s not so fast that they don’t have time to process.”
Photo (top) by Erin Baiano for Dance Spirit
Seven experts share their thoughts on the state of jazz today and the role of dance educators in shaping its future.
If you offer jazz in your studio, the style is most likely rooted in theatrical jazz dance, influenced by the 1940s and ’50s Broadway choreography of Jack Cole, Jerome Robbins and Matt Mattox, and later, by innovators like Gus Giordano, Bob Fosse, Luigi and Frank Hatchett. For decades following its rise to musical theater prominence, jazz was the hot studio style, beloved by teen competition dancers and Broadway hopefuls alike. But what is the state of jazz today? Where does it fit amid the explosive popularity of the elusively defined, highly televised juggernaut known as contemporary? Is jazz dying out, or is it simply evolving? And what do we owe our students in terms of preserving the history of the form? We spoke to seven experts in the shifting field—choreographers, performers, company directors and, of course, teachers—to get their take on what defines jazz today and where the genre is headed tomorrow.
Broadway and “So You Think You Can Dance” choreographer
The truth is that jazz dance doesn’t really exist anymore—at least not in the form it did when I was growing up. Often, when I work with younger dancers on “SYTYCD,” their dancing is super- internal, because they’re being trained in contemporary dance. But they sometimes don’t know how to really entertain in an outgoing way. That focus on performance is essentially what jazz is all about.
Even though “SYTYCD”usually categorizes my work in the “Broadway” genre, if you turned off the music, it would look just like jazz. I’ve been incredibly influenced by the styles of Bob Fosse and Jack Cole, and by my training with Marguerite Derricks and Frank Hatchett. It makes so much sense to me that any dancer who wants to be on Broadway needs to build up their jazz technique. At the same time, though, we can’t dance the same styles forever; they have to evolve.
Artistic director of Jump Rhythm Jazz Project
A lot of what I’ve seen called jazz dance recently—in studios and on reality TV dance shows—is purely sexualized pelvic movements or ballet-like movements. But there’s another part of jazz that comes from street dancing that’s becoming more and more popular. That movement may not necessarily be called jazz at all. It could be hip hop, break dancing or popping, but it suggests more of the feeling I associate with jazz dance, which has more edge, attack and sharp dynamics.
When I think of jazz dance, one of its hallmarks is vernacular-bodied, rhythm-driven movement that articulates energy instead of specific shape. When young dancers are offstage and go out dancing, this is what they do—and that’s how jazz happened. It originally came out of urban street cultures. So I’m glad that rougher-edged, dirtier, street-based urban dance culture is becoming more recognized and making its way into private dance studios. I see this exemplified in dancers like Lil Buck. His virtuosity came out of the street, and it has references back to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. So I think things are actually changing in a very positive way.
Dance division director at The Boston Conservatory
I hear people lament that there’s no “real jazz” happening anymore. But I actually think there are many people teaching it, including myself, and that the form will keep expanding as it pulls from the vernacular.
Jazz dance is all about a deep connection to music, so classes that allowed us to really explore music through improv and play, especially the music that’s used in a great jazz class, were ecstatic. Back in the ’80s, I remember Adrienne Hawkins teaching 2 1/2-hour classes in the summer with no air-conditioning and 60 people in the room. She’d put on club music, and everyone would go into an ecstasy of music and sweat. Nowadays, it’s not as fashionable to create work that’s just about the music, and jazz dance is rarely taught to live music. Some teachers teach balletic movement to popular music and call it jazz. But to me, that has nothing to do with jazz dance, because students aren’t getting this depth and richness of jazz’s musical history.
Member of Shaping Sound and winner of “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 1
I think jazz is in a little bit of trouble. I travel to studios all across North America, and I don’t really see jazz being taught at all. Kids are being taught tricks—pirouettes, leg lifts and tilts—but nobody is teaching them how to take a simple step, like a pivot turn pas de bourrée, and make it super-dynamic. Many kids don’t even know who Gus Giordano or Luigi were, and it’s crazy to me that the history of jazz—well, the history of dance, period—isn’t being taught more.
I’d love to see teachers use the internet to show kids videos of how exciting jazz can be—like old-school Janet Jackson videos or Paula Abdul performing “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me” at the 1990 American Music Awards with about 30 male jazz dancers, including Tyce Diorio and Eddie Garcia. Jazz is what people used to do in music videos; commercial dance started with jazz. That’s what can get kids excited.
Dance professor at Providence College and co-editor of Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches
It seems that any jazz dance that’s not on Broadway or used for commercial purposes doesn’t get much attention in the dance world, and I’d like to see more support of concert jazz companies.
There are three dance styles that claim the title “jazz dance” and co-exist in the dance world today. First is the authentic jazz dance that developed in the 1920s and ’30s alongside jazz music, which is still performed today by revival dance companies, such as Sweden’s Harlem Hot Shots, and is also danced socially. Second is theatrical jazz dance, which is often seen in Broadway shows and is heavily influenced by a more balletic aesthetic. Finally, concert jazz, which we see performed by companies such as Giordano Dance Chicago or Jump Rhythm Jazz Project.
Also, jazz dance has been somewhat marginalized within colleges and universities. Jazz’s technique was a later introduction to the dance world, so dance departments were largely founded by modern or ballet dancers. Jazz dance’s expressive power and attention to rhythm is so valuable for young dancers, so I hope it gains a stronger foothold within academia in the future.
Choreographer and jazz dance professor at Southern Methodist University
I’m feeling much more positive about the state of jazz dance this year than I have in a while. The students in my jazz classes have been so responsive and interested. Sometimes in the past, there’s been a little resistance, especially with the first-year class, because their jazz experience is all over the map.
I tell dancers that the history of jazz is basically the history of race in America, and it’s important that they know that. When I talk about a particular artist, I always talk about the social context of the choreography. I also teach them that jazz dance is the one form that doesn’t exist without the music. You can’t look through a glass door and tell that it’s jazz dance on the other side unless you can hear the music playing. In our last end-of-semester senior show, there was jazz dance to music by Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. The music is what really got them excited, and that was so gratifying for me to see.
Artistic director of Giordano Dance Chicago
There’s no question that jazz dance in the U.S. isn’t as valued as other genres by dancers or even by college dance programs. I think part of that has to do with the fact that it’s a younger dance form. Since ballet, for example, has been going on for hundreds of years, there are so many more role models. With jazz, we of course have the greats like my father [Gus Giordano], Luigi, Matt Mattox, Frank Hatchett and even Joe Tremaine in the younger generation, but there just aren’t that many pure jazz dancers now to look up to.
Although our company is one of the few jazz dance companies that exist, we are doing well and really trying to push the envelope of jazz dance. In one evening, you might see six different works from six different choreographers, and see the many different veins of jazz dance that exist today, from classic jazz to jazz that’s more contemporary. Jazz dance in Chicago stemmed from my father’s presence, and though he may not be here anymore, his history is. Jazz dance isn’t just surviving here—it’s thriving.
Rachel Zar is the former managing editor of Dance Spirit and a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
American Dance Machine for the 21st Century Revives Broadway Classics
Before Wheeldon, Bergasse and Blankenbuehler, the marquees of Broadway lit up with the names of choreographers like Fosse, Robbins, Cole and Bennett. Their choreography defined decades of Broadway shows. Until recently, though, their work was unavailable to live audiences once the shows closed. Fortunately, that all changed with the founding of American Dance Machine for the 21st Century, a Broadway repertory company directed by Nikki Feirt Atkins and Margo Sappington.
In 2012, Atkins decided to revive American Dance Machine, the original “living archive” for Broadway choreography established by choreographer and performer Lee Theodore in the 1970s. “We are about continuing the legacy of Lee Theodore, which was to preserve great works of American musical theater choreography. We preserve them by reconstructing them,” explains Atkins. Renamed the American Dance Machine for the 21st Century, or ADM21 for short, the company has been steadily building a repertory that spans decades of Broadway dance.
In order to maintain the integrity of the work, Atkins and Sappington bring in the original choreographers or seasoned professionals who worked directly with them. “Prior to about 1969 there was no video. But even when we have video, it’s two-dimensional. When you teach it, it becomes three-dimensional. Someone nuances it and sets it the way it’s meant to be,” says Atkins. Reconstructionists include Donna McKechnie, Robert LaFosse and Marge Champion, among others. They have set works that range from the showstopping solo “Music and the Mirror” from A Chorus Line to the lively group number “Simply Irresistible” from Contact.
When choosing works to revive, Atkins looks for pieces that are timeless and representative of a choreographer. They have revived 19 works so far, offering a wide range of what Atkins calls “pure style.” “It looks easy on video, but it’s actually very difficult,” says Atkins. “I think the old choreographers had a real signature. If you see Jack Cole, you definitely know it’s Jack Cole. The arms moving, strutting like a panther—that’s easy to recognize.”
In addition to their performances at the Joyce, ADM21 has recently begun providing repertory workshops at Steps on Broadway, rounding out their mission to “preserve, present, educate.” Atkins explains: “Preserving it and hiding it in an archive isn’t helpful.” She notes that classic jazz, as seen in older Broadway shows, is not as available as it was. She hopes to remedy that with an ADM21 dance school and tour opportunities in the future. —Rachel Caldwell
Photos from top: by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Matt Ross Public Relations; courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives; courtesy of Broadway Dance Center; by Vii Tanner, courtesy of Clear Talent Group; courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives (2); by Erin Baiano, courtesy of NYCC/Vail; courtesy of JRJP; by Eiji Muira, courtesy of Boston Conservatory; by Mezey Bela, courtesy of Luigi’s Jazz Centre; courtesy of Break the Floor; courtesy of Oliver; courtesy of JAZZDANCE; courtesy of Giordano Dance Chicago (3); by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of ADM21 (5)
Studio owners share social-media policies that work.
Keeping up with the constant changes in social media may seem impossible. Even if you could remember the differences between pinning, snapping, tweeting and vining, you can’t possibly monitor every single post studio employees, students and parents make.
So what’s a busy studio owner to do? As burdensome as it may seem, the key is to take the time to create a social-media policy that protects your students and teachers from the worst of social media while still allowing for all the good things it has to offer. To help you create up-to-date and legally sound guidelines that fit your studio’s needs, DT spoke to three studio owners who have implemented successful policies.
Friends Without Benefits
Rejecting a friend request on Facebook or a follow request on Twitter can seem like a digital slap in the face—but it’s also something that Michelle Dawson encourages her staff to make a regular habit. “Our policy says that no staff member should be contacting any student under age 18 via social media,” says Dawson, who co-directs The Academy of Dance by Lori in Pittsburgh. “We ask them to direct their students to the studio’s Facebook page that everyone can friend.”
Dawson sets an example by not friending students or their parents on her personal Facebook page, even those she’s friendly with outside of the studio. “As close as I feel to these kids, I still have to remind myself that this is a professional relationship,” she says.
Sue Sampson-Dalena, owner of The Dance Studio of Fresno in California, has a similar policy, and for teachers who are reluctant, she says it’s helpful to compare the situation to high school, where students would never expect to be Facebook friends with their teachers. “I know some of my younger faculty think I’m old-fashioned, but there just has to be a line there,” she says. “If they step back and remember that we are educators just like a math teacher or school principal, they’ll realize it’s the right thing to do.”
One of the inherent problems with social media, however, is that it’s nearly impossible to keep tabs on, so it’s easy for staff (especially those with private accounts) to bend the rules. Even if you wanted to, employers are not legally able to fire employees based on whom they contact on social media, regardless of in-studio policy.
Staff members are more likely to follow the policy when they truly understand why it’s in place, and when their employer is flexible and open. Dawson says keeping an open dialogue makes teachers more willing to come to her when they have an issue with the policy. “When teachers approach us about specific situations, we’ll think about it,” she says. “For example, I have staff members who are Facebook friends with their young kid’s friends to monitor their own child. And I also have a teacher who’s good friends with some studio families, so she’s made a separate ‘teacher’ page for those parents who want to friend her, which is separate from her personal page.”
To Post or Not to Post
As far as what employees post on personal pages, the law, enforced by the National Labor Relations Board, says you may ask employees to be courteous and reflect your business in a positive light, but breaking these rules may not necessarily be grounds for lawful termination. Focus on helping your staff realize that they’re representing both your studio and themselves. And, of course, it helps to hire a staff that you trust to keep an open dialogue.
Sampson-Dalena worries more about what her students are posting, so she has her teams sign a code of ethics at the start of their season. “It says they will not post anything inappropriate, demeaning or provocative online, especially if they’re wearing Dance Studio of Fresno swag,” she says. “I’ve only had to call in a dancer once to ask if she was prepared for me to show her parents what she’d posted. It became a teaching moment about how the outside world, including future employers, will see her.”
Perhaps the biggest downside of social media comes when posts from students (or even the occasional parent) involve nasty comments, unflattering images or brutal private messages. Studio owners agree—a no-tolerance policy for bullying is absolutely essential. David Ahmad of Port Perry Dance Academy in Ontario, Canada, recalls an incident of improper social media use: “That child lost her solo and membership in a group routine for one year,” he says. He’s had no incidents since.
For Ahmad, students or staff posting video of studio choreography is another big no-no. “We make it clear that’s material owned by the studio,” he says. Studio owners may also want to remind students—and their smartphone-wielding parents—to ask permission of those being photographed or recorded before posting online. While not technically illegal, posting without permission can cause unnecessary upset. Dawson sets a privacy-keeping example by leaving students’ last names off any posts by the studio. DT
Rachel Zar is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
Social-Media Cheat Sheet
You’re probably familiar with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but do you know the difference between a pin and a vine? Where can you find a subreddit or create a tumblelog? If all this social-media jargon has you confused, here are some of the hottest sites today—and what you should know about them.
1. Instagram This photo-sharing site allows users to create profiles and post images and videos that are either shared with approved followers or public and searchable. Hashtags (#), used to group similar content, are huge on Instagram—as are unfiltered and often inappropriate comments.
2. Snapchat: Users message, or snap, each other directly and put a time limit on how long their pictures or videos last after they’re opened. But even after the message disappears, know that the recipient may have a screen shot of it—so this is not a risk-free way of sending something private.
3. Vine: Users post six-second video clips, called vines. By default, these (and comments on others’ videos) are public but can be made private. Many of the public videos are inappropriate for young eyes.
5. Tumblr: It’s a cross between a blog and Twitter. On custom-designed pages, or tumblelogs, users post text, photos, videos or audio clips. Posts on Tumblr are often reblogged—copied and shared to other tumble-logs—so even private posts can become public.
6. WhatsApp: WhatsApp allows users to send text or audio messages, videos or photos to each other with no message limits or fees (making it a great way to stay in touch when out of the country). WhatsApp is restricted to users 16 and older, although many younger teens find loopholes to join.
7. Reddit: Users submit links or text, which are voted up or down by other users. Highly ranked content appears on the front page. All posts are organized into categories, or subreddits. Reddit can be a fun way to find the latest news in a specific interest area or have your voice heard by like-minded users.
8. Yik Yak: Posts only show within a 10-mile radius, and since there are no profiles or followers, messages are anonymous, making it a possible haven for cyber-bullying. (Some schools have banned it.) —RZ
Studio directors share viewing policies that work.
Crafting a class observation policy that makes students, teachers and parents happy is no easy feat. After all, shows like “Dance Moms” make it seem normal for parents to watch—and often interrupt—every class. But depending on your studio’s layout and your parents’ behavior, this is often infeasible. How can you keep parents abreast of students’ progress without distracting your dancers? Dance Teacher got the inside scoop from six studios with methods that work.
Watch all you want, but do not disturb
At Prestige Dance Studio in Federal Way, Washington, director Stephanie Cox has found more visibility is better. Parents are always welcome to watch class through viewing windows, plus, on three to four scheduled observation days, they can sit inside the classroom. Cox explains that the windows have mesh curtains in case of an extremely distracting family member, but that they’re still thin enough for parents to see through. “I like the curtains to be open, because the little kids love watching the big kids,” she adds. “They get to know the older dancers, and it gives them inspiration for when they’re in class.”
Kim Semmel, director of Dance With Kim in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, gives parents the option to see without being seen. She equips her studio with closed-circuit TVs in the waiting room in addition to viewing windows. “If little ones are distracted, their parents can step over to the monitors and watch there,” says Semmel, who focuses on keeping her students so busy that they don’t feel the need to look over at their parents in the window. “I like that parents can see what their child is doing in the classroom,” she says. “I want them to see the progress we’re making.”
Sneak a peek, within reason
Sometimes, giving parents permission to watch is enough to make them not need to. The Cypress Elite Dance Studio website states that, although parents are allowed to watch through viewing windows, teachers “encourage parents not to watch their child every week.” Owner Kimberley Davis says most parents at her Tomball, Texas, studio like to watch their kids at the beginning of the year, but that over time, they’d usually rather read or run errands. And, since she’s installed one-way glass in her viewing windows, she doesn’t worry about kids getting distracted during those first weeks when crowds of parents form. “The parents can see the dancers, but the dancers can’t see their parents,” she says. “As a mom myself, I like to be able to check in on my kid. These parents are paying me money, so they deserve to keep track of what their kids are doing if they want to.”
Michelle Bernard, director at Jill Listi Dance Studio in Lafayette, Louisiana, faces a traffic issue in her studio. Though she appreciates that parents want to watch their children, she says their four-studio space, which usually has four classes going on at once, just doesn’t hold that many people. So she makes class observations a carefully scheduled occasion. The school has developed a rotating system so that only one studio’s windows are open to parents for viewing each week. Teachers hand out schedules to parents at the beginning of the year, and Bernard posts them in the studio lobby and online, as well. “Logistically, if we have every student’s parent watching at the same time, it’s a nightmare, both in the parking lot and in the lobby,” she says. “We also feel that parents see more improvement if they’re not watching every week. It’s like watching a child grow. When you’re with them every day, you don’t notice it, but if you see them after a month, they look so much taller.”
The studio also uses one-way mirrors to lessen student distraction—although Bernard says it doesn’t stop some parents from trying to communicate with their kids. “We’ve had the occasional parent knock on the window to try to make their kids pay attention if they see that they’re distracted,” says Bernard. “Of course, that just distracts them more.” In these cases, it’s the individual teacher’s responsibility to take the parent aside and assure them that the teacher is the only authority figure needed in the room.
No parents allowed
Your studio parents may not be as bad as the “Dance Moms” crew, but that doesn’t mean you want them lingering, critiquing your teaching or distracting your dancers. That’s why some studio owners, like Dena Kay Botticelli, forbid parents from viewing almost entirely. At her DK Dance Studio in Webster, New York, studio doors for younger dancers are closed, unless a dancer is having a hard time transitioning to taking class independently. Parents are invited to watch twice a year. “We want the kids to develop independence, and we know they don’t act the same when Mom or Dad is watching,” she says. “I explain to parents that we don’t have them watch, because we want their kids to focus on the task at hand instead of focusing on what Mom’s doing.” Botticelli stresses that the most important step in getting parents to understand her policy is implementing it from the start of the year, so parents know what to expect.
Xpressions Dance Academy in Nampa, Idaho, also discourages parents from watching classes. Office manager Chantal Bleier says that scheduling “Watch Weeks” three times a year gets parents excited about the privilege instead of upset over the policy. “We make it a big deal. We have cookies in the lobby, and we really showcase what the kids have learned in the last two months,” Bleier says. “The parents love it, and the kids can’t wait for Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa to come watch.”
Of course, telling a stubborn mom that she can’t do something can get you some pushback. But Bleier says she only hears concerns from the occasional nervous mother of a very young child who has never been left alone. To quell her fears, Xpressions will allow the mother to come back about 10 minutes before the end of class, once the child is already settled, and watch through the darkly tinted window on the studio door. “She’ll just be able to see a little bit, but it’s enough to see that her child is doing just fine,” Bleier says. “I think a lot of parents worry that their kid won’t participate in class if they’re not there, but actually the exact opposite happens, since they can focus 100 percent of their attention on learning.” DT
Rachel Zar is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
Photo (top) courtesy of The Cypress Elite Dance Studio; courtesy of Kim Semmel
Collaboration is the name of the game at this year’s national conference.
This year at its annual conference held in Chicago, the National Dance Education Organization preaches collaboration inside and outside the classroom.
“The world of dance couldn’t exist and expand without collaborations,” says Helene Scheff, conference coordinator. “Each time choreographers incorporate a piece of music, that’s a collaboration. Each time dance teachers work with another department within a school system or use technology in the classroom, that’s collaboration. A little cooperation can make all the difference.”
To make the most of what Chicago has to offer, NDEO has enlisted Susan Lee, founding director of the dance program in the theater department at Northwestern University, as chair of the site committee. Her role is to connect NDEO with the Windy City’s dance scene. “Chicago has a long legacy in dance—in jazz, tap and ballet,” she says. “There’s such a history here and a wide breadth of work that’s represented.”
“We’ve wanted to come to Chicago for a long time,” adds Scheff. “It’s a hub, and we’re determined to incorporate that local flavor.”
Organizations involved include: Giordano Dance Chicago, Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, New Trier High School and May I Have This Dance. Both the Joffrey Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago will host conference attendees for studio tours. And Hubbard Street is offering an additional workshop on its program for Parkinson’s disease patients. Choreographer Heidi Latsky will present several courses at the conference and will offer discounted tickets to her company’s Friday evening performance at Columbia College Chicago.
Other highlights among the conference’s more than 200 course offerings include a session with 96-year-old Ann Hutchinson Guest, who will share her process of reconstructing Afternoon of a Faun from Vaslav Nijinsky’s original notes. There will also be a screening of the Martha Hill documentary, Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter, and panels on subjects including teaching internationally and the role of men in dance.
The American Dance Therapy Association’s annual conference takes place at the same time as NDEO’s, and the two organizations will share an opening reception with a “Taste of Chicago” menu. If attendees elect in advance, they can also take ADTA classes.
The conference takes place November 5–9. DT
For more: ndeo.org
Rachel Zar is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
Thinkstock (top); photo by Quinn Wharton, courtesy of Dance Magazine
By the end of competition season, judges have seen it all—amazing routines, one-of-a-kind props and costumes and many stand-out dancers. But there are some things they wish they’d seen less of. Choreographers, take heed as you create routines for your team: The elements you think are key to that platinum may actually do your dancers more harm than good. If you find yourself doing something solely because you saw it on TV or you think it’s what the judges expect, that could actually be your team’s downfall.
“My biggest piece of advice would be to stop following trends, and do some risk taking,” says Tessandra Chavez of The PULSE on Tour. “Teachers often want to find a formula that will get them first overall, but good dance doesn’t have a formula. If choreographers focus on pushing themselves artistically, their dancers will rise to the challenge and judges will take notice.”
Dance Teacher spoke to Chavez and three other competition judges about five particular choreographic trends they wish would disappear.
You know them as your dancers’ power moves—the go-to showstoppers that you’re sure will grab the judges’ attention. But judges may not be as wowed as you think they are. “Sometimes a piece is so jam-packed with tricks that I can’t enjoy it,” says NUVO faculty member Kim McSwain. “I would much rather see a focus on quality of movement, dynamics and musicality.”
And she’s not the only one. Tessandra Chavez of The PULSE says there’s one common move in particular she’d prefer to see less of:
à la seconde turns. “Bottom line, I just don’t think the classroom needs to be on the stage,” she says. “I don’t mind it so much for younger dancers. But you wouldn’t see turns in second in a professional company, so you also shouldn’t see them at the senior level.” If your students excel at turning, Chavez recommends getting creative by changing up the arms and transitions to avoid a class-like appearance.
Judges agree that there are few things worse than a poorly placed trick, but a trick that’s done unsafely is one of them. “Especially in contemporary, I often see drops to the floor that look painful and unsafe,” Chavez says. “Dancers don’t need to fall to their knees dramatically and create a loud earthquake sound in order to give an emotional effect. They’re eventually going to hurt their bodies, and there are safer ways to go to the floor that show far more strength and control.”
A good general rule is that before adding an attention-getting move, try to think about what it adds to the piece overall. “A well-placed trick can be surprising and impressive,” says Tony Testa, who judges for New York City Dance Alliance and Monsters of Hip Hop. “But be careful not to cross the line between dance and gymnastics. There needs to be a balance.”
So you think your best option is to choreograph to that song from “So You Think You Can Dance”? Think again. “If a major choreographer on that show uses a song, everyone around the country will then use it,” says Ray Leeper of NUVO. He points out that the NUVO faculty traveled to 27 cities last year, so they heard a lot of musical repeats. “I give Stacey Tookey such a hard time over the song ‘Say Something.’ When she used it on ‘SYTYCD,’ no one knew it, and it was great, but by the time we were in our 15th city, we’d heard that song over and over again.”
That’s not to say that if you feel a connection to a popular song you shouldn’t use it, but you have to use it well. A judge is more likely to get past hearing “Say Something” for the 400th time if the choreography and dancing are impeccable. “The biggest problem comes with choreography that looks like you could swap in any song with the movement and it would work just as well,” says Tony Testa. “It should seem as though the music was written specifically for the movement.”
Your choreography may be genius, your costumes and props perfection and your concept crystal-clear, but if your dancers aren’t executing the moves with proper technique, nothing else matters.
“I would rather see a studio come in with 10 pieces of choreography that are flawlessly put together and ready for stage than to see them come onstage every five numbers unprepared,” says Kim McSwain. “If competition time rolls around and what was put on those kids originally is not being executed perfectly, then take it out and simplify.”
Ray Leeper shares the “less is more” sentiment. “Sometimes routines are too busy and over-choreographed, and teachers need to learn how to let choreography breathe a little bit,” he says. “They don’t have to choreograph every single syllable and accent in the music. When that happens, I don’t even know where to look.”
When dancers aren’t rushing from move to move, they’re more likely to pay attention to their transitions. “All I have to do is watch a dancer’s feet as she gets up off the floor, and I’ll have a pretty good idea of her technique level,” says Tony Testa. “Are they sickled? Are her toes crunched? Are the tops of her feet flat on the ground? Are they turned out? That’s one of the most common issues I see.”
Judges appreciate that the creative use of a prop challenges both the choreographer and the dancers. But when poorly used, a prop can seriously bring down an otherwise high score.
“My biggest pet peeve with props is not using them,” Tessandra Chavez says. “Sometimes I see thousand-dollar props that take five minutes to set up while the judges wait. Then they’re used in the very beginning, not touched for three minutes, and then dancers go back to the prop at the end to pose. Not only is that wasted money on the studio’s part, but it’s also a wasted moment to push yourself creatively.”
Ray Leeper agrees. “I’ve seen big props used well, but studio owners and teachers need to be choosy,” he says. “Sometimes props and set pieces can hinder the performance, since it distracts judges from really seeing the kids dance.” Background-design props just to “set the scene” are also a no-no for Leeper. “They very rarely add to the piece,” he says.
It’s nice when choreography tells a story, but be mindful of repeating the same or similar plot lines in every piece you present. For example, Kim McSwain is tired of seeing contemporary pieces where young children force emotion. “Just because the music is slow doesn’t mean the mood of the piece has to be so sad,” says McSwain, who adds that age-appropriateness in a story line also seems to be a struggle. “I can’t relate when a 7- to 10-year-old comes onstage and is dancing about the worst day of her life. For younger children, choose a concept they can understand, like a puppy or a friendship.”
Tony Testa agrees. “I would love for teachers to phase out all choreography that involves booty popping by girls younger than 13,” he says. “Not only does it look out of place, but it doesn’t show off their best abilities. There are so many other ways to be creative with hip hop—you could find humor, for example.”
Stumped about finding a theme your dancers can relate to? Consider ditching a story line altogether. Dancing for dancing’s sake is a concept Tessandra Chavez would like to see more of. “In the past 10 years, especially since dance has been televised so much, I’ve noticed that everyone thinks they need a story behind a routine to do well,” she says. “I love a good story, but if you don’t have one that’s close to your heart, clear and convincing, it’s OK to just feel a piece of music.” DT
Rachel Zar is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
Photos (from top) by DGS Photos, courtesy of Adrenaline; DancePix, courtesy of Spotlight Events; by PRO PIX, courtesy of Hollywood Vibe; courtesy of The PULSE; by Dancesnaps (DRC Video Productions), courtesy of Dance Olympus/Dance America
After high school, Melissa Meng’s parents and teachers encouraged her to pursue a college degree, but the aspiring ballerina wasn’t convinced that giving up four of her precious professional dancing years was the best choice. Then, at her audition for Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, she heard that a BFA in ballet could be completed in only three years; that made all the difference. “I realized I could get all the benefits of college, but still have time to do an unpaid traineeship or apprenticeship afterward,” says Meng, who graduated in May and is now a member of Colorado Ballet’s Studio Company. “After three years, I knew I was ready to be part of the professional world, and I’m so glad I had this option.”
This year, 12 out of 14 graduating dancers at IU chose this three-year plan, even though it’s not one that the school necessarily advocates. While there are clear perks to an accelerated degree, not all students are cut out for this nontraditional path. The long hours, lack of summer breaks and sacrifice of many quintessential college experiences are not in the best interest of all dancers. For the right student, however, a three-year degree could be a chance to get a head start on her career—and the key to saving up to an entire year’s worth of tuition.
Starting Full-Speed Ahead
But how is cramming a full education into three years even possible? Surprisingly, the day-to-day schedules of those on a three-year track are generally not very different from those staying for four years. Instead, students will often add semesters during the summer, and, as in Meng’s case, they may test out of many required courses with advanced placement credits from high school.
New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts makes a three-year degree (including two summers) the rule instead of the exception for its BFA students. “We do this for several reasons, and one is to get them out earlier so they can start working,” says Cherylyn Lavagnino, former co-chair of Tisch’s department of dance. (For more on Lavagnino’s recent career change, see page 68.) Though NYU’s format replaces a fourth year’s tuition with two summers’ worth, “this configuration is less expensive,” she says, taking into consideration the lower cost of summer tuition per unit and New York’s high living expenses. “Also, to be a professional dancer, you have to get used to the idea of training and being in shape all the time,” says Lavagnino. “Because of our program’s continuity during the summer, it instills that sense of professional practice.”
Tisch graduate Claire Westby says her accelerated degree laid the perfect groundwork for an intensely busy professional life. “I packed a lot into a short amount of time, with days that were longer than other college students’—often from 8:30 am to 10 pm,” says Westby, who now balances a full-time schedule as a member of Liz Gerring Dance with several other dance projects, including performing with Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance and running her own group, RedCurrant Collective. “I definitely see how my time in school prepared me for my rigorous schedule now.”
A Perfect Partnership
Though Tisch’s three-year format is rare, more and more schools are beginning to take on similar models. The Boston Conservatory, for example, is one of the latest universities to get on board—but only for specific students. Starting in fall 2015, accepted students from nearby boarding high school Walnut Hill School for the Arts will be able to complete college credits during their junior and senior years in high school in exchange for getting a BFA in only three years. Cathy Young, director of the Dance Division at The Boston Conservatory, explains that the program is only possible because of the conservatory’s unique relationship with Walnut Hill. “Our two schools share some faculty and have a close philosophical alignment, and the assumption is that these students are coming in not only at a certain technical level, but also with a lot of information from applied coursework,” she says. “Since they’ve already spent years in an intensive performing arts environment, they can be prepared for the field one year sooner. Plus there’s a huge economic benefit; they save about $50,000 in tuition.”
Walnut Hill students in this program will be on a different track from the rest of their class—unlike their four-year counterparts, they won’t choose a specialized area of dance to focus on—but Young promises that they will be completely integrated with other students, especially for their freshman and sophomore years.
Look Before You Leap
Young stresses that while the new program will offer plenty of perks, The Boston Conservatory still realizes that a three-year degree is not necessarily the best option for every student. “The higher education experience isn’t just about training and studying—it’s really about self-discovery and growing up,” she says. “For many students, that fourth year is critical—it’s when all the pieces come together. So a student who’s a good fit for this program has to be emotionally mature.”
IU ballet department chair Michael Vernon agrees that only certain students are cut out for an accelerated path, and though he never forbids a student from choosing it, he has encouraged dancers to weigh the pros and cons. “They have to be very technically concrete,” he says. “Sometimes I strongly feel that another year will help them impress at auditions. Not to mention the extra confidence that a year of performing in a college setting instills.” Vernon also warns that an intensive three-year plan with few breaks can be taxing because of the condensed workload—and he’s seen overwork injuries seriously delay some dancers’ plans.
Overall, students who have the most trouble finishing early are those who don’t plan ahead. Vernon says he’s seen many dancers think they’re prepared to graduate, only to realize they still have a few credits to go. “We’ve had dancers have to give up jobs because they didn’t plan well enough,” he says. “Graduating in three years requires really having all your ducks in a row.”
Dancers must also be willing to sacrifice some opportunities that come during the fourth year of a college dance education, such as performing with guest choreographers. They may also have to give up on classic “college” activities, such as joining extracurricular clubs or studying abroad, in order to fit in all necessary requirements. “There were definitely sacrifices,” says Westby. “For example, I didn’t get to come home after a long day at school and relax or go out every night. Instead, I had maybe half an hour at home before going back to school for rehearsals. But for me, the benefits outweighed any negatives. After my third year, I was really ready to be done and be dancing professionally.”
Meng agrees. “If dancers are going to college for the college experience, this may not be for them,” she says. “But if their main goal is to dance professionally, a three-year mind-set could be exactly what they need.” DT
Rachel Zar is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
Photo by Scott Erb, courtesy of The Boston Conservatory; photo by Maximillian Tortoriello, courtesy of Meng