Dancer Health
Photo by ©iStockphoto.com/Luis Albuquerque

Energy Enhancers

Eat breakfast. This may seem like the oldest piece of nutrition advice, but it's also one of the hardest to follow. Skipping this meal really does make it hard to keep energy levels high during a full day of teaching. Breakfast should consist of carbs, protein and fiber. Traditional oatmeal (there's not much fiber in instant), yogurt and an orange (juice has little fiber) would be a healthy option. If you're not hungry in the morning, eat dinner earlier the night before, and if you wake up ravenous, you probably didn't get enough sleep. “Less than six hours of sleep a night makes your body release hormones that make you hungrier in the morning," says Linda Hamilton, a clinical psychologist who works with performers, and co-author of The Dancer's Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body and Nutrition.

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How-To

College prep. Clubs. Sports. Boys. High school students face a lot of pressure—and dance classes are often only a small part of their hectic schedules. So how can you keep your teenage students from dropping out of dance entirely? DT spoke with several teachers about the innovative ways they keep their busy teenage dancers in class.

Make It Social

“High school is when either sports or boyfriends begin to lure kids away from the studio,” says Hedy Perna, owner of Perna Dance Center in Hazlet, New Jersey. But the stronger your school’s social network, the easier it will be to keep recreational students interested year after year. Perna found that offering ballroom and hip-hop classes increased the number of boys enrolled at the school, which helped her keep her female students. “The girls have a social life here. It might drive me crazy, but they are not isolated,” she says. “We try to keep the energy level high and create an atmosphere that they won’t want to miss.” She also hosts social activities such as an annual awards party, known as the event of the season, which the kids liken to the Academy Awards.

Offer More Time Onstage

Non-competition or recital opportunities are a great way to keep teens engaged: These performances are fun for recreational students, and they offer much-needed experience for serious pre-professional dancers. How can you get your students extra time onstage? Becoming involved in your community can help you land gigs. “As soon as you reach out, the offers start coming,” says Kim DelGrosso, owner of Center Stage Performing Arts Studios in Orem, Utah. DelGrosso’s willingness to make connections with area theater directors recently got 20 of her teens cast in a production of the musical Smokey Joe’s Café. “When I saw the local theater company was doing Smokey Joe’s, I literally walked up to the director and said, ‘I have a group of 20 of the best dancers in the state,’” she says. “They needed dancers, and my dancers needed to perform. It was a win-win situation.”

Learn how to market your students—and how to help them market themselves. “In the end it really is a sale. It comes down to business,” DelGrosso says. She advertises her dancers’ availability for community productions, and she teaches her seniors how to speak to the media, how to identify what kind of jobs they’re right for, and how to write a resumé. Even recreational dancers can translate these valuable skills into the non-dance job market.

Give Them a Little Credit

Earning academic credit for dance classes appeals to both casual and serious dancers. “Every high school has internships. Students are working with high-tech companies, hospitals, greenhouses,” says DelGrosso. “They should be recognized for their work in the arts, too.” Though state and federal laws prohibit students from receiving physical education credits outside of school, DelGrosso’s students have been earning high school internship credits for the last 10 years. Each school has different requirements, but generally the first step is for the student or parent to request that credit be given for dancing outside of school hours. Then, the studio owner or representative should follow up with the counselor. “Explain how many hours each student puts into dance and show that it is a viable business,” DelGrosso says. “If the dancers can get credit for it, that’s an incentive for both teenagers and parents.”

Strategic Scheduling

Ultimately, it’s impossible to avoid every one of your teenage students’ scheduling conflicts. But establishing scheduling rules from the get-go will help you stay structured and maintain order. Begin by keeping in close communication with parents so that you always know your dancers’ other activities, as well as their homework loads. Next, insist that you are told about scheduling conflicts during registration. “My competition team knows that I will work around other things, but I need to hear about those conflicts by registration time,” says Becky Seamster, owner of Becky Seamster Dance Studio in Kokomo, Indiana. “If they don’t turn their schedule in to me at registration and I plan something on a day that they have something else, then I get priority.” Stephanie Jarvis, owner of Relevétions Dance Centre in Dudley, Massachusetts, also recommends that teachers hold registration early. “If registration is in August, then I actually have enough time to figure out the whole schedule,” she says.

Setting up a contingency plan for unforeseen conflicts is also helpful. “My students know that we will work with them, but they need to work with us, too,” says Perna. “If there’s a single conflict on a day they’re scheduled for class, they do a makeup class. If they are involved in a longer-term commitment such as a school play for two weeks, we find them an appropriate class where they’ll be a ‘guest’ for that time. Of course, they’re responsible for all work missed in their own class.”

Seamster assigns an understudy to every student whom she deems at risk for missing a performance or competition. “I always have an alternate for kids who are involved in a lot of things, because I know there’s always a chance at the last minute that something will get changed,” she says.

In the end, you can’t force anyone to do something they don’t want to do. Sometimes the best option is to let a student go. But be supportive, and leave the door open for them to return. “I had one student who danced for years, and then she got into high school and she wanted to see what cheerleading was all about,” says Sheri Masiello of To the Pointe of Performing Arts in Cranston and North Providence, Rhode Island. “A year later she came back. She said, ‘I should never have left. I’m so happy you weren’t mad at me.’ If I hadn’t allowed her to go on that journey, she wouldn’t have realized how much she loves dancing.” DT

Sara Jarrett is a writer based in New York City.

photo courtesy of Sheri Masiello

Dancer Health

From peanuts to wheat, food allergies seem more common than ever. Luckily, with awareness and planning they can be managed with ease. If dancers on your competition team have dietary restrictions, they’re likely used to dealing with them. However, it’s up to you as team leader to make their experience in the group as normal—and safe—as possible. Follow these tips to safeguard your dancers so they can stay focused on camaraderie and fun at the event.

In the Know

First, it’s important to distinguish the difference between food allergies and intolerances. Allergies are an immune system response to food or ingredients and can result in hives, a rash, difficulty breathing, itchy throat, swelling of the skin or throat, nausea, vomiting, bloating and, in extreme cases, anaphylactic shock or death. The most common food allergens are fish and shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts, gluten and wheat, milk, eggs and soy.

Allergic reactions can be acute and dangerous. A reaction to peanuts, for instance, requires an immediate injection of epinephrine (and then an immediate trip to the ER) to treat anaphylactic shock, which can lead to death in a matter of minutes. A lactose allergy, on the other hand, usually presents itself as hives, wheezing and vomiting, and can be treated with Benadryl or Claritin.

An intolerance is not an immune system reaction, but rather an inability to properly digest certain foods, resulting in gastric intestinal distress. Lactose intolerance (the most common), for example, occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough enzymes to break down or digest lactose. Some people are able to eat yogurt, while others must cut all dairy products out of their diets. Those who suffer from Celiac Disease must completely avoid gluten, a component found in wheat.

The bottom line: Don’t assume any food is safe for your dancers. Even rice, which is the most hypoallergenic food, could be an allergen to someone. The good news, says Andrea Chernus, a registered dietitian with Nutrition Conditioning, Inc. in New York City, is that while allergies can develop at any time in one’s life, most people outgrow them by age 5. In fact, she adds, only one percent of adults suffer from food allergies.

Plan Ahead

1. Taking allergies and intolerances seriously doesn’t require a big fuss. It can be as easy as letting students know you are there to help. “Make sure they know that helping them is not a burden, and ask specifically how you can make a difference,” says Amanda Buller, a registered dietician who works for Remuda Ranch, an Arizona clinic for women and girls with eating disorders. “Maybe it means holding their Epipen, or always carrying Benadryl.” Consult with parents to develop an emergency plan.

2. Before traveling, ask parents of children with allergies what chain restaurants they frequent, so you can plan stops ahead of time. “You want to take them somewhere familiar, rather than putting them in the situation of asking the waiter if a dish has eggs or if it’s made with this or that,” says Buller.

While dining, if someone orders a dish with an ingredient one of your dancers is allergic to, make sure they aren’t sitting next to each other. Cross contamination may be enough to cause a reaction.

3. Ensure that no one feels left out during celebrations by providing alternative desserts. “Ask moms to make individual treats with ingredients their child can eat, and freeze them so they’re ready for any celebration that may pop up,” says Buller. “Make sure there’s always a safe alternative that’s close to what the other kids are eating, so they’re not stuck always eating popsicles, fruit or Jell-O.” There are many tasty soy and rice milk alternatives to ice cream on the market.

4. Carry safe snacks. Someone with a gluten or wheat allergy can eat fruit, fruit roll-ups, veggies, Rice Chex, Rice Krispy treats, potato chips, corn chips, hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter and peanuts. A peanut allergy is easier to work around because products containing peanuts tend to be more obvious. One word of caution: Check the label on every product before purchasing. “Labels will change depending on what plant each batch of a specific product is made in,” says Buller. “One package will say nothing about nuts, and then the next month it could be made at a plant with nuts.”

A soy allergy is one of the hardest to deal with, but also one of the least common. “As long as soy isn’t in the top three ingredients on the label, it’s usually okay,” says Buller. For some people, though, any amount of soy can cause hives. Unfortunately, soy lecithin is in just about all processed foods, so read labels carefully. A few foods with no soy include fruit, corn chips, pretzels, popsicles and hard-boiled eggs.

Sara Jarrett is a writer in New York City.

 

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Business

As the saying goes, it takes money to make money: Spending a little now to spruce up your studio may do more than energize existing students—it could help attract new ones. Here, we offer ideas for every budget.

Major Overhauls: $$$
A stellar dance floor is essential to any great studio—and one of the most expensive components to upgrade. To make the most of your investment, be sure to do your homework. Contact companies that specialize in dance flooring, and they’ll provide samples and discuss the best options for your individual needs.

No matter what, investigate installation options before making a decision. Nancy Solomon Rothenberg, owner of Studio B Dance Center in Eastchester, New York, says it’s important to check your lease. “Sometimes when you’re leasing a space, there are certain things that have to stay,” she says. “Make sure you have portable floors so you can take them with you.”

After the floors, pristine mirrors are a must. If your studio has five-foot-tall mirrors, it may be time to upgrade. When Sarah-Jane Measor, co-owner of Menlo Park Academy of Dance in Menlo Park, California, decided to renovate her studio to coincide with the opening of a second location, she made sure to install mirrors that were eight-feet-tall to modernize the space. It’s also wise to upgrade to shatterproof glass. “Kids run into mirrors on purpose,” says Solomon Rothenberg, who adds that it can get tricky when ordering online, so make sure to ask the appropriate questions. If you prefer to buy from a local company, be prepared to make a specific request for shatterproof products.

The third most important part of any studio is sturdy barres. If you have only one row, update your space by adding another row at a varying height for students of different ages: “one for the adults and teenage kids, and one for the younger kids,” says Measor. Portable barres are another good transitional purchase for accommodating more students as your studio grows.

Ask local merchants if they’re willing to donate goods or give you a price break in exchange for helping to build a stronger community. For example, a paint store donated a good portion of the paint Measor used for her recent renovation and offered the rest to her at the wholesale price.

Minor Boosts: $$
Regularly upgrading your tech equipment is a must to keep your business competitive. For a renovation that will likely appeal to parents, consider installing a closed-circuit TV system. “When there are windows in the hallway, everybody stands around staring in, tapping on glass and disrupting class,” explains Solomon Rothenberg. “I put TV cameras in each room, and we have monitors in the lobby so parents can watch their children. You can do a split-screen or have the picture switch from room to room. When the doors are closed, the kids don’t know which moms are watching and which ones left to run a quick errand.”

A local security system company installed Solomon Rothenberg’s entire circuit, and the same company put her stereo speakers into the wall, giving her studios a clean look. Additionally, she upgraded her music system by adding iPod docks, eliminating the need to plug and unplug wires when switching between CDs and iPods. Investing in a laptop with music already downloaded onto it is another option to keep your CDs from getting scratched or lost, says Solomon Rothenberg.

Cosmetic Fixes: $
After your building’s facade, the lobby is where students’—and parents’—impressions of your studio first take shape. Make yours inviting and functional with some inexpensive improvements. Solomon Rothenberg recently set up a reading nook in her waiting area, which has been a huge hit. “We bought a crate and asked people to donate books to it,” she explains. “A lot of siblings wait with parents, and I don’t want to encourage food and toys in the waiting room. Instead of running up and down the hallways, kids rush over to the reading bin. There are also a couple of magazines for adults, to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome.”

Make your studio instantly look bigger by installing stackable cubbyholes from stores like Ikea or The Container Store, so students can stash personal belongings quickly and easily. Toy boxes in your waiting area can double as seating and additional storage. “Kids put stuff in piles against walls and take up a lot of space,” says Solomon Rothenberg. “Even if you have a small studio, bins give you room to accommodate more students as business grows.”

As more people are going green, get with the movement by making your studio more environmentally sound. “We switched all our cleaning supplies and soap to all-natural products,” says Solomon Rothenberg. “We also keep hand sanitizer in the studio and started using reusable, recycled water bottles instead of buying water,” she explains, adding that she prints both the studio’s logo and each student’s name on the individual bottles. Solomon Rothenberg also has recycling bins in her lobby.

Often, it doesn’t take a lot of money or effort to make transformative improvements to your studio. Make it a habit to pop into other businesses to see what they’re doing. “I always go into other studios when I’m traveling,” says Solomon Rothenberg. “Just stop in and get their fall brochure. That’s how you get a lot of good ideas.” Sometimes the smallest changes stand out the most. “Step back and look at your studio from a parent’s point of view,” suggests Solomon Rothenberg. “Make people feel like you care about them and their children.”

Sara Jarrett is a freelance writer in New York City.

Higher Ed

Unlike most female dancers, many male dancers start dance training late—and still go on to have successful performance careers. Well-known professionals such as Broadway choreographer Robert Ashford and Merce Cunningham, for example, started dancing seriously only in college. Nevertheless, learning the fundamentals of dance at a later age can be an uphill battle, and it’s important for teachers to understand the challenges newbie males face in their first-ever dance classes. Here are some ways to make them feel as comfortable as possible so they can realize their potential sooner.

Develop Basic Technique

No matter how quickly they pick up choreography, all men should be placed in a level-one dance class if they’ve never done a plié before. “If you accelerate a student too fast, errors and holes in the technique begin to appear,” says Tom Ralabate, associate professor of dance at University at Buffalo in New York. “I think in American dance training, we tend to move male dancers way too fast and get them into doing advanced choreography before they are ready. I think something very valuable about the process is lost when we do this.”

Even with a truly gifted male dancer, be careful that the challenges you offer are “appropriate to ensure proper development and an injury-free environment,” says Ralabate, who suggests coordination exercises for male students to find continuity between different parts of their bodies and to feel comfortable moving through space. “Exercises dealing with alignment, posture and placement will help them learn valuable rules about the body to achieve movement success,” he says. “They get a sense of both outward and kinesthetic, or inner, movement flow.”

If your program only offers mixed-level classes, use the knowledge of your more experienced students to make them feel important while at the same time providing newcomers with individual instruction. Debby Stringham, an adjunct dance professor at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, has her advanced female tappers help out the beginning guys in class. “I may teach the time step and say, ‘Okay, let’s take a two-minute break, and those who are familiar with the step help somebody else in class who is learning it for the first time,’” she says. “I keep them engaged by using their skills to help somebody else.”

Build on Past Experiences
While it’s important to help male students build a strong foundation in dance technique, it’s also wise to encourage their natural movement inclinations. Nancy Kane, a lecturer at State University of New York, Cortland, has new students fill out a questionnaire that asks what kind of movement experience they have. “If they come with a martial arts background, for instance, they may have a certain quality of movement that I can call on in class,” she says. “That increases their self-esteem and recognizes that they have something to bring to the program, which makes them more comfortable and confident going forward in dance and solidifies their relationship to it for the rest of their lives.”

Stringham has a similar philosophy and, in the past, has even used sports equipment to bridge the familiar and unfamiliar in a creative modern class with a lot of newcomer males. “They were athletes, and they felt really uncomfortable being there,” she says. “I realized that I needed to find different ways for them to relate to the class. Dance was a foreign language to them but they were comfortable with sports, so I brought in a bunch of basketballs. I asked them to find creative ways of using them, other than shooting hoops.”

Include Improv
Beyond harnessing the power of past movement experience, encourage male students’ own way of moving from the get-go. “Let them explore and experience the joy of movement through combination work and improvisational exercises,” says Ralabate, who incorporates an improvisational component into all of his technique classes. “Often I will teach a jazz adage with many technical elements, but will find a natural break in the exercise for dancers to improv with different guidelines. Even progressions across the floor can combine structured improv elements.”

Stringham also finds value in encouraging creativity. She recalls one student in an African dance class who was struggling with technique, but blew her away when it came to an end-of-class project in which groups of students created dances and performed them for the class. “I remember that he was a turtle, and when he was doing his own movement I just about started crying,” she says. “He had the most beautiful way of moving. I realized then that there’s more there than just what I’m trying to teach them. Some of it is finding a way to help them connect to what is beautiful about the way they express themselves.”

Be Patient and Flexible

Treating novice males with as much respect as you would a more experienced student may seem like an easy goal, but it can take a surprising amount of forethought. Before entering the classroom, pledge to yourself to answer all questions without being condescending. “That would defeat the purpose and make them think that dance is something they cannot achieve or something they are put off by,” says Kane.

Don’t shy away from humor. “There are some funny things that you can work into every class,” says Stringham, who says things like, “Use your other left foot,” as often as possible. “Not taking yourself too seriously and even making fun of yourself are important so people can relax. I think sometimes males feel like they don’t want to look foolish, so I try to find ways to let them know that we’re going to try to laugh and have fun instead of judging one another.”

Outside of movement-related difficulties, realize that getting guys to feel comfortable wearing tight-fitting clothes in class will most likely be a progression. The most important thing is to get them hooked on dance, rather than force them to adhere to a strict dress code right away. Ralabate has beginner male students take other forms of dance, such as tap, jazz or modern, in addition to ballet. Stringham has gone as far as letting students wear baseball caps in ballroom classes. “At first I thought, ‘Are they being rude?’ but then I realized the cap gave them an extra bit of security so they didn’t feel so exposed,” she says.

Provide Role Models
Dance looks different on male bodies, and sometimes, depending on the genre (ballroom and ballet), the role of male dancers is significantly different from the females’. It’s therefore important for them to have role models. “It gives them confidence to see another man who’s doing it and looks good while, at the same time, exuding masculinity,” says Stringham. If there are no male teachers on staff, find another way to introduce your boys to male dancers. Watching videos of iconic male performers is one strategy, but nothing beats live performances. “Having them view other men expressing movement makes more of an impact,” says Ralabate. “Also, it is helpful if beginner classes with guys are scheduled next to more advanced classes with guys. This gives the newbies a chance to view more proficient male dancers.”

It’s important for novices to watch the pros not only for inspiration, but also to understand that being a male dancer doesn’t mean that all of their movement has to be done at full throttle. “I have to help them dial it back,” admits Kane. “They will get so intense and push things so hard, I have to say, ‘You know what, you really need to be able to breathe through this and look for shadings in your movement. Don’t just go full blast. The more punching, percussive movement is not always the way to get better at the dance.’”

Nurturing the ego of a male dancer new to the artform, while at the same time helping him find where he fits within the spectrum of dance, can be challenging. “The more sensitive a teacher can be to students’ needs and who they are and what they naturally need to express, the better,” says Stringham. “When men enter the dance studio there is a fragile balance between their desire to do well and their fear of making a mistake or looking foolish. You have to be a bit of a psychologist and find ways to let them know that it’s okay to make mistakes and encourage them to be themselves. If you’re not dancing from your own self-expression, then a vital part is missing. If you can get people to connect to that expressiveness, the self-consciousness falls away."

Sara Jarrett is a writer in New York City.

How-To

Former Paul Taylor Dance Company member Heather Berest admits to having had an addiction to Graham technique in her youth. “I got hooked,” she says of the style she studied at New York City’s Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. “I was such a melodramatic teenager. I was moody and emotional and felt I could sob with my body in those classes.”

Retired from PTDC, Berest now teaches modern to teens at Berest Dance Center, the Long Island, New York, studio founded by her mother, Olga Berest. “Teens need so much guidance and counsel, and modern is the most appropriate genre of dance to bring them through those years,” says Heather. “But it’s hard to get them there.” Even with Heather’s status and experience, she must contend with mainstream genres like hip hop, jazz and ballet, as well as a general misunderstanding of the nature of modern dance.

While the task is challenging, you may find, like Heather, that the pleasure of expanding students’ understanding of the dance world and helping them get in touch with their inner landscape outweigh the difficulties. Before you decide to introduce modern into your studio, though, it’s important to know what to expect.

Knowing the Obstacles

Modern is arguably one of the most inaccessible dance forms. If you live anywhere other than a major city, chances are you have few opportunities to expose students to the genre. Even when venerable modern companies come to town, dancers with limited exposure may not understand what they’re watching. Olga recalls the reaction of one student during a PTDC performance: “The girl had never seen modern before, and said it looked like bad ballet. She just saw parallel positions, with bodies that were not turned out.”

Experts suggest that this lack of understanding has contributed to the scarcity of modern classes in studios across the U.S. However, as more college dance programs include modern in their auditions, the need for this genre in dance studios has increased.

There is no easy solution. “I don’t want to discourage anyone from pursuing modern, because it’s an incredibly beautiful and important craft, but it’s not an easy dream to achieve as far as having modern in a dance studio for children,” says Heather. “Modern is based on breath and discovering how your body moves rather than on a visual aesthetic. You need to be more mature to have an interest in figuring out how your body moves, how your body feels.”

While the individuality of modern is what makes the genre special, it is also the biggest deterrent for self-conscious teens. “Many teens and preteens are insecure when it comes to really investigating how their body works,” explains Heather. “It’s much safer, say in a ballet class, to copy a shape. Your vulnerability isn’t on the line. Somebody tells you this is what it looks like, and you do it.”

Creating Interest

To understand modern, students need to be exposed to it. “If you just slap it on the schedule, people might be like, ‘What’s that?’” says Eva Nichols, the director of education for the Mark Morris Dance Group. Introducing students to modern works, whether through live performances or DVDs, is a must.

Renata Celichowska, director of the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center, has seen firsthand, through the Y’s free performances, how exposure to an artform can influence children. “There’s something about not being afraid to ask kids to participate in watching real art and not watering it down for them,” she says. “Don’t worry about how they receive it. Let them have their own relationship with it. I think we’re getting to the point where we’re hand-holding the experience too much.”

Watching a modern performance is quite different from studying the dance form, so prior to launching a full-fledged program, consider a ballet repertory class by a choreographer who is also versed in modern. Ask him or her to throw in a few modern moves. “Filter it into their rep here and there and then say, ‘By the way, do you enjoy moving that way? This is modern,’” suggests Heather.

Once students realize they have the skills and that it’s fun, invite a master teacher from a professional company to teach a trial class or workshop. “You have to contact companies far in advance,” warns Olga, so start sending inquiries now for next summer.

Even if you’ve taken steps to educate your students about modern, you may still need to devote time to the parents, whose own lack of knowledge may cause them to bypass the class at registration. Nichols suggests holding an open house so you can talk to students and parents about what a modern class entails and the kinds of doors it opens for dancers. “It really is a commitment on the part of the studio owner,” says Celichowska.

Hiring Teachers

Once you have built significant interest, Celichowska suggests establishing program goals in order to discover what types of teachers you’ll need. For example, if you would like your dancers to eventually audition for contemporary companies, which require skills in ballet and modern, you’ll need an instructor who will emphasize technique and the history behind the particular style. However, if you want to focus on the fusion between technique and the creative process, recruit a teacher who can teach both improvisation and choreography.

If you go the guest-artist route, Celichowska advises approaching instructors with broader backgrounds to prepare students for a more varied professional environment. “There’s a generational shift with teaching modern, so we no longer have teachers who were trained in strict Limón, Cunningham, Graham, Hawkins, Nikolais technique,” she explains. “Teachers themselves have trained in a fusion of so many styles.”

Appealing to All Ages

While modern can be an elusive technique for young dancers, if you have students who are interested, let them enroll immediately. “Modern’s nice because it’s got technique, but it’s also creative,” says Nichols.

Creative dance can be used to expose children under age 6 to the genre. “The Graham principles of space, levels and shapes can be taught to any age,” says Olga. “From these basic elements, modern dance can develop because students are used to the techniques used in all forms of modern dance.”  
Improvisation and modern technique fundamentals can be introduced as young as age 6. At Berest Dance Center, 6- to 8-year-olds take a class called “Create,” which teaches the essentials of improvisation using the aforementioned principles. “From there, children are encouraged to take ballet . . . then study the classic modern dance forms,” says Olga.

At Mark Morris Dance Center, students ages 8 and up learn the basics of composition. “We tack it on at the end of technique class for 8- to 10-year-olds, and it’s an hour and 15 minutes,” says Nichols. “For teens, it’s an hour and a half, with half technique, half composition.”
According to Celichowska, the type of school may also determine the age for beginning modern. “In a conservatory, I would introduce modern at age 10 or 11 and pair it with ballet,” she says. “If it was a neighborhood studio, I would start with modern basics at age 6 or 7.”

Despite the many benefits of studying modern, the classes will never bring in the number of students that idioms such as jazz and hip hop do. The reality is that establishing a modern dance program means risking running each class at a financial loss. “You talk to any school and they will tell you . . . modern is not a moneymaker,” says Olga.

Even so, exposing your students to a genre that delves deeper than the aesthetic is priceless. “It’s important to teach modern to young dancers, because it helps them get in touch with themselves,” says Heather. “It also lets them know there’s a place for them in the dance world. You don’t have to have 180-degree turnout. You don’t have to have a développé up to the ear. The feeling you had when you were 7 years old, flying around the room, spinning carefree—that’s what you should feel like when you’re dancing.”  DT

Sara Jarrett is a writer based in NYC.

DT Awards

For now, Jamison is focused on the immediate future. “Our wonderful fans are so excited about us being around for 50 years,” she says. “It’s unheard of when you think of Mr. Ailey’s vision: to celebrate African-American cultural expression in the modern-dance tradition of our company [and] of our country, but also to be all-inclusive. That’s why it’s called Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Everyone is accorded the same criteria; you just have to be the most extraordinary dancer in the world.”

Events to celebrate the achievements of AAADT range from free classes and performances in New York City this month to an international tour in September and October. The repertory will include ballets from each year of the company’s existence. Some pieces, including Blues Suite, the first ballet Ailey choreographed, as well as Suite Otis, choreographed by George Faison in 1971, haven’t been performed in quite some time. An 11-minute film, which includes footage of Ailey, will be shown at each performance. “It’s an extraordinary retrospective of 50 years of labor and love,” Jamison says.

The anniversary has even spawned some promotional merchandise, including a limited-edition Movado watch and a Barbie doll created in Jamison’s likeness. “I chose her features, her skin color, the texture of her hair, the position she’s in and what she’s wearing,” Jamison says. “She’s trying to do part of ‘Wading in the Water.’” The doll will be available for purchase in October. Photographer Andrew Eccles has also created a calendar and a commemorative book, both featuring images of the company.

Preserving the passion for the artform tops Jamison’s list of desirable qualities in a successor. “It’s very important for me to make sure that the person who takes over understands the integrity of Ailey, and keeps the generosity of spirit and the flow of sustained love and respect,” she says. “That is the heart and soul of Ailey.” Jamison is considering people from both inside and outside of the organization. (Masazumi Chaya, a longtime dancer in the company who became the associate artistic director in 1991, will remain in that position.)

“I know there will be a change, but there was a change 20 years ago when she became our artistic director,” says Jefferson, who joined the faculty in 1974. “I trust her and her judgment, and I’m sure whomever she chooses, along with our board’s search committee, will be the kind of fit that she was.”

When Ailey was dying of AIDS in 1989, he handpicked Jamison to be his successor, and to continue his vision of a repertory company that gave unprecedented opportunities to African-American dancers. “We’re not going to find another one of him. That’s not the point,” Jamison says. “He asked us all to grow, to be individuals, and I am looking for that individual who understands his or her uniqueness and talent. I want it to be absolutely right.”

It was Jamison’s unique movement style, long limbs and bald head that caught the attention of Ailey, who first saw her during an unsuccessful audition for choreographer Donald McKayle in 1965. Ailey invited the statuesque, ballet-trained dancer to join his company, and later created Cry for her, one of the highlights of Jamison’s life. “I thank God that my parents put me into dance school when I was 6,” remarks Jamison, who began her studies at the Judimar School of Dance in Philadelphia, where she took ballet, tap and acrobatics.

At age 10, during a lecture-demonstration by Pearl Primus, Jamison was introduced to modern dance. After graduating from high school, she spent three semesters at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, before moving back home in 1964 to pursue a performance career. She attended various studios there and in New York City, and began to delve deeper into the artform by studying kinesiology, dance history, Labanotation and the techniques of Martha Graham, Mary Wigman and Lester Horton, Ailey’s mentor.

After performing with Ailey for 15 years, she left to star in Sophisticated Ladies on Broadway. Jamison eventually began her own troupe, but returned to Ailey often as a guest choreographer and to coach dancers in roles she created.

When Ailey died and Jamison stepped in during the City Center season, the transition was seamless, recalls Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, who had been a member of the company for only a few years at the time. While Jamison shares Ailey’s expectations of commitment, passion and a strong work ethic from the dancers, Thomas-Schmitt says Jamison places a higher premium on individuality. Ailey encouraged his dancers to pursue personal endeavors, but Jamison has taken it a step farther by actually initiating discussions with them about their outside interests. She is more liberal about letting company members express themselves through appearance, whether it’s an unconventional hairdo or a tattoo. And she encourages personal interpretations of the work as well. “She was very clear that she did not want the female dancers learning her roles to try and emulate her and repeat what she did, but make it their own,” says Thomas-Schmitt, who learned Cry after being in the company for two years.

Jamison’s successor has a lot to live up to. The company owes both its strong financial footing and worldwide stardom to her. With an operating budget that has grown from $6.5 million to $24 million and an endowment of $22 million, the company can afford to pay its 30 members 42 weeks out of the year. Jamison has also added works from such notable choreographers as William Forsythe, Twyla Tharp, Rennie Harris and Dwight Rhoden to the repertory.

In addition, she is a staunch supporter of dance education. The Ailey School, founded in 1969 with 125 students, now trains more than 3,000 students annually. The Ailey Arts In Education & Community Programs, including AileyCamp, expose children to special performances, lecture-demonstrations, technique classes and curriculum-based residencies. “When I came on, I said I wanted camps to proliferate,” Jamison says. “We started with one camp in Kansas City, and now I think we have nine across the country.” Each camp serves 100 students between the ages of 11 and 14, who until now have had limited exposure to the arts. In addition to technique, they take classes on dance history, conflict resolution, health and nutrition and preparing for the future. The newest program, Ailey Extension, offers classes for the nonprofessional public.

Without such a strong education component, AAADT would be a shell of what it is today. “People in this country are going through a kind of blackout in their minds about how valuable the arts are,” Jamison says. “We like to help children understand what it’s like to be in the theater and to have their own quietly intimate experience that they can have their own adventure inside of. I think it’s so important that they’re educated as well as entertained.”

The sentiment echoes Ailey’s. “His mantra was, ‘Dance came from the people, it should be delivered back to the people,’” explains Thomas-Schmitt, who is now co-director of Ailey Arts In Education & Community Programs and national director of AileyCamp. “It is important that this is not some kind of a bubble where the artists come into the theater, rehearse, perform and go.” Before the company arrives in a city, Thomas-Schmitt and her team hold educational workshops with school children. “By the time we get there they can sing Revelations on time,” Jamison says. “They know how many beats to the bar. It’s quite wonderful what Nasha does in educating young people.”

From the beginning of her tenure, Jamison has ensured the integrity of every workshop, class and camp. “The month after Ms. Jamison became artistic director, she was at the school on Saturdays looking at our junior division program and giving me input on what she felt could make it even stronger,” Jefferson recalls.

Jamison wanted a relationship with Fordham University (there’s now a shared BFA program with Ailey and the university), the inclusion of West African dance in the curriculum (every BFA student now studies the genre and has the opportunity to study Caribbean and Indian dance) and for students to learn about the black experience in American dance (BFA students take an entire course on the subject).

“I’m so fortunate. All I have to do is make a suggestion and it’s done. I got a building built,” says Jefferson, of the new $56-million Joan Weill Center for Dance, which is the largest building in the country devoted to the artform. “She is generous and collaborative without relinquishing her role as our artistic guide, which is extraordinary.”

Jamison approaches her role as executive director the same way she did each performance—with a 150-percent effort. “She travels with the company tirelessly, gives interviews sometimes before the company arrives, does podcasts, interacts with the public, conducts question-and-answer sessions after some of the performances and is here to rehearse the company members,” Jefferson says.

She is also a role model, particularly for young African-American dancers and women of all backgrounds. “We get a lot of tall women who audition here, and I know it’s because of Ms. Jamison. Being a tall woman isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to be,” Jefferson says. “Seeing a woman—an African-American woman—who is so accomplished in so many ways and who has had several very, very successful careers (as a dancer, as the artistic director of her own company and AAADT, as a choreographer, as a mentor and manager) lets young women know that if they really want to do something and they work at it, it’s possible.”

Even though Jamison’s role in the company will soon change, there’s no doubt that she will do whatever is in the best interest of the institution she has unwaveringly led all these years. “Judy is a dynamic warrior,” Thomas-Schmitt says. “She’s motivational and inspirational and really cares about the company and the organization.” DT

Sara Jarrett is a writer based in New York City.

How-To

Jason Samuels Smith went from tap phenom to master teacher and ambassador for the art. DT caught up with the jet-setter to get his candid thoughts on his evolution—and where he'd like to see tap headed.

Jason Samuels Smith

Before Jason Samuels Smith became the tap master and international star he is today, more than one person wanted to punch him in the face. He was one of the best tap dancers in the country at an incredibly young age. But with fame had come a sense of entitlement, and he wasn’t afraid to put another tapper in his place by humiliating him in a tap jam. There were times, in fact, when his antagonistic personality offended people so deeply that they wanted to fight him afterward. “I was egotistical with my style, very aggressive,” recalls Samuels Smith, who used to be nicknamed “Iron” because he broke so many taps. “I felt like I was in a circle that very few people were welcome into, and like I had to police it in some way. I thought I was doing the right thing, but I was actually pushing more people away than bringing them to me.” 

Somewhere along the line, he changed. He can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but around age 20 and the turn of the millennium, he realized that if other dancers actually wanted to fight him, then they cared about tap as much as he did. And if they were undertrained, it was more honorable to help rather than ridicule them. Practically overnight, Samuels Smith went from being an unapproachable virtuoso to an educator. “If I’m judging people based on their learning curve or their vocabulary or knowledge, then I need to at least contribute to the community in a positive way,” he remembers thinking. “I started teaching more, going to more workshops and festivals and producing shows.” Almost immediately, unsolicited work offers started rolling in. But teaching didn’t just expand his career opportunities; it also allowed him to become a better person, to realize his full potential and to contribute to the tap community at large.

Still an aggressive tapper, Samuels Smith, now 27, is polite, confident and driven, a grown-up version of his adolescent, arrogant self. His dancing has matured, too, showing subtlety and nuance where once there was only heaviness and volume. He’s comfortable in his own skin. “I try to tell stories and show relationships with melody and harmony, dynamics and shading,” he says. “My style is about elevating and making statements in my art. I think that when you do things with a certain force and energy some people can understand them more, but there’s a lot that can be said by being light. I think that if you can balance out that force, you can speak from all perspectives.”

The Making of a Master

Dance is something Samuels Smith couldn’t have escaped if he’d tried. His mom, Sue Samuels, teaches jazz at Broadway Dance Center in New York City, while his father, JoJo Smith, was a professional jazz dancer. Older sister Elka is also a trained tap dancer, as well as co-creator of Divine Rhythm Productions, the first talent agency to focus on tap. Even Debbie Allen is a relative: They’re second cousins. 

Discovered at age 7 by Savion Glover during class at BDC, Samuels Smith got his big break at age 15 with a role on “Sesame Street,” where he worked alongside both Glover and Gregory Hines. The experience changed his life and convinced him that it was possible to have fun and make money at the same time. Soon after, Samuels Smith joined the Broadway cast of Glover’s Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk and eventually became the youngest dancer to perform the lead role.

Samuels Smith hasn’t lost momentum since. The year 2003 was particularly big. His first achievement was coordinating the inaugural L.A. Tap Festival, which he co-developed with Allen and co-directed with girlfriend and fellow tap dancer Chloe Arnold. The event, celebrating its sixth anniversary in August, was designed to unify tappers of different genres, generations and nationalities. So it was a particularly devastating blow when Hines passed away on the first day. Realizing the importance of soldiering on—and showing respect for the very legend who had first inspired him to try tap—Samuels Smith turned the festival into a tribute. That same year, he choreographed the opening number of the “Jerry Lewis Telethon,” for which he earned both an Emmy and an American Choreography Award for outstanding choreography, and he co-starred with Arthur Duncan in an independent film called Tap Heat.

Recently, he has been creatively evolving through his work with Indian dance guru Chitresh Dash, 63, whom he met at the American Dance Festival. Since 2005, they’ve been traveling the world performing Indian Jazz Suites, a collaborative show in which they perform individually and together. “We’re not creating a fusion,” explains Samuels Smith. “We do different time signatures and different phrases and improvise back and forth. When I first met him, I felt like an idiot in some of those rehearsals—he was breaking down a lot of what I knew musically and technically. He inspired me to change my style, and I can see that I’ve been influencing him as well.” While they’ve toured twice to India and three times across the U.S., the show has yet to appear in NYC, a goal for this year. 

Samuels Smith also starred in 2006’s Imagine Tap, directed and choreographed by Derick Grant in Chicago and co-starring fellow tap stars such as Ayodele Casel, Bril Barrett and Joseph Wiggan. It was an experience that inspired him to begin developing his own production, Charlie’s Angels, which he’s creating, choreographing, directing and starring in alongside Arnold, Dormeshia Sumbrey-Edwards and Michelle Dorrance. The show, which he workshopped in NYC last year and hopes to re-create on a larger scale, is designed to give female tappers recognition he feels is long overdue. “I’m so happy for the chance to help bring women to the forefront and show the power they have,” he says. “I feel like women are underappreciated because they’re women, and I think people judge the book by its cover and don’t realize how deep the information goes."

Samuels Smith’s greater focus, of course, is on getting all tap dancers—female and male—the representation and recognition they have sorely been lacking. He talks passionately about how he and his peers still struggle for respect—and jobs—in this country, and about how he’d like to lead his generation in making all elements of tap accessible. In addition to producing shows and designing a shoe line (this summer will see the debut of the Jason Samuels Smith Tap Shoe by Bloch), he also hopes to create instructional videos and open dance studios, all while maintaining the integrity and substance of the art.

“I want to take advantage of our talents and abilities, because the truth is, somebody’s going to try and take advantage of us,” Samuels Smith says. “So if we do it first, we beat them to the punch and we also control our own destiny. If we do it like that, then we become unstoppable.”

An Oral Tradition

Passing on tap’s heritage is a responsibility Samuels Smith feels deeply. “Anybody who assumes the title of tap dancer is an ambassador for the art and has the responsibility to continue the tradition of his teacher, and his teacher’s teacher, in a dignified, sophisticated way,” he says. This means not only teaching steps, he explains, but showing film clips of tap legends and telling stories about his own teachers, which he does during his classes at workshops and festivals around the world. 

Seeking out as many living masters as possible is also key to ensuring the artform’s longevity. “Our tradition is so oral that not a lot has been properly documented,” Samuels Smith says. “You can’t necessarily go to reference books. You have to go to masters of the art to find the answers, and you have to go to more than one because they have conflicting stories.”

The improvisational, community-oriented spirit of tap is alive in his own teaching style. “I don’t know what I’m going to teach until I get there and feel out the class,” he says. His one consistency is the same warm-up, based on that of legendary tapper Steve Condos: “I’ve taken his teachings and embellished them—changed things here and there, added things.” Samuels Smith’s classes are also known to feature steps that he himself feels the need to practice. “I will teach something I need to work on myself in class, and that way we’re all practicing and learning together,” he explains. 

He takes his role as educator so seriously that he has no qualms about asking disrespectful students to leave the classroom. On his list of pet peeves? Dancers who talk in class, don’t listen to instructions or practice whatever step they feel like. “Part of learning how to be a tap dancer is patience and timing, knowing when to dance and when not to dance, when to speak and when to listen,” he explains. “Listening is the key to developing and growing as a tap dancer, and if dancers are unwilling to listen, then it’s very difficult to educate them.” 

At the same time, he says, there are too many teachers who turn students off because they are unforgiving, inflexible or stubborn: “It’s important to have patience and the understanding that everybody is at a different level and a different stage in their dance career and life. If you can begin to have that understanding as a teacher, then I think students will have more of a willingness to learn and listen.”

For Samuels Smith, the communication that happens between teacher and student is at the very heart of tap dance. It’s how every generation of tap dancers has not only kept the tradition alive, but expanded and added to it. “Tap encompasses so many different things—music, the political issues of the times, emotions, the human element,” he says. “Tap is so much about individual identity that if you don’t tell your own story, and the story of those who passed it down to you, then what do you say?”

Sara Jarrett is a writer based in New York City.

Photo by Jayme Thornton

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