Kids, Put Your Clothes On
Seeing tiny tots covered in bling while gyrating to a suggestive song is a hot-button issue for judges, teachers and parents alike. Particularly when that’s the number that wins top honors at competition. Just how much of a factor is age-appropriate choreography, costuming and music in scoring? Or to put it bluntly, why do the judges continue to reward behavior that makes nearly everyone cringe?
The situation has improved somewhat, says Francisco Gella, choreographer and 24 Seven Dance Convention faculty member and judge. He thinks that because more competition kids have access to concert dance, via YouTube and live performance, they can see that in professional dance, the costume trend is more subdued. “I am seeing fewer problems, but it depends on which coast you are on,” he says. “I see more of these issues on the West Coast, which is more the center of commercial dance, whereas the East Coast is more tied to concert dance. Generally, the more rhinestones, the less technique.”
Last season he witnessed a group of tiny dancers shaking to “Money” from Cabaret, complete with fake currency attached to costumes that included bustiers and garter belts. “It did affect their score negatively; we consider appearance, costumes and confidence, all of which come together in a situation like this,” Gella says.
“Some teachers thank me for my remarks, while others just never come back,” he says. “We may have become desensitized about overt sexuality, because we can get lost in the process.” But it can be a reality check, he says, to watch the reaction of the general public when they see these tiny tots parading around in their skimpy attire at the hotel or a nearby Starbucks.
Scoring, of course, involves a variety of factors, and judges must weigh their decisions. “It depends on whether it’s only an issue of costume or only inappropriate content—or the combination of both,” says Gella. “If the dance is executed phenomenally, it will still tend to score high, based on the performance. But as judges, we do point out why we feel a costume may be inappropriate or if the choreography is too graphic for the age of the dancer.”
But when music, moves and costumes are all inappropriate, Gella will judge the number harshly. “I would go as far as penalizing it one award category lower,” he says. “Things get a bit tricky, because if that inappropriate dance wins, it sends a message that judges condone those types of dances.”
Choreographer Joey Dowling of New York City Dance Alliance (NYCDA), points out that each competition comes with a somewhat different set of values. And what constitutes age-appropriate varies from person to person. “I will see parents and teachers screaming with enthusiasm when their tiny students are dancing in bikini tops and shorts,” she says. “They obviously think it’s OK. For younger ones, it is really more about the teachers and parents, because they are making or allowing the costume choices.”
Dowling has never deducted points for costume issues, though she might mention it in her comments. But inappropriate choreography is another matter. “The suggestive/inappropriate moves/choreography do have an effect on my overall score,” she says. “Some studios try to wear flashy costumes or do suggestive moves to cover up the fact that they are not trying to push their technique.”
If she feels uncomfortable by what has happened onstage, she has no trouble explaining why to those in charge. “At the end of the day you are paying to be judged,” she says. “I often find myself wishing the teacher spent more time listening to the music—and, more importantly, the lyrics to the song that 7- to 12-year-olds are dancing to. Several times while I am sitting in a judge’s chair, I am disappointed, thinking, ‘Why would this teacher let these minis dance to this song?’ It’s so important to make sure that the students know exactly what the song is about, the exact lyric on specific moves and how they are interpreting the song.”
She’s also a stickler for dancers understanding what they are doing—whether they’re juniors or seniors. And dance steps with direct sexual suggestions have no home in this age group. “Twerking is not appropriate for a 17-year-old,” she says. “They have no idea what it means. These are the best kids at the studio and that affects the younger students.”
What the Judges Want to See
Help your dancers improve their performance—and scores—with this advice from veteran competition faculty: Martha Nichols, Judy Rice and Suzi Taylor.
Connect with your ensemble. Everyone can be dancing at the same time, but not necessarily together, because they don’t acknowledge each other. “Relax and have a good time,” says Martha Nichols of New York City Dance Alliance. “Be grateful to be up there dancing with the people who you like. Be truly present onstage.”
Mind the musicality. Dancers need to listen to the music, and teachers need to work with their students to actually listen.
Pay attention to transitions. Be creative with transitions so they’re transparent (we don’t see them). In other words, don’t use skipping to go from one combination to another. Transitions separate the amateur from the professional.
Choreograph well within the technical ability of your dancers. Don’t be seduced by tricks, and keep choreography appropriate to the technical level of the students. “Resist the urge to stick poorly performed fouettés in each number,” says Judy Rice of Artists Simply Human. “It’s a holdover from the days of mandatory tricks.”
Be consistent when it comes to style. Don’t stick a classical pirouette in a hip-hop piece.
Wings are for exits and entrances. Dancers should not be visible in the wings, and they should be clear on which wing to come and go from. Go over this with your dancers before you get onstage.
Start strong. First impressions count. Even the way you come out onto the stage and stand is important.
Avoid unflattering angles. Turn or angle movements to avoid crotch shots.
Costumes should match the tone of the piece. An earthy number set to a cool indie song should not be costumed in hot-pink dresses with sequins and diamonds. It’s confusing.
Just say no to stirrup tights with shoes. Stirrup tights are fine with bare feet, but they cut the line with shoes.
Tags have to go.Cut the tags out of your costumes and use a Sharpie to mark out visible brand labels on shirts.
Wear the pair. The trend of wearing only one shoe so you can turn needs to stop. No professional company does this and neither should anyone in a competition team.
What the Judges Would Prefer to Never See Again
Watch for a stunned open mouth and other bad facial habits. Teachers need to work on more natural facial expressions. “The open mouth is never attractive. They might think it’s dramatic, but it’s not,” says Suzi Taylor of NYCDA. “The same is true of angry face.”
Looking at the other dancers to see what comes next or gazing about the stage. Wandering eyes are very distracting.
If you drop a prop, pick it up immediately, or everyone, including the dancers, will be looking at that clump of hair that just fell off in the middle of the stage. It’s distracting to the audience and the poor dancers who now have to find a way to dance around the object left on the stage floor.
Mouthing the lyrics of a song is irritating and distracting.
Hands are not like feet, in that they can be easily changed and they truly complete the line of the choreography. Clawed or paddle hands are just as bad as unpointed feet. “I either see Mortal Kombat claws or an open-holding-an-orange situation,” says Martha Nichols of NYCDA. “The hands are forgotten and the line stops at the wrist. Hands are part of the shape of the body. They can be a form of punctuation.”
Dancers who either over-perform or don’t bring enough. Dance with intention. “There’s been such a focus on technique, we forget that it’s still a show,” says Nichols. “Your steps might be beautiful, but what are you saying and why? I am seeing a lack of honesty.”
What’s in Your Dance Director’s Bag?
One can never be too prepared. When things break, rip and get left on the bus, that doesn’t need to ruin the show. Here are some things to be sure to pack.
Place a Go-bag
backstage so it can be easily found. It should contain Band-Aids, first-aid kit, hair spray, bobbie pins, safety pins, ice packs, hair gel, scissors, extra makeup, ibuprofen and tissues.
•Extra costume accessories (earrings, sunglasses, gloves, head pieces)
•Medical kit: Advil, Tylenol, Midol, tape, scissors, Band-Aids, New-Skin, Ace wrap, instant ice packs, tampons, finger splint, BENGAY.
•Rosin for the pointe dancers
•Bobbie pins, large and small
•Backup music in several different formats: CDs, iPad, flash drive
•Extra costume bin for the dressing room. It contains any and all extra costume pieces.
Paperwork to go
Create a comprehensive spreadsheet that shows every payment and the breakdown of what’s included: competition fees, observer bands, etc. There’s always a parent who insists that they pre-purchased an observer band when they really didn’t.
• Original registration paperwork and confirmations from the event
• Copies of release forms—one set for the convention, one set for the school director
• Packing list for all props, with load-in and load-out times
Conquering the Call Sheet
Sue Sampson-Dalena of The Dance Studio of Fresno recommends that you create a call sheet for each dancer with all of the following:
• A list of each dance she is cast in
• Call time to the dressing room
• Check-in time with appropriate staff member
• Any pertinent props or costume notes
• Who will pick up the award
• What room number they are to report to backstage
“We meet in the dressing room 90 minutes before our assigned competition time. I then take the dancers to another location in the hotel and we give them ballet class. I usually stake that out before I walk into the room,” says Sampson-Dalena. “After class it’s up to each individual dancer to then stay warm. My dancers are expected to help the younger dancers with quick changes, and of course support and watch their teammates compete or perform.”
Consider giving an inspirational note or small gift to each dancer during the wristband pass-out. “We like to include an encouraging note with candy or a small gift,” says Christy Curtis of CC & Co. Dance Complex. “The note will express our personal theme. We sometimes give candy, bracelets, inspiration rocks, Giving Keys.”
A Day in the Life of Stacey Tookey
Emmy-nominated choreographer Stacey Tookey has choreographed and judged for the Canadian and American versions of “So You Think You Can Dance.” Currently, she travels 30 weekends a year as faculty with the NUVO dance convention. Her schedule may be grueling, but she has a system that works. Friday and Sunday are travel days, with Monday reserved for time with her daughter and actor husband, who takes over child care during her weekends away. (If he has an audition, they get a babysitter.)
Tookey says she gets back as much from teaching as she gives. “I want them, through my movement, to get out of their heads and into their hearts. That’s a huge part of it—to see a change in a dancer in a short amount of time. I am so grateful to see that confidence get turned on. I will mention a dancer in the back and say, ‘I saw you,’ then the next day they are front and center.”
Here, she walks us through a typical day on convention duty.
Tookey (left), rehearsing with Makenzie Dustman and Kathryn McCormick of Tookey’s company, STILL MOTION
6:30 Wake up and shower. Get dressed in Lululemon leggings and a shirt, layered with a sweatshirt and sweats. “Layers are key ’cause you never know how cold a convention center or hotel can be. I have packing down to a science and travel with a carry-on and pack super light with just what I need. I always have a few luxuries like a scented candle, small humidifier and lots of gluten- and dairy-free snacks.”
7:00 Breakfast of egg whites, fruit and green or black tea, while FaceTiming with her husband Gene and daughter Harper. “I need time to settle in and not feel jolted into the day. I want to feel calm and ready to inspire and to be inspired. It takes some time to place myself in that mood.”
7:30 Head down to the convention floor to hug and reconnect with the rest of the teachers. “Our faculty is so close! We just saw each other last weekend, but we still need a minute to catch up.”
7:45 Warm up for 45 minutes with Gyrotonic and Pilates mat exercises and some yoga thrown in. Even though she has demonstrators, she needs to get her body ready for a hectic day of teaching back-to-back classes. If she has extra time, she will also do a My YogaToGo session in her hotel room. “As the mother of a toddler, I need time to just take care of me.”
8:30 Welcome and faculty introductions. “It’s the kick-off for our day.” She averages six to nine classes per day, including minis, juniors, teen, seniors and teachers. She has all her combinations set for the season with the same one in each city for each division, which allows her to see how various cities compare to each other and what they need to work on.
Tookey, with STILL MOTION company member
9:00–9:45 Minis. “The minis always make me smile. Ever since I became a mom, I have experienced even more joy from watching these young dancers. They are simply fearless and adorable. I can’t wait to see Harper win the mini ballroom.”
9:45–10:30 Juniors. “The juniors are the age group I am usually the most impressed with. They are so incredibly talented—and becoming so much stronger at a younger age each year. I feel that they are old enough to grasp more mature movement as well as take corrections, but they are young enough that they are still so confident and will do anything you ask.” u
10:30–11:15 Teens. “This age group is usually the most diverse in level and the most likely to need a pep talk for confidence to get them get out of their heads. It’s the teen years that are so difficult. Insecurities and self-doubt are strong, so my goal is to get them to break through that and allow themselves to shine. It makes me so happy when that happens.”
11:15–12:00 Lunch. Tookey makes time to sign autographs and photos. “I really enjoy this part, and I have been photographed in elevators and in the ladies’ room. I remember how much I looked up to my own teachers.”
12–1:15 Seniors. It’s important to build in time for inspirational messages. “I like to give a pep talk about the freedom to make mistakes, especially for the seniors. It’s such a difficult time. All eyes are on you.”
1:15–2:30 Teachers. “Working with teachers is always satisfying,” even though it comes with challenges because teachers expect different things from her, depending on their age. “I have young teachers who want to dance and older teachers who want to hear me speak. I work on my ideas about creating more expansive and refined dancers, how to push dancers beyond their safety zones.”
3:00 Break. Catch up on e-mails, shower, grab some food (and a tea) and FaceTime with Gene and Harper once more to find out how their day has gone.
5:00–10:00 Dinner with faculty. “We really enjoy each other.” During competition season, she spends the evening at the judges’ table.
10:00 Wind down with a hot Epsom salt bath. “Yes, I pack those!” Read a book or watch an episode of Parenthood or Scandal on Netflix. “As a new mom, I say good-night and go up to my room and catch a movie and enjoy some rare time to myself.”
11:00 Lights out.
Illustration by Emily Giacalone; by Bill Hebert, courtesy of STILL MOTION Dance Company; Thinkstock; Bag: Just For Kix, shot by Nathan Sayers
How to Survive Competition Catastrophes
Students of The Dance Studio of Fresno will never be caught walking from the dressing room to the stage without their flip-flops, and for good reason. This year, one of them stepped on an open safety pin just three minutes before curtain. It penetrated her metatarsal. “Blood was everywhere,” says studio owner Sue Sampson-Dalena. Luckily, the dancer’s mom, an ER physician, managed to stop the bleeding and the routine went on as planned. “I don’t know how she managed to do it,” says Sampson-Dalena. That was the last time that any of her dancers walked barefoot backstage.
Whether your first competition trip or your 50th, it’s best to go into an event prepared to think on your feet. From unfamiliar backstage conditions and missing dancers to a problematic set, anything can happen—and has. In the face of disaster, how do you soldier on and make sure your dancers return home with their trophies and self-esteem intact? DT asked five studio directors who have decades of competition experience to share their harrowing tales of things gone wrong and how they righted them.
The Dance Studio of Fresno
Just mention set pieces and you are bound to get a smile out of Sampson-Dalena. One year her winning number at Nationals involved a ninja temple. During the competition, her team carried the temple to the stage through the audience. They were thrilled when the number won and they were invited to perform in the gala—until they learned they would not be allowed to carry the temple through the audience. It did not fit through the stairs, so it was impossible to get the piece in place from backstage. The temple had to be completely dismantled and put together onstage in exactly one minute. The dancers pulled through, but not without some good lessons learned. After that, Sampson-Dalena needed a good long break from complicated set pieces. But while some studios have eliminated props completely, she hasn’t gone that far. “Good set pieces can really augment the choreography,” she says, “so I haven’t stopped using them, but I do pay more attention to dimensions.”
Kristy Ulmer Blakeslee
KJ Dance Designs
When Kristy Ulmer Blakeslee was still teaching for her mom’s studio, her team showed up at a competition only to discover they would need to lift their set three feet onto a raised stage in the hotel ballroom. “My dancers had heels on, and they could not lift a bar with three bar stools,” she says. She solved the problem by enlisting the aid of a couple of the dads. The dancers sailed through the number, yet the judges put down their papers halfway through. The team was disqualified because the rules clearly stated that parents cannot help. “It was a hard lesson to learn and an expensive mistake on my part,” she says. “If I’d had the paperwork with me at the time, I would have known it wasn’t allowed. Now, I always re-read the rules and regulations, even if I have been to the competition before.”
Today, Ulmer Blakeslee brings some 80 numbers to Nationals every year, including 30 solos and 50 group numbers. She tries to have the students as prepared as possible, setting call times two hours in advance of curtain. Four years ago, on a trip to New York City, a few dancers were nowhere to be found at call time. The missing students were discovered posting photos of themselves in Central Park on Facebook. “They got back in time, but did not perform up to their usual standards,” she says. “We know New York can be distracting, so now we schedule sightseeing time during our trip.”
Communicate the need for dancers and parents to honor call times.
Steppin’ Out—The Studio
Lee’s Summit, MO
Ever since a dancer forgot the white trunks that matched the flowing dress for her lyrical solo, Phyllis Balagna has lugged a crate full of extra costume pieces to Nationals. Luckily, that dancer was able to borrow a pair of trunks at the final moment, but Balagna won’t take that chance again. Her crate is stuffed with trunks of every color in size adult small, which fits anyone from a child to a teen, along with other items that tend to go missing. “Teens are the most likely to forget a piece of a costume, while parents pack for the little ones,” she adds.
After 23 years of competing, Balagna can offer some sage advice about attending Nationals that take place in vacation destinations. “I nipped that one in the rumpus a while back, after some parents kept their children at Disney World too long,” she says. “Communication is key. I tell my parents to think of Nationals as a business trip for the dancers; we are there to dance.” Three days before they leave, she hosts a banquet where she gives out studio achievement (and improvement) awards and distributes a detailed schedule of where dancers are to be and when.
Check references. Before you register, ask peers about their experiences.
Joanne Chapman School of Dance
Some catastrophes are outside the control of even the most organized studio director, like when an ice storm caused a power outage at a regional competition. “We were supposed to get started at 8 am, and we ended up starting at 7 pm,” says Joanne Chapman about one fateful weekend. To make up the time, the daily schedule was changed to run through meal breaks and begin one hour earlier than planned, leaving the students and judges exhausted at the end of a very long day. “We had some dancing at 6 am and others at 11 pm.”
“We asked the directors to call in a relief team of judges to help with the exhaustion issue, and they refused,” she says. As a result, the judging seemed arbitrary and at times senseless. Now, she knows to pay close attention to the leadership of a competition company before signing up. “Poorly run competitions are a huge concern for me,” she says. “I put feelers out into the industry to hear directly about the experience.” Length of time in business is not a reliable indicator of a well-organized operation, she warns. “Gather firsthand information from your peers,” she says.
The Dance Zone
There’s nothing like discovering that all the props you shipped to Nationals are tightly screwed into a crate, to teach you that it’s a good idea to have a cordless screwdriver on hand. Kaydee Francis’ special “MacGyver” bag includes everything from a box cutter to swatches of Lycra that match the costumes. Her students are expected to have their own bobby pins, safety pins and sewing kits.
Once, three of her students slid off the stage when the back panels of the stage collapsed. “They were there, and then they were gone, just like that,” Francis says. No one was injured, but the experience was a good warning to be aware of the surroundings before a performance. The show went on, just as it did the time when taps fell off the shoes of six 10-year-olds while they were dancing. “They flew off their feet like bullets, one at a time, with one loose tap landing near a judge’s head,” she recalls. “I still chuckle when I think about that.” It seems an eager parent had arranged to screw on the taps. These days, Francis personally orders all the shoes, and keeps parents out of the equation. “I insist students dance three times in any new shoes,” she says.
When preparing for a competition, Francis takes the time to check out the layout of the performance area, from the crossover to the edges of the stage. If the information is not in the registration materials, she calls to get the exact layout. She also reduces possible trouble by having frequent meetings with teachers, students and parents.
“We need to toe that line between excitement and expectations,” she says. Yet, no matter how prepared you are, a costume might end up hidden right when a dancer needs it. “My secret is to remember that this is a dance competition. We are not saving the world,” she says. “If a dancer has to go onstage with the wrong costume, tomorrow is still going to come.” DT
Based in Houston, Nancy Wozny is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher, Pointe and Dance Magazine.
Photos from top: ©iStockphoto.com; courtesy of Dance Studio of Fresno; courtesy of KJ Dance Designs; courtesy of Joanne Chapman School of Dance; courtesy of The Dance Zone
Protect yourself in acro class.
Early in her teaching career, Joanne Chapman struggled with regular neck pain and couldn’t figure out what was causing it. “I went to the chiropractor and he said, ‘You must be lifting something really heavy, because your second and third vertebrae are literally compressed together,’” says Chapman, who owns Joanne Chapman School of Dance in Brampton, Ontario. “And then I realized—it’s from spotting my acrobats.”
As an acrobatics teacher, your top priority is keeping your students safe. But caring for students’ bodies can come at a cost if you’re not taking equal precautions to protect your own. The heavy and repetitive action of spotting is taxing and could eventually cause injury.
Chiropractic sports practitioner Dr. Corey Lichtman, who works with acro-trained dancers and spotters in California, says most spotters complain about their neck, lower back and shoulders—all areas that are vulnerable to any form of heavy lifting. “Teachers have a tough job,” he says. “They risk their own bodies to ensure that the student is safe.”
Supporting Students’ Weight
In the same way students should warm up for class, it’s important to prepare your shoulders, arms, abdominals and legs before spotting. This helps you adopt a solid stance and work from your core, instead of your limbs. Ashlie Wells, artistic director of the Dothan School of Dance in Dothan, Alabama, stands in a wide parallel plié while assisting stationary stunts like back walkovers, so she can take the student’s weight in her legs. This also helps her move quickly in any direction a student might fall. Chapman, however, prefers to kneel on one knee, which helps her own alignment while taking the student’s weight into her arms rather than her back or neck.
Either way, try to stay as close to the student as possible, spotting from her working side. Though it positions you closer to flying limbs, staying close allows you to brace your arms near your body, where you can provide the most support with the least amount of effort. It also helps you maintain good posture, since reaching far for a student carries you off of your center of gravity.
During more advanced exercises, you may benefit from having a second spotter stand directly across from you. Team spotters can either mirror each other’s arm movements or assign areas of the student’s body to protect. For instance, in a walkover, one spotter might be in charge of the student’s hips while the other assists the kickoff. “If something happens mid-trick or your arm gives out, a second spotter can make up for it,” says Wells. She prefers to have three spotters in the studio at a time, so they can rotate and rest between students.
During flying exercises, Chapman twists up a large beach towel lengthwise and loops it around the student’s waist, holding the ends. This ensures that the student won’t pull away from her, so she won’t have to reach out suddenly and support weight from a vulnerable position. It also distributes the student’s weight more evenly between her arms, reducing the strain on her own body. Other props, such as mini-trampolines and wedge mats, use elevation and gravity to train students without relying solely on your strength. DT
Ashley Rivers is a dancer and writer in Boston.
Chiropractic sports practitioner Dr. Corey Lichtman says teachers should cross-train to keep muscles in balance, since spotting often overworks one side of the body and is hard on the joints. “It just comes down to taking care of your own body, so that you can take care of others,” he says. Perform these exercises three to four times a week.
(10 reps with each leg, 2–3 sets)
Tie a resistance band circling two inches above your knees. Squat to 45 degrees in parallel. Keeping the knees bent, step a few inches directly right with your right leg. Follow slowly with your left, returning to the original position.
(15–20 reps, 2–3 sets)
Squeeze a soccer ball or dodgeball between your thighs and perform basic squats so the knees make a 90-degree angle. This activates your adductor muscles and stabilizes the patella.
External Rotator Stabilizer:
(15–20 reps, 2–3 sets)
Tie one end of a resistance band to a barre. Standing with the barre at your right, hold the band in your left hand, hugging the elbow to your side at a 90-degree angle and your forearm in front of you, parallel to the barre. With the elbow as an axis, rotate your lower arm directly to the side before returning to your starting position.
(15–20 reps, 2–3 sets)
Hold both ends of a resistance band with arms overhead. Bend arms and pull down until your elbows are bent at 90 degrees. Slowly return to starting position.
Top photo courtesy of Ashlie Wells; exercise photos by Amy Kelkenberg, modeled by Maya Barad
A conversation with Mary Murphy
Mary Murphy with Nigel Lythgoe and guest judge Katie Holmes
It’s hard to imagine “So You Think You Can Dance” judge Mary Murphy anywhere else but on TV. Her ear-piercing enthusiasm for the performances that send the most talented dancers on her metaphorical “hot tamale train” has become a staple of our weeknights. But Murphy is also a force in the dance community off-air, as an international ballroom champion and a studio owner for 22 years.
In 2006, Murphy founded the nonprofit Mary Murphy’s Chance to Dance, to bring ballroom dance to San Diego public schools. As part of the program, she invites local elementary school teachers to her Champion Ballroom Academy once a week to learn to incorporate the lessons into their own curricula.
A partner and organizer of the Holiday Dance Classic in Las Vegas since 1999, Murphy will add another major ballroom competition to her resumé. She’s teamed up with Michael Chapman and Jonathan Roberts of “Dancing with the Stars” to organize the 2012 Hollywood DanceSport Championships, which begins October 31.
Dance Teacher: Did you always know you wanted to be a ballroom dancer?
Mary Murphy: Not at all! I had three brothers and I was the fourth boy. I was into track and field and played basketball and volleyball. It wasn’t until college that I fell into modern dance—by fluke. I was getting a degree in physical education, and they offered a dance class. I tried it and fell in love with it. But at that point, because I was so old, I never thought I’d dance professionally. I had my mind set on being a PE teacher and a track coach.
After college, I was taking a few dance classes at a studio for fun, when my friend and I decided to try ballroom. The manager of the studio invited me to New York City to see the United States DanceSport Championships. I walked into the Waldorf Astoria, took about 10 steps in the ballroom, saw the couples gliding across the floor, all the rhinestones, bright colors and feathers, and I knew that’s what I wanted. It felt like a lightning bolt had hit me.
DT: What was the inspiration for your nonprofit?
MM: There are so many people out there who, if they were given the chance, could spawn such creativity. It’s so hard to dance professionally when you start late, so you have to start young.
At Chance to Dance, we have an annual showcase at the schools, and hundreds of kids dance in each show. It’s so inspiring to see how many people come out to support their children and love the program, and it makes us want to work even harder and continue to give back.
DT: Are you still a big sports fan?
MM: I’ve dropped a lot of it because my life completely revolves around dance. I do love to watch football. I’m a huge San Diego Chargers fan and watch “SportsCenter” almost every day.
A lot of athletes watch “SYTYCD,” including Drew Brees and his family, along with former Charger “LT” Tomlinson and former basketball player Reggie Miller. It’s so neat when they come up to me and say, “I love the show!” I stand there, look up and go, “Really?”
DT: Has “SYTYCD” changed your business?
MM: To be honest, I haven’t really used the show to promote my studio. I’ve been here for 22 years, and it has had a great reputation. And now that “SYTYCD Canada” is cancelled, I can be here more and work on the business side of things again. The great thing about the show is that we have more children involved with ballroom. I see a new generation that’s being extremely well-trained. They take ballet and work on stretching, too. We’re working to prepare them as cross-trained dancers.
DT: What’s one of your favorite things about “SYTYCD”?
MM: I just adore what these kids are able to do in such a short time. When I first got the show, I started to take a few classes in different genres to see how difficult it really is. It had been years since I did modern, ballet or jazz—I had strictly been doing ballroom. I found it was impossible to juggle the styles. It was so aggravating because I’m a well-trained dancer, and my body didn’t want to move like that. I came to realize that the show’s competitors aren’t just any dancers. They’re extraordinary dancers. DT
Photo by Adam Rose/FOX, ©2011 Fox Broadcasting Co.
Makeup for your team
Our models: Rebecca Kurnellas, Nataly Santiago and Ayonna Sullivan are students in the Children & Teen Program at Broadway Dance Center
You’ve been doing your own stage makeup for years, and you know what colors work. But when designing a uniform look for students with a range of skin tones, it can get tricky. You don’t want your kids to appear too painted onstage, so creating a natural look with neutral colors is key. As New York City–based makeup artist Alex Michaels advises, less is more. “Remember that at competitions, judges sit at tables close to the stage,” he says.
Even on Broadway, the kids playing Jane and Michael in Mary Poppins wear very little makeup. “I use concealer, blush and mascara,” says makeup supervisor Amy Porter. “You don’t want kids to look made-up, you want them to look youthful. From the back of the house, an 8-year-old with too much makeup will blend in with the 25-year-old ensemble member next to her.”
Here, Michaels creates an all-purpose performance look for three Broadway Dance Center students and tells us how to keep it polished, professional and age-appropriate.
Stage 1: The Base
On most young girls, the skin is so perfect that a full face of foundation isn’t necessary. Unless a youngster has uneven skin or breakouts, Michaels says stick with only a concealer and powder.
Step 1: Choose a color that’s close to the dancer’s skin tone, and apply a light coating of concealer under the eye and to any problem spots with a concealer brush or by dabbing it with your fourth finger.
Step 2: Set it with a dusting of powder—either from a pressed powder in a compact or loose powder—with a large brush.
Step 3: To mask and soften, sweep a very pale blush under the eye area.
Tip: If you do choose to use foundation, take note if the solution is cream-based or water-based.
“We go water-based. If dancers have allergies to makeup, it’s more likely that cream-based foundations cause reactions, not water-based,”says Karen Armand, specialty makeup supervisor and designer for Pacific Northwest Ballet. “Also, we’re around expensive costumes, and the water-based foundation comes out, but the cream doesn’t.”
Stage 2: The Eyes
Step 1: Select a neutral, warm tone with a little shimmer. Cover the eyelid and under the brow with a light, even application.
Note: Stay away from silver or white. Those colors appear gray on dark complexions. Gold, champagne or pink tones will flatter everyone.
Step 2: If needed, fill in a dancer’s brows with brown eye shadow. Use shadow so you can control the concentration. You want to be able to see the individual hairs.
Step 3: Keep long eyebrows in place using a clear mascara or brow gel, then sweep through the brows with a stiff bristle to keep them looking soft and natural.
Step 4: Next, blend a medium brown or plum shadow into the crease of the lid as well as across the lash line. Create an almond shape that meets on the outside of the eye. Blend well with the base shadow so the colors don’t look too divided.
Note: You can use the same color on all complexions, but vary the amount. On deeper skin tones, you may need to build color more, but when applying it to light complexions, be delicate. The less makeup on the brush and the more you blend, the softer it will appear.
Step 5: If your dancer has long, full lashes, a few coats of mascara will be enough onstage. But for a more dramatic look, choose false eyelashes that are feathered, so you can see the eyelids.
Lashes: Start with one thin coat of mascara on the dancer’s natural lashes. Next, squeeze a little adhesive from the tube and drag it across the top of the false lash. Don’t use too much—it gets too wet and sloppy. Line up the outer edge of the lash with the dancer’s, and gently ease it on. After 15–30 seconds, push up the lashes slightly; you want them to flare up when the eye is open. (If they shoot straight out, the eye will appear closed.)
Step 6: Finish the eyes with one more coat of mascara. This makes the lash line pop, and it joins the natural lashes with the false.
tip: If you need to cut the lash to fit small eyes, cut from the center, not the outer corner.
Stage 3: Blush
Step 1: Using a blush brush, start with a little blush under the apple of the cheek, and pull it outward onto the cheekbone. Like the eye shadow, less makeup on the brush is better, and blend well.
Note: For dancers with fair to medium complexions, use light, rosey pinks for the blush. They enhance the cheek but aren’t too much. Save the plums or warmer reds for dancers with dark complexions.
Step 2: Sweep over the blush with the same loose or pressed powder from stage 1. This will set, soften and blend the blush.
Stage 4: The Lips
Step 1: Apply a layer of clear lip balm.
Step 2: Then, line the lips with a medium- to dark-pink lip liner. Using a lip brush, blend the liner and the balm, starting from the outside in.
Step 3: And finally, apply a bright-pink gloss over the balm and liner. Stay away from reds. They look too grown-up on young faces; pink is more appropriate. DT
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Planning a class trip
During the past seven years, Deborah Lysholm has taken students on trips to Mexico, Japan, England and Spain through her studio’s travel-study program. Each trip lasts 8 to 14 days and involves performance opportunities, classes and sightseeing for groups of 17 to 40 students, ages 12 and older.
Amid teaching, choreographing and administrative office duties, planning any type of class trip can seem daunting—not to mention expensive. (Lysholm’s international trips have cost at most $2,500 per person, plus airfare.) Even more overwhelming is a teacher’s responsibility to keep students engaged and, most importantly, safe.
But the painstaking process is worth it, says Lysholm, who owns Heartbeat Studios performing arts center in Apple Valley, Minnesota. “What my students learn from working with dancers and teachers in other countries will be significant in defining their own dance voice for the future,” she says. “Refining their ability to collaborate will help them in several aspects of their lives—not just in the dance studio.”
Before Heartbeat took its first trip abroad, Lysholm spent six months reaching out to overseas studios and then traveled by herself to several of them to become better acquainted. She also arranged for a speaker familiar with the country and culture of the studio’s destination to meet with students and parents. “It took about three years before the first group trip was organized,” she says. “But now, a year of planning is the norm.”
Planning one year in advance is ideal, agrees Larry Edelson, owner of Pro Musica Tours, which offers customized group trips to New York City through its Destination Dance program. However, if it’s a domestic trip, it’s common to start planning in fall for a spring trip. “Ideally, the trip happens six to nine months from the point of initial contact,” he says. “Most airlines won’t price out more than a year in advance, and hotels will usually only provide estimates, not confirmed rates, when looking at dates further than a year out.”
The key to a successful trip is finding a reputable travel agency that can arrange transportation, hotel accommodations and a guide, says New York City–based flamenco instructor La Magdalena, who plans to follow that advice the next time she plans a class trip.
Last spring, she took 10 adult students to Seville for a two-week flamenco intensive immersion and planned the whole thing on her own. The trip included classes with legendary flamenco artists and evening outings, giving her students firsthand experience in understanding flamenco culture, in addition to technique.
“I was travel agent, events coordinator and all-around entertainment guide,” she says, adding that transportation ended up being the most challenging aspect. “I had originally planned to do transportation as a group, but everyone wanted to make separate arrangements. Next time I will insist on the group traveling together, otherwise it makes for a chaotic start to an already somewhat naturally chaotic situation.”
La Magdalena also recommends that all travelers have a reliable method of communication, such as a local cell phone or a phone plan that allows international calls or texts. Trying to communicate in a foreign country with 10 students who all arrived at different times and airports was an unexpected layer of difficulty. “It took us days to coordinate new phone numbers and locate internet cafés,” she says. “It was a huge hassle and time-waster since some students, due to their flights and individual schedules, only had a week in Seville.”
Hart Dance Academy in Lincoln, Nebraska, has a special program for intermediate and advanced dancers called Dancers kNeeding New York (or DKNY) that goes to Manhattan every other year. The group involves 10 to 20 students ages 12 to 18, plus a few young adult teachers.
Part of the planning includes choosing the right group: Students invited to attend the trip are those who work hard, are positive role models and skilled in multiple styles. “It is considered a privilege to get invited,” Aly Hart Summerson, Hart’s co-director, says. “You want the kids who are going to be a cohesive group that you can trust to follow you through the busy streets and not get lost.”
While sightseeing and shopping may be tempting on a trip to New York City, Summerson says arranging a comprehensive curriculum for students is most important. Hart Dance Academy does its own research into Broadway shows and lets their dancers choose from classes at Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center. However, Summerson says the levels for classes are quite different from what her students are used to, so the studio makes sure its students are challenged but not so overwhelmed that they leave frustrated or exhausted.
“The high school dancers can handle three or four per day, but that’s the max,” she says. “Even if you have time in your schedule, it doesn’t mean you should take another class. You want your body and mind to be able to take it all in and not be so exhausted you can’t function.”
Though Hart Dance Academy owners organize the educational aspects themselves, finding a tour operator who specializes in tours for dance groups is another option. “Our tour coordinators are not only trained as guides, but they are working dancers who live in New York City and are in between gigs, so students can really get a perspective of what it’s like to be a performer in the city,” says Edelson. “And if a group is going to see a Broadway show, we can arrange classes with dancers from the show to learn actual choreography.”
For the DKNY trips, students (and parent chaperones) pay for the travel agent, who arranges their plane tickets. But neither Hart Dance Academy nor Heartbeat Studios add in fees for their own work in organizing the trip. “I imagine that a studio could make a profit on overseas trips, but given that I know the financial circumstances of many of my students, increasing the high cost of a trip like this would make it prohibitive for most of the travel participants,” says Lysholm. “I put in months and months of work to coordinate the trips, but it is a labor of love for my students and staff.”
Lysholm also notes that as the leader of the group, she is the go-to person every minute of the day. Patience, she says, is key. “There’s no time to kick back and relax, but there is ample time to see your students grow and mature right in front of your eyes, and I find this so gratifying.” DT
Hannah Maria Hayes has an MA in dance education, American Ballet Theatre pedagogy emphasis, from NYU.
Consult our experts’ trip prep checklist:
- For international travel, register all participants’ names with the State Department prior to departure.
- Have all participants complete a Liability Release Form, as well as an Emergency Information Form, so you have emergency contacts, medical insurance information and notice of any existing health issues.
- If you decide to work with a tour company who will arrange your trip for you, make sure you have a written contract where all details are specifically described. You may also want to consider cancellation insurance.
- Consider having an agreement among all adults in the group that if anyone loses his/her money or experiences a theft, everyone pitches in to help the person get through the trip, knowing they will be reimbursed once home.
- Create a printed schedule that your dancers and chaperones can have beforehand, and be organized and clear on deadlines, rules and dress code.
Photos from top: ©iStockphoto.com; by Angelica Escoto, courtesy of La Magdalena; courtesy of Deborah Lysholm; courtesy of Hart Dance Academy
Whether it's bad behavior during awards or lip-syncing onstage, it seems every competition judge has a pet peeve or two. DT talked to three competition insiders: Phyllis Balagna of Steppin' Out—The Studio; Lauren Adams, faculty member and judge with New York City Dance Alliance; and Noelle Pate from Starpower. Here's what drives them crazy, and what you can do to avoid making their "don't" lists.
Pet Peeve #1: Lip-syncing. "I can understand maybe mouthing a few words here and there, but to lip-sync an entire song—no, no, no," Phyllis Balagna says. "Dancers must learn to perform routines with natural, unforced facial expressions. As a judge, I find it distracting. I want to focus on the choreography, staging, dynamics, storytelling abilities and, of course, their talent."
Pet Peeve #2: Unexecuted movement. "Follow through and finish what you start," says Lauren Adams. "Make sure your dancers finish each movement. If they don't have enough time, it's OK to pull some phrases to make it more attainable. When you fully complete the movements, the work will be more connected, grounded and energetically charged."
Pet Peeve #3: Over-rehearsing. "Don't exhaust the kids before it's time to perform," Noelle Pate says. "It's smart to run through your dances before going onstage, but conducting full-on rehearsals in a hallway, on the grass or out on the street is just dangerous. Be confident in your rehearsals from the studio and trust your dancers."
Pet Peeve #4: Tricks. "It's hard to watch movement that can potentially harm the body," says Adams. "The dancers need to understand where each movement initiates, and to dance from a supported place. I become disengaged when there are too many elements separate from the expression of the piece. For example: The dancer is having an emotional experience in her lyrical solo and then suddenly starts throwing second turns or leg extensions into the piece with no expression in the eyes. As a choreographer, you need to find a way to make that phrase connected. Focus on the artistic details of the routine, so it doesn't feel like a compulsory skating competition filled with tricks."
Pet Peeve #5: Hovering teachers. "It's so distracting when I'm judging and I see teachers standing in the wings and peeking around the curtains to see what the judges' reactions are," Balagna says. "Part of our job as teachers is to trust our students, stand back and allow them to perform to their fullest. Once your dancers are assembled and ready for the stage, they need to bond as a group. They are capable of getting on and offstage alone. Don't be a distraction to them or the judges."
Want to teach your dancers to pirouette with purpose? Get inspired by these successful dance fundraisers.
What happens when you combine tap dancing, a good cause and eight spunky women who also happen to be breast cancer survivors? Think pink, aka the Pink Ribbon Tappers. The tap dancing group formed 12 years ago to raise money for the Backus Foundation. Their goal? To take the stage at the foundation's biannual Survivors in Fashion show. The one obstacle? Lack of tap dancing experience. "We didn't even have tap shoes," says Pink Ribbon Tapper Barbara Chiangi, a two-time breast cancer survivor who produces and directs the fashion show.
The determined group enlisted New London, CT–based tap teacher Louise Neistat to whip them into performing shape. Neistat refused to take any payment for teaching the women, and a beautiful collaboration was born. Several years ago, Neistat also invited them to perform at her own annual fundraiser, which also benefited the Backus Foundation. Since then, the two groups have raised tens of thousands of dollars for breast cancer research.
Neistat and the Pink Ribbon Tappers are just one of many examples of the amazing things that happen when dance and philanthropy meet. Here is how she and other dance teachers have successfully made a difference.
Art with Heart
Salt Lake City and Orem, UT
Beneficiary: Shriners Hospitals for Children
Total Raised to Date: $250,000
Dance Club owner Sheryl Dowling remembers the exact moment that the idea for Art with Heart was hatched 10 years ago. she was at a dance competition and sitting with Dance Impressions studio owner, Kandee Allen. "We were talking about how much we'd spent on entry fees and it was a lot," she says. "We discussed how nice it would be to put that money in a place where it would do someone a lot of good."
A few years earlier, the brother of one of dowling's teaching assistants was born prematurely with cerebral palsy and other health issues. Through that family, dowling learned about shriners Hospital for Children, which provides medical services free of charge. "We did a lot of investigating. The hospital was a great fit for us because of its focus on children," she says.
Dowling and Allen came together with Connie saccomanno of The Winner school to put together a large-scale dance show with each studio producing 10 numbers. "We really did it big from the start," says Allen.
In 2011, the show celebrated its 10th anniversary and Allen says it has hit its stride. Guest choreographers like Jason Parsons and Joey dowling set many of the numbers, and the production has included everything from flashy indoor pyrotechnics to guest appearances of local utah celebrities. Anywhere between 250 and 350 dancers of all ages and levels take part, a strategic move, according to Allen. "When you only include your 30 best kids, you don't sell as many tickets," she says. "Including as many dancers as possible brings more people to the show, and that's what we want—more awareness and money raised for Shriners."
In 2011 the event also marked the impressive milestone of raising a quarter of a million dollars. Proceeds come from various sources—not only do students sell tickets to the november show, but donations are also collected year-round with an inspirational heart program. each dancer participating in the show is given 10 "hearts" to sell for one dollar apiece ("Most people are very generous and pay way more than a dollar," says Dowling). On Valentine's Day, the top-sellers from each studio plaster the Shriners lobby with thousands of hearts bearing names and dedications. "The kids get to see the hospital come alive, and it makes it all become real," says Allen. "It's such a big part of what we do." Allen says the fundraiser is a great exercise in studio collaboration, because responsibilities are divided equally among the three studios. (The collaboration also works well because the studios aren't competitors—each clientele covers a different geographical area.) Teachers are given the option to donate their time, and most happily do so. "It's really amazing for three studios to come together," says Allen. "We spend hundreds of hours preparing this concert, and it's so neat to see what you can do if you put your mind to it."
Dowling agrees, adding that it's a great growth experience for the dancers involved. "It gives little dancers an opportunity to see that there are unfortunate kids," she says. "You forget that not everyone can walk or dance—this gives them a chance to see how blessed they are and a way to help."
New London, CT
Beneficiary: American Cancer Society/Backus Foundation
Total Raised to Date: More than $100,000
Even to those who didn't know her, Louise Neistat's love of dance came through loud and clear. Whether it was the rhinestone "5678" pin she wore faithfully, her "5678" license plate or the constant sounds of live tapping coming from her attic- based studio, the 92-year-old tapper's name was synonymous with dance throughout her Connecticut community.
"She taught out of her home, the smallest little dance studio you could ever imagine," says Allison Nocerino, a longtime stu- dent. "When you saw the scope of her shows, you would say, 'How is that possible?'"
The shows to which Nocerino refers are Neistat's annual fundraisers, which were legendary in New London. Lively and entertaining, they featured a wide range of students— both female and male, across generations from tiny tots to grown dancers like Nocerino. The first show in 1966 benefited the American Cancer Society. Neistat's father and others close to her had died from the disease. "She was so determined to find a cure," says Nocerino.
In the early years, the show was held at Mitchell College, with an admission fee of two dollars. Nocerino describes the production as distinctly vaude- ville, with singing, acting and dancing. "Louise would run the show off her record player," she says. "She wanted to entertain people and have them come back again and again, and that's what happened. For many people, it became almost like going to Radio City, a tradition and highlight of their year."
To accommodate the growing crowds, Neistat relocated in the late '90s to the considerably larger Garde Arts Center. For many, the show's highlight was the kickline finale, in which Neistat, a former Rockette, would proudly show off her high kicks. "Louise wanted them to feel like they were at a Broadway show being greeted by ticket-takers and ushers," says Nocerino. "She was so excited to be able to offer a taste of Broadway without having to leave New London."
Neistat's daughter Margo adds, "Audiences always gave her a standing O—she was a force to be reckoned with."
Neistat passed away last November, surprising her stu- dents, friends and fans. She had shown no signs of slowing down; those around her were continu- ally amazed at her high energy and chutzpah. "People would ask when she was going to retire, and she would say, 'When you carry me out of my studio.' She never saw herself as old, and we never did either," says Nocerino. "When she said she was 92, people didn't believe her. She was one of a kind."
Her legacy lives on, as will the show in June—"Her Way," with the lyrics to the classic Sinatra song altered in tribute to her. Neistat had already com- pleted all of the choreography for the 2012 show before her death, so Nocerino says, "It's a matter of polishing and practicing. We want to keep it as true to Louise as we can, and preserve her choreography."
Dancing for a Cure
Beneficiary: Friends of Dana- Farber Cancer Institute
Total Raised to Date: $150,000
Dance Designs owner Susan Mendoza Friedman had already lost her father and a close friend to cancer when her best friend of 40 years, Karen Scheck, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2005. At the time, three students' mothers were also undergoing cancer treatment.
"I said, 'Enough—we need to do something,'" she says. That something became Dancing for a Cure, a holiday Nutcracker performance and variety show that Friedman has staged now for six years to raise money for cancer research.
Friedman, who had no fundraising experience, began by enlisting the help of dance moms and faculty. "After putting up a sign, people started coming out of the woodwork and it just snowballed," she says.
Putting the show together was also a unique challenge. "We'd never been a Nutcracker studio," she says. She decided to mix Nutcracker variations with dance production numbers, performances by musicians and "Storybook Speakers" willing to share their own experiences with cancer.
The formula worked. For the first three years, Friedman hosted the event at her studio with "100 folding chairs in a space that was roughly 17' x 6'—it felt intimate and magical." Today the show has expanded to a local high school auditorium, with a cast of 80 to 100 dancers. Ticket prices are $15 for adults and $5 for children. The amount raised has also blossomed from $7,000 in 2006 to $38,000 in 2011.
Twenty volunteer commit- tee chairs oversee everything from raffles to refreshments. Sponsorship is a major undertaking and accounts for 40 percent of total proceeds, with giving levels ranging from "Reverence" ($100–$249) to "Grand Jeté" ($1,000 and up). Raffle and silent auction items are donated, as well as all production materials. "We have very low operating costs, because we beg, borrow and steal everything," laughs Friedman.
She is especially proud of the fact that 100 percent of money raised is donated to Friends of Dana-Farber, with half going toward breast cancer research and the other half toward ovar- ian cancer research. "There are other for-profit Nutcracker performances on Cape Cod, so when I call for coverage in the paper, they'll say, 'There are so many Nutcrackers,' and I tell them, 'Nothing like this one,'" she says.
Not surprisingly, the show has a highly emotional component, with storytelling by survivors and dancing by alumni, who return to lend their talents in lyrical numbers. As a new component added last year, audience members and dancers held signs dedicated to individuals they wished to honor. "Cancer is so prevalent and the kids involved are well-aware of what they're dancing for," says Friedman. "It's all about hope, love and inspiration." DT
Jen Jones Donatelli is based in Los Angeles.
Photos from top: top two by Misty Mathews, courtesy of Art with Heart; courtesy of Allison Nocerino; by Kathleen Cugini, courtesy of Dancing for a Cure