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Galina Alexandrova delivers a rare take on classical ballet training in the Bay Area.

“You get to know [the students] and their needs, and you just keep moving them forward,” says

Twenty-six years after she left Moscow, City Ballet School director Galina Alexandrova still gets a dreamy lilt in her voice when remembering the Bolshoi Theatre. “In my career, I don’t think there was anything better than that,” she says quietly. “Being in that environment with those incredible artists and such history, it was wonderful.” After a successful performing career in Moscow and the Bay Area, Alexandrova has developed a San Francisco ballet school whose rigorous, exclusively Vaganova training draws heavily from her Russian roots. She’s an anomaly as well as a success story: In a city that races maniacally toward the new and splashy, Alexandrova has achieved notable success by quietly teaching students the lessons of her Russian past.

The daughter of two professional dancers, Alexandrova started at the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy (formally known as the Moscow State Academy of Choreography) at age 9, and upon graduating joined the Bolshoi Ballet. In the next seven years she progressed steadily from corps de ballet parts to demi-soloist roles. Her life took an abrupt turn when on a 1987 tour to San Francisco she met stagehand Ken Patsel at a cast party.

Alexandrova left the Bolshoi and moved to the Bay Area to marry Patsel. “Basically I fell in love, so I didn’t think too much,” she says with a laugh. “If it hadn’t been for my husband, I wouldn’t ever have left that theater.” She joined San Francisco Ballet as a corps de ballet member in 1989 and took on soloist and principal roles. “She was beautifully trained and so different from most of the company,” says former dancer Kristin Long. “It was great to see a dancer straight from Russia: such an amazing understanding of musicality and port de bras.”

Alexandrova left San Francisco Ballet when pregnant with her second child, continuing to dance with local companies. When her daughter Katia turned 6, Alexandrova enrolled her at City Ballet School. And when CBS owner Damara Bennett moved to Oregon Ballet Theatre, Alexandrova decided to purchase the school, partly so that her daughter could continue training. Although she had no teaching experience, she could rely on her mother Svetlana Afanasieva, a graduate of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s teacher training course who had followed Alexandrova to San Francisco and had become one of the Bay Area’s most respected ballet teachers.

Joffrey Ballet’s Jeraldine Mendoza was mentored by Alexandrova.

Starting slowly, Alexandrova taught classes with her mother’s guidance. But the following year, her mother died suddenly and Alexandrova had to teach everything without a mentor. “It was tough,” she says. “After you’ve danced for 20 years, it’s difficult to remember how you started. So I needed to study. I read lots of books and, thank God, YouTube came. I watched ballet classes and interviews with teachers. It was an incredible source of information.” This desire to learn and grow as a teacher has continued, even as her reputation has become established. “She is constantly working to improve her skills,’ says Nikolai Kabaniaev, a former Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet dancer who runs the school’s boys’ program. “To teach the next generation, you constantly have to learn, yourself, and Galina is not afraid to ask questions.”

In designing the CBS program, Alexandrova draws upon elements of her training at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. “Sometimes I watch Galina’s class, and it’s like being in Russia,” says Kabaniaev. “It’s honest, true training, with no shortcuts. I’ve never seen anything like this in this country.”

Nikolai Kabaniaev directs the men’s program.

At the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, the most promising children are selected at a young age from a huge pool of applicants and spend nearly a decade immersed in ballet training. This type of program doesn’t exist in the U.S., but Alexandrova echoes the dedication to each student. “I choose selectively. I want to raise them, to invest in them,” she says. The business side of the school is managed by Patsel (“By this point, he probably knows more about ballet than I do!” she jokes.) so Alexandrova can focus entirely on students’ dancing.

Bolshoi Ballet Academy teachers stay with students for several years, a structure that emphasizes knowing each dancer over specializing in a specific age or level. Alexandrova maintains this at CBS; she has taught her current crop of 13-year-olds since they were 9. “You get to know them and their needs and you just keep moving them forward,” she says. “It’s more interesting because you can see the results.” Classes are intentionally kept small enough that each student gets attention.

Perhaps most significantly, Alexandrova’s curriculum is based on the Vaganova method, known for its detailed, logical pedagogy and emphasis on integrating both upper and lower body. “All the teachers in the school are invested in teaching the Vaganova method, so the students are given a clear progression through the school,” says Long, who started teaching at the school after retiring from San Francisco Ballet. “The Vaganova training is such a strong foundation for a dancer.”

City Ballet School pre-professional students in their spring showcase

This same foundation has enabled some success stories, notably Jeraldine Mendoza, currently with Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. The school has grown under Alexandrova’s directorship, in part because of a move to a bigger space shortly after she took over, which allowed more classes and levels. Alexandrova hopes to expand even further soon and would like to create a junior company to dance more full-length works. “This is a unique place,” says Kabaniaev, “a jewel in San Francisco. I tell parents, ‘If you want true Vaganova training, you can either send your kids to City Ballet School, or you can go to Russia.’” DT

Caitlin Sims is a former Dance Teacher editor, now based in San Francisco.

Photos (from top) by Drew Kelly; by Cheryl Mann, courtesy of Joffrey Ballet; ARRO Shotz Photography (2), courtesy of City Ballet School

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Former Bolshoi Dancers Adapt to Teaching in the States.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and travel restrictions eased, many Russian dancers started looking westward to the United States. They wanted more artistic opportunity, and American audiences wanted to see the “pure” Russian dancers onstage. With their artistry and experience, it was easy for them to find work in American companies. Eventually some of them became master teachers. They all, as students, had gone through the eight-year Vaganova curriculum, which sets strict standards of what to do (and what not to do) for each age group.

Dance Teacher spoke to four ex-Bolshoi dancers about their approaches to teaching in the States.

Ballet for Everyone? Oh, No!

It’s well-known that the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow and the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg accept only children with the most ballet-friendly bodies. And with the rigorous annual exams, only the most dedicated and talented dancers stay the full eight years until graduation. Needless to say, dance education in the States is completely different. “When I walked into the school,” says Natalya Zeiger of her first job in New Jersey, “I couldn’t believe it’s possible to teach those kids.” But little by little, with the help of her American husband, she came to accept that even the students who weren’t destined to become professionals deserved her attention. Now, she says, “when you come to school to teach, you work with everybody. You have to be clean, objective and pay much attention.”

Natalya Lushina Zeiger, The Rock School in Philadelphia

Now that Zeiger is on faculty at the esteemed Rock School, her students are more likely to go on to a professional career. What she responds to most is their desire to learn. “Some kids are like a sponge: No matter what you say, they want more, they’ll go for it,” she says. “They never tire. They stay in the studio as long as you stay.”

Does Discipline Transfer?

Part of the reason the famed Russian training gets results is that it lavishes time working on the basics—for days on end, for hours on end. “It’s slow consistency and repetition that make a dancer,” says Mikhail Tchoupakov. “Not variety.” But here in the States that kind of repetition is not looked upon kindly. “If I teach beginners the way Vaganova or Bolshoi do, I will not be hired anywhere,” he says. Not only are parents eager to see their children perform, but the students are stoked by YouTube videos of bravura dancers and television shows where teenagers toss off split leaps between hip-hop swagger.

Mikhail Tchoupakov, University of North Carolina School of the Arts

Alexei Kremnev combines discipline in the studio with a softer and more friendly approach outside the studio. “In the Soviet Union time,” he says, “everybody must do exactly the same things. Right now we have a different kind of society. You have to look individually at each student, and you have to understand about their feelings. But in the classroom, here you have to keep discipline to make it work.” His four keys to discipline? Mutual respect, knowledge, motivation and belief.

“When I came to California,” Dmitri Kulev says, “the first thing I thought was, ‘OK, I need to teach them how to be disciplined, how to work hard in classes and to respect the teacher.’ That was very difficult. It took me a few years to get to that point.” One of the deterrents was the culture of competitions. “I’m talking about basic positions, tendu battement and line, and the students already start jumping, doing fouettés, pirouettes. How do you compete with that?”

He tells parents that training is more valuable than winning competitions. “We need to focus on what we’re doing wrong,” he says. “The competition for me is to show my training off. I’m not there to get gold medals.” Although the students Kulev coaches do very well at Youth America Grand Prix, he feels the reward is getting into a professional company or a college with a good dance department. When the parents see that his top students are now dancing with American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet and Tulsa Ballet, he says, “they come along.”

Alexei Kremnev, Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago

While We’re on the Subject of Parents

The problem of parents does not exist at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow or the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg. The children live at the school, and they must respect their instructors—or else. So interacting with parents is a big adjustment for the Russians. For Zeiger, it’s simple. “I keep parents far away from me,” she says frankly. “In the beginning I was way too nice. I’m a parent myself, and I understand when people who don’t have a ballet background have a lot of questions. I would allow parents to get too close to me. Unfortunately, every single time, they took advantage of this.”

As director of the Joffrey Academy, however, Kremnev has to take responsibility. The academy has instituted a system of meetings and evaluations that tries to head off any conflicts with the parents. When a student lacks motivation, Kremnev says, “we call parents and we talk with them in private. We explain to them about perseverance.” It’s helpful, he says, that the parents’ association sends out an e-newsletter that includes information on the faculty, injury prevention and future plans.

Nostalgia for Russian Training

Asked what they miss about their training back home, these four masters each have a different answer. “A good amount of time standing at the barre,” says Kulev. “In this country, if you spend so much time at the barre or take a long time to explain battement tendu, they get bored; they don’t wanna come back.”

What Zeiger misses is the respect that’s built into the training. She recently returned to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy for her master’s degree in education and was delighted to be reminded by the children’s etiquette. “If you walk through the school, every single kid will get up from where they’re sitting, look at you and say hello.”

Kremnev, without hesitating, says, “Best thing is the knowledge. Every day you have classes in historical dance, music, dance history, character dance and partnering.” Thinking about adapting that model to American students, he says: “We need to create the smart dancer. Kids need to go to the museum. They need to experience different forms of art. They need to listen to classical music.”

Tchoupakov reminisces about a time when students had just two or three teachers for their whole eight years. “Vladimir Malakhov and Alexei Ratmansky had Pyotr Pestov for eight years every single day,” he says. “Baryshnikov and Nureyev had Pushkin; he was an authority and a friend. In American schools you have one teacher today, tomorrow somebody else. It takes time to learn how to absorb from a teacher, to find a way to understand each other.”

Dmitri Kulev, co-director of the Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy in Laguna Hills, California

The Allure of the U.S.

Much as they may pine for their childhood training, they’ve all chosen to stay here. “I like the speed in America better,” says Zeiger. “I feel Americans keep up with what’s going on; it’s more 21st-century. I also like how kids are fearless. They are free to travel and try different styles.”

Tchoupakov likes that there is more choice in the U.S. “Here I find a combination of physique and the will to work hard. They are smart enough to do what’s necessary to become a dancer.” He contrasts it with the lack of choice growing up in Russia. “During the Soviet time they scouted for talent and physique. It doesn’t matter whether you want to be a dancer—they’ll make you a dancer. They produce a dancer; they give you a mentor. They’re not going to let that talent go to waste.”

Kremnev likes the availability of modern and jazz classes, which are not part of the Vaganova curriculum.

Kulev, speaking about a class of 9-year-old boys at his academy, says, “They wanna jump. They wanna do tours en l’air. They wanna do sauts de basque. We don’t teach them those steps at this age, but I see the future in those dancers. They have the desire. They want more. They’re hungry.” DT

Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine editor at large, is the author of Through the Eyes of a Dancer and an adjunct at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She often sits on the jury of Youth America Grand Prix, sometimes along with the teachers interviewed.

Photos from top: ©Thinkstock; by Michelle Clemente-Sikes, courtesy of Zeiger; by Maria Jose Lavandera, courtesy of Tchoupakov; courtesy of Kremnev; by Michelle Clemente-Sikes, courtesy of Kulev

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Dana Foglia models her work ethic in a three-month mentorship program for aspiring professionals.

Foglia, at work with participants of her 2015 Mentorship Program in Los Angeles

She has shimmied in stilettos with Rihanna, choreographed for J. Lo, danced with Janet Jackson and toured the world with Beyoncé. Yet as someone who has shared arena stages with dazzling pop divas, Dana Foglia is an anomaly. Within this seductive environment of instant fame and worldwide recognition, Foglia emphasizes the discipline, persistence and patience that underlie artistry. Sought after as a teacher and choreographer, the free-spirited former bunhead prefers the intimacy of a small theater and the everyday work of refining steps in a dance studio to the rush of performing in an elaborate spectacle to a sea of adoring fans.

“My favorite place to be is in the studio with people who are striving to be their best,” she says, “with no reward at the end other than the work and the art.”

The road to Beyoncé began with a street jazz class taught by Rhapsody James.

As a child, Foglia studied in a Long Island, New York, competition studio for a few years but soon found her true home in intensive ballet training with Valia Seiskaya. After high school Foglia was part of The Ailey School’s fellowship program, which expanded her ballet repertory to include African, jazz, tap, Graham and Horton. But when she stepped into Rhapsody James’ street jazz class at Broadway Dance Center, she entered an entirely new dance realm.

“I was just out of Ailey and still in a bun and a leotard, and I had split-sole jazz sneakers I thought were super-cool,” Foglia says with a laugh. “The first time I took Rhapsody’s class, I fell in love with the movement. I was so excited to be dancing to a popular song. It was a totally different atmosphere and her energy was contagious. I could pick up the choreography, but my style was completely wrong. But she noticed and took a liking to me, and we became friends.” James brought Foglia to L.A. for the first time, thus parting the curtains to the commercial scene.

Hooked, Foglia started auditioning in L.A. and landed a tour with Rihanna. “It was my first experience dancing on a tour and my first experience dancing in heels,” she says. After that, Foglia toured with Janet Jackson and then booked the ultimate commercial dance gig—The Beyoncé Experience worldwide tour. For a year and a half, she toured the world with Queen Bey, dancing 96 shows on 5 continents as part of a group of 10 dancers.

Dancing in a pop extravaganza to sold-out crowds was an extraordinary experience, but as the tour wound down, Foglia sought a new challenge. “I wasn’t feeling like I was using all my training, moving my body the way I had worked so hard to learn how to do,” she says. She walked away from a successful performing career and returned home to New York City, where she started teaching street jazz, contemporary and “heels” (dancing in stilettos) at Broadway Dance Center.

Foglia (above, in white skirt) accepted first runner-up honors for her piece Ribbons at the 2012 Capezio A.C.E. Awards.

Teaching became the antidote for touring burnout.

It was a surprise to discover that she loved to choreograph. “I got so stressed out at first,” she says. “I hated to choreograph combinations for class. I felt I was piecing people’s moves together; it didn’t feel authentic. I didn’t know who I was yet as a creator.” Experimenting with different music helped her find her own voice. “I had been teaching to R&B, pop songs. Then I started to use electronic-based music and I fell in love with it,” she says. “I felt like I could move because of that music.”

Her first students became (and remain) dancers in the company she founded in 2010, Dana Foglia Dance. She draws upon a pool of 18 dancers. If Foglia started as a reluctant choreographer, the experience of creating and producing her first show made her a convert.

“It was so exciting to see it come to life,” she says of Vatic, which premiered in 2012 at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center in New York City. “I always will be a mover, but now my whole heart is on the other side creatively.” A futuristic dance show in which audience members wear wireless headsets to hear the music, Vatic has been performed in New York, L.A. and, this fall, in London. Foglia’s new company quickly earned accolades, including at the 2012 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, designed to recognize and spotlight up-and-coming choreographers.

Foglia’s alluring and athletic style draws from ballet, modern, contemporary, African and commercial hip hop. “It’s definitely a fusion,” says Jose “Boy Boi” Tena, who has danced with the company for five years (and is currently touring with Ariana Grande).

“It’s groovy, there’s a lot of funk and it’s rhythmic. But there’s also a lot of breath in it, and it’s pretty to watch. She has a style that’s getting better as it evolves, a signature that’s continually refined.”

Dana Foglia Dance in Vatic

Her career came full circle when Beyoncé hired her to choreograph for two world tours, the “Haunted” music video, and several award-show appearances. “For her to see me on a different level, and for me, too, to see her on a different level, that’s been super-super-cool for me,” says Foglia, noting that their dynamic has changed over the years.

“We’re both older and evolved as artists. She loves something that is outside of the box. I think that’s where I come in.” The challenge for Foglia is not being able to use her full creative voice on the artistic project. “It’s definitely different from me creating with my company, where there’s nobody telling me, “‘You have to structure it like this,’ or ‘I wanted something like this,’” she says. “When I work for Beyoncé, it’s her thing, not my thing. But I still feel lucky to be a part of that creative side.”

“To see growth, that’s what fulfills me.”

A familiar restlessness led to the next turning point in Foglia’s career. In 2013, she moved back to L.A. Though New York is home, she says, “L.A. has been way more accepting of the work that I do.” After touring with the convention NUVO and teaching on both coasts, she began to crave a deeper experience with students. “After teaching open class after open class, it started to feel less fulfilling,” she says. “I felt I had more to share than I could in an hour and a half.”

She found what she was looking for with The Mentorship Program, a three-month intensive she created for groups of dancers to study with Foglia and her company members. Four days a week, for four hours a day, participants take a range of classes including ballet and yoga, do mock auditions with agencies and learn the DFD company rep.

To get the word out, Foglia posted audition requirements on her YouTube channel and promoted it on her Facebook page (where she has more than 43,000 “likes”). Applications soon poured in from around the world. The application required a video of the dancer explaining why they want to attend. Personality is just as important as technical ability. “I try to heavily base my decisions off their energy in the video: what they have to say and whether it feels real and honest to me,” she says.

The first session took place last year in L.A. with 25 dancers (she limits the numbers to keep the experience focused and personal). With a common goal—to make a living dancing—the participants shared a similar mind-set and maturity, but they came from different training backgrounds and were at different levels technically.

“After teaching open class after open class, it started to feel less fulfilling. I had more to share than I could in an hour and a half.” —Dana Foglia

“Dana’s style of movement requires a lot from you,” says Christin Olesen, who traveled from Copenhagen for the program. “You have to have a lot of discipline and so much persistence. And you have to be mature to handle her teaching. She’s not about quick fixes. She gives dancers her best tools, but she doesn’t have a magic wand. It’s up to us if we want to be better dancers.” 
Foglia has now completed three mentorship programs in L.A., as well as a streamlined version in London. The program’s emphasis on constant, continual work parallels Foglia’s personal work ethic and prescription for success. “You have to work hard to get what you want,” she says. “If you’re a good person and a hard worker, eventually with patience, things will happen for you.” DT

Caitlin Sims is a former Dance Teacher editor, now based in San Francisco.

From top: photos by Joe Toreno; by Matthew Murphy (2); photo by Juliana Ucer, courtesy of Foglia; by Joe Toreno

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Ballet may never be the first love of your competition dancers, but they can learn to like it.

Kelly Burke’s competition dancers took 2015 Best Ballet Performance at The Dance Awards.

At Westchester Dance Academy in Mt. Kisco, New York, lyrical class starts with a warm-up in center. Owner and artistic director Kelly Burke plays music by artists like Adele as she leads students through a progression of pliés, tendus and ronds de jambe en l’air. She gives the dancers a ballet barre in a nonballet setting. “Kids who don’t want to be ballerinas are still getting the foundation they need,” says Burke. “They’re just getting it in a style that interests them the most.”

Teaching ballet at a competition studio can be a daunting task. It can be a struggle to fit ballet into an already packed schedule, especially when students prefer working on contemporary, hip-hop and jazz routines. Dancers might show little interest in ballet even though the classical training boosts their technical ability, artistry—and competition scores. Yet despite these challenges, it is possible to ensure that they get the right ballet foundation. Teachers can inspire and engage them with a creative approach, positive attitude and immersive format that reaches beyond the ballet class.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Students need more than one class a week to develop an understanding of ballet basics. Burke sets a minimum for her competition students: Dancers under the age of 12 must attend two 1 1/2–hour classes, while older students are required to take three classes plus pointe. This formula works at Westchester Dance Academy, where students routinely take home trophies—in ballet—from Nationals, including New York City Dance Alliance and The Dance Awards. “I would love to have ballet every single day,” says Burke, “but not with these kids going to school and wanting to compete in every single form. There’s no way.”

To compensate, she incorporates some ballet into every class. Whether they’re taking lyrical, contemporary or jazz, dancers are always working on some aspect of ballet technique. “Every warm-up in every class has all the elements of a full ballet barre.”

Judy Rice (shown here with University of Michigan students) brings personality and precision to ballet class.

Move Slow to Go Fast

In ballet class, teachers might feel the need to rush through combinations in order to keep the students’ attention. But moving at a slow pace can actually generate more enthusiasm. Judy Rice often recruits dancers from her convention classes to audition for the University of Michigan dance program, where she is an associate professor. She recently taught a three-hour class that never got off the barre. “They’re learning to do things accurately,” she explains, “and then they see how ballet helps them achieve stronger technique scores.” Were the students in this marathon class engaged? Absolutely, she says. “I deliver it in a way that’s exciting for the kids.”

For one thing, she breaks everything down in a logical way, talking about anatomy, alignment and symmetry. She has a dancer do tendu side with her right leg, for example, not holding the barre. Then she asks her student to lift her foot off the floor. “If she can’t hold it and has to put her foot down, I’ll tell her it’s because her left hip wasn’t lifted enough. I make the student say what the problem is as she fixes it.” Asking the students to speak out loud helps them understand the physicality. “I get so excited when it’s right, which is infectious to them,” she says. “They understand what’s wrong and they can fix it. It gets really fun to be specific and make minute changes. The strategy is immediately successful.”

Grab Their Interest—and Keep It

Students might show more interest and develop an appreciation for ballet when they see how it relates to their favorite styles of dance. Lyrical dancers might like doing adagio. Jazz and tap dancers might have more fun executing a fast petit allégro combination with playful rhythms. “Acknowledge their strengths,” says Rice. “I told one dancer she was really musical and asked the other dancers to follow her. Turns out she was an amazing tap dancer.”

Rice also has young students skip around the barre and has been known to stop older students mid-class for a series of jumping jacks. “When I see their eyes glaze over and they just can’t stand still any longer, I do something to get their blood flowing.” She also rewards students with a fun, “big foo foo” class (sweeping waltzes, easy turns and a buoyant grand allégro) at the end of the week if they’ve been working really well. “If kids feel good, then they’ll love what they’re doing and are willing to go back to the specifics.”

Westchester Dance
Academy’s Kayla Mak was named National Miss Junior Onstage New York, 2015.

Let Them Discover the Ultimate Payoff—Results

Dawn Rappitt, director of Elite Danceworx in Markham, Ontario, puts ballet classes first on her class schedule. “It’s important for dancers to see how different their bodies feel and operate in other classes after they’ve already done ballet as a warm-up,” she says. To encourage students to get more ballet hours, Rappitt allows them to take other classes below their levels, free of charge. She also makes sure that her dancers do a full barre together before each competition. “When they arrive, it’s just part of the process,” she says. Ballet has become a consistent routine whether the dancers are on the road or at the studio.

Dancers get really excited when they see a difference in their competition routines, and parents notice the improvement, too. “It’s very much part of the culture within our studio,” says Rappitt, who took home the Studio of the Year Award from The Dance Awards in 2014. “I made the decision to put the focus on ballet as its own entity. We don’t treat it as a necessary evil.” As a result, students at Elite Danceworx are never late for ballet—even if they’ve just had another class. And, perhaps even more telling: Ballet class is never canceled in favor of working on the jazz number. “If it’s important to me,” says Rappitt, “it’s important to them.”

Elite Danceworx’s advanced company performed “Grand Pas” from Raymonda at The Dance Awards in 2014.

“Kids start to love it the more they do it. They also see how it changes their bodies,” she says. Lines are longer, spines are straighter and muscles are more defined. “It’s really nice to have 12-year-olds saying they need a ballet class when they get home from a convention or competition weekend,” she says. “Putting ballet first has really made a big impact, because they have a more disciplined approach and a stronger work ethic. And the kids are not going to be limited. They’ll have the tools they need to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them.” DT

Julie Diana retired from Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014. She and her husband Zachary Hench now direct Juneau Dance Theatre in Alaska.

Photos from top: by Rachel Papo; by Peter Smith; by Rachel Neville Photography, courtesy of Westchester Dance Academy; courtesy of Elite Danceworx

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The Douglas Watt Family Fund for the Performing Arts is helping disabled children learn.

Jessica Zippin works with special needs children at the Riverview School in New York City.

One afternoon, as dance therapist Jessica Zippin led a small group of children in a playful jumping exercise, a 6-year-old named Ashley bounced around joyfully, then suddenly blurted out, “Jump!” When Zippin and the classroom teacher glanced at each other, tears welled up in their eyes.

It was a breakthrough moment for Ashley. She is one of many grade-school students in the New York City school system who have autism, cognitive and/or severe emotional disabilities. The fact that she could connect her physical action with an appropriate verbal descriptor suggests that Zippin’s dance class is making a difference.

Zippin currently works with 70 children like Ashley who attend two NYC schools for special needs children, one in the Bronx and another in Long Island City, Queens. As the director of the dance/movement therapy program of the Douglas Watt Family Fund for the Performing Arts, her goal is not only to bring this type of dance therapy to more schools in NYC, but eventually to build a classroom model that can be replicated in schools nationwide.

“Dance therapy opens up a freer ability for the students to express themselves communicatively, which is so difficult for this population,” says Susan McNulty, principal of The Riverview School in Queens.

Program Origins

Patricia Watt, producer of the annual Fred and Adele Astaire Awards, founded the program in 2010. The Astaire Awards benefits the Douglas Watt Family Fund for the Performing Arts, which funds the dance/movement therapy activities, budgeted at $10,000 per school per year. Zippin, the program’s sole staff member, came on board in 2011.

A dancer her entire life, Zippin has a dance degree from Hobart and William Smith Colleges and a master’s in dance therapy from Pratt Institute. “There’s a therapeutic aspect to dance,” she says, explaining how her career in dance therapy combines her dual passions for dance and psychology. “We’re in our bodies all day, but usually we don’t recognize how we’re moving—and what that communicates. I wanted to help people understand that nonverbal aspect.”

Though she hadn’t worked with special needs children for very long, she was drawn to the way this particular population illustrates her point. “This specific group of children cannot always express their needs through words,” she explains. “But they do express themselves in other ways, often through screaming or tantrums. We need to understand what that is and help them use their bodies to communicate more clearly, even if it means they simply learn the spatial awareness of ‘When I spin around, I bump into someone’ and ‘How do I not do that?’”

In the Classroom

When Zippin first arrived at the Riverview School, she was received with welcoming arms. Classroom teacher Laura Hooghuis says, “I had never experienced dance therapy, and I was eager to see how it would affect my students.”

Nevertheless, Hooghuis was concerned that the freer dance atmosphere might unhinge the structure that is so necessary for a special needs class. “I was initially nervous that transitioning from dance therapy back into academics would be difficult, in terms of getting the kids to settle down again,” she says.

But Zippin’s upbeat attitude and diverse tools have dovetailed well with the school’s approach. “The key that Jessica offers is a structured class that she’s committed to—that the kids can count on,” says McNulty.

“I have ideas and things we can do, along with a general structure that’s repeated each time,” says Zippin. “But it’s important to know with this population that there’s no way to plan exactly how it’s going to go. You have to be receptive to what happened five minutes before, how the kids are feeling, and be flexible to their needs.”

Before the start of every class of six to eight students, Zippin greets each child individually, according to their abilities, from trying to gain eye contact to a verbal hello. She is aided by the primary classroom teacher as well as at least two paras (assistant teachers who are certified as aides to the disabled children). She begins in a semicircle with a gentle warm-up. The classes are grouped by function level rather than age, and Zippin customizes the warm-up to their abilities. “It’s often based on each child offering a movement and everyone else following,” she says. “But for lower-functioning students, we start simply with using music that has directions to follow.” Zippin’s favorite examples include “Listen and Move” or “Can’t Sit Still” by Greg & Steve.

Simple as it is, this start is effective. “Shakel—one of the lower-functioning students in his class—is nonverbal, but he loves to follow movement,” says Zippin. “He normally doesn’t like being the leader. But one day, he stood up and pointed to the prompt board that we should shake our hips. His classmates started clapping, saying ‘Yay, Shakel!’”

After the warm-up, the class moves the chairs aside for more lively movement with music, taking turns leading and following, or following the music’s directions. They might play an imaginative game like becoming animals in a zoo, or an activity-based exercise like play-swimming. “Freeze dance” helps the students learn to start and stop, and finally a cooldown piece called “Quiet Time,” also by Greg & Steve, (the kids call it “the sleeping song”) prepares them for a return to their academic coursework. “It’s an instrumental that I find incredibly calming,” Zippin says. “It’s a time for them to be quiet, which is hard for them. Finally, after a couple of years of working with them, it’s gotten easier.”

“After dance, they can focus more on their other work,” says Riverview School principal Susan McNulty.

Dance Class to Daily Skills

What makes this session so essential isn’t that the children are accruing technical dance skills. Instead, it’s that dance therapy serves as a conduit to myriad other life skills: They gain self-awareness and body control while participating in a joyful group. That’s a situation that is often difficult for these students—and their families—to access.

“Embedded in Jessica’s instruction is the behavioral piece that is directly integrated with what we’re helping the students learn in school,” says Hooghuis. “The kids practice modeling after her, yes, but also taking turns, following multiple step directions, social interaction and requests, and because they are excited about the dance aspect, they are even more engaged and receptive.”

McNulty adds, “After dance, they can focus more on their other work. They’re calmer and seem to use the tools of impulse control and communication they just practiced in dance.”

The results can be quietly miraculous. “One student, Tenzin, never shows any emotion,” says Zippin. “But we found a new song he liked, ‘Goin’ on a Bear Hunt’ [Greg & Steve], and he started giggling. We had never heard him laugh—ever. His peers noticed and were egging him on, laughing with him, running in a circle around him. It was amazing.” DT

Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer based in Florida.

Keep in mind...

Dance therapist Jessica Zippin has developed a number of strategies for success when working with autistic or cognitively disabled children:

  • It’s best to cover mirrors with a curtain so they don’t distract the students.
  • Large spaces can be overwhelming. Find a way to section off a smaller dance area.
  • Props like colored circles, balls and scarves are helpful for sensory integration.
  • Make sure the sound isn’t too loud and that noise from other rooms is blocked.
  • Be patient. With this population, nothing is going to happen instantly.
  • Always check in with the child’s emotional state and meet them at that place. Don’t expect them to come to you.
  • If the class encompasses a mix of functioning levels, be sure to create space for an autistic child to have time away from the group and then rejoin.

Photos courtesy of Douglas Watt Family Fund for the Performing Arts

Featured Articles

How I teach contemporary

Wes Veldink draws the shades and switches off the fluorescent lights to create a mood of contemplation during the warm-up of his intermediate/advanced contemporary class at Broadway Dance Center in Manhattan. As the teens and young adults flow through his dance-y version of a yoga sun salutation in the near dark, he encourages them to breathe, to find energy radiating from their tails through their heads and to explore a small spiral of the spine during a deep lunge where the arm traces an arc back, out, up and forward. “Find the corner with energy in your fingers and reach to get over the hump,” says Veldink. As for the spiral, “It’s a small movement, but it is still work.”

Using quirky musicality and shapes that alternately swoop and thrash, Veldink is known for his off-kilter movement quality. It has earned him the devotion of his dancers. But his goal for students goes beyond mastering cool choreography. He wants them to dance with specificity, not to move out of habit. “For a lot of the younger generation, the contemporary style has become a free-for-all,” he says. His minutely detailed directions and attention to the initiation and intention of each movement are designed to shape versatile dancers. Students may come to his class for the cutting-edge combinations, but they return for the precision training.

The lights come on briefly after warm-up, then Veldink switches them off again to create ambience during the center combination. The room regains the feeling of a sacred space. Because he doesn’t count music, he lays out a phrase to the first eight words of the song. The sharp punctuations and quick transitions of Veldink’s vocabulary—set to a melancholic cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” by Antony and The Johnsons—produce a gritty take on contemporary or lyrical. Veldink’s movement is based in jazz and modern technique. He describes it as a hybrid that “involves human posture and gesture with special attention to musicality and detail.” Indeed, movements of the hands and arms are particular and deliberate.

As soon as he gets the names of the steps out of his mouth, he details, almost reverently, the how and why of each movement. “Instead of throwing the arms out, try to press down on your lats as you stretch your arms up in the air,” he says. He coaches each nanosecond of port de bras to tame overly decorative arms that veer away from authenticity and a gesture’s necessary mechanics. “We are turning very geriatric in the roll back to the floor,” he says with sly, understated humor. “Don’t hold your breath and fight the ground; exhale into it.” As the students struggle to marry the demands of the breath with the lightning speed of the floor work, it is clear that the lessons of his holistic teaching style will continue to resonate beyond this room and this phrase. DT

Candice Thompson danced with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and is a writing fellow at Columbia University.

Wes Veldink grew up in Los Angeles and developed his technique, passion and work ethic under jazz choreographers Jackie Sleight and Cindy Montoya. He also studied butoh, the Japanese theater artform characterized by painted white faces, dark stages and dark subject matter. He was featured as a dancer in the film Newsies (1992) and taught at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles before moving to New York City and starting his own company, The Wes Veldink Movement (2000–2005). His commercial choreography credits run the gamut from Paula Abdul to Ani DiFranco to Alicia Keys. Recently, he has set work on concert dance companies around the world, from Oslo Dance Ensemble to K-Broadway in Japan, in addition to conceiving, directing and choreographing two dance films. He teaches regularly at Broadway Dance Center.

Jess Hendricks is a choreographer and on faculty at 24 Seven Dance Convention. She was a member of Veldink’s former company for five years.

Photography by Kyle Froman


Featured Articles

Ten educators and choreographers speak on preserving classic modern dance traditions.

While the field of dance grows broader and more eclectic by the day, classic modern dance technique increasingly takes a backseat. It’s not uncommon for young dancers to arrive in New York City to pursue their profession without knowing who Martha Graham was, much less Lester Horton or Alwin Nikolais. Yet modern continues to be the predominant genre your students will encounter in college, and for good reason. Here, educators, many of whom trained directly with the masters, remind us why classic modern dance still matters, and how they keep the work alive and relevant for today’s students.

Trisha Brown in Water Motor (1978)

Elena Demyanenko, on Trisha Brown

Demyanenko performed with Trisha Brown Dance Company from 2009 to 2012. She is on faculty at Bennington College.

“Trisha herself never talked about her moving as a technique or never developed a technique around her kinesthetic intelligence. The approach is that there’s no body identical to another, and each person will struggle with different ideas and concepts. Each will play with her or his own solutions. Stephen [Petronio] and Trisha represent milestones in my own growth and were certainly aware of embodied somatic practices to enhance the incredibly intelligent approach of their own physicality, always in readiness to change the direction and surprise the viewer. That, for the students, allows more virtuosic and complex and idiosyncratic relationships with the parts of their limber or available bodies. If I continue to pass those principles along, I hope it will benefit younger dancers.

Working with Trisha or Stephen for so many years made it clear that technique doesn’t necessarily stop there. The classes I teach at Bennington are centered around the human person as a whole. They’re not limited to the efficient articulation, but I’m looking at wider skills of relationships or understanding of space, real-time composition and ability to communicate and relate to each other. This is not separate, for me, from technique. If I would name things, I can say…the ability to recover, for sure, and keep falling as much as possible. It will teach you to recover.

I think what I’m carrying on from her is that openness to invent, more than anything, since she wasn’t trying to codify herself. It was all about what are the principles that can serve you as an inventor, that can keep opening up perspectives.”



Christal Brown, on Chuck Davis, Bill T. Jones, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

Brown is chair of the dance program at Middlebury College in Vermont. She danced with Urban Bush Women for three seasons as principal performer.

“I’ve worked for companies that have always laid a precedent that dance is a catalyst for becoming human. So I try in my teaching not to alienate the human by focusing so much on the technique itself. All those things come into play, having worked for someone like Chuck Davis, where the communal aspect of dancing is more powerful than the steps themselves. I think the same thing is true for Bill, the way he holds a container of space within the studio—where the ritual of the rehearsal process and the ritual of unearthing the information out of the body transcends the actual movement and takes the ensemble to another level.

Chuck Davis’ African American Dance Ensemble

The work that Jawole makes might be sparked by her own artistic inquiry, but it’s fulfilled by the people in the room and the way that they/we are divulging ourselves to make the body of work complete. I’m often asking my own students to fill in the gaps, to really make sure that even in something as simple as pliés, they are putting themselves in the canon of information.

There’s one story that I tell my students when they think things are hard: You have no idea what it’s like to graduate from an undergraduate institution that was mostly release technique, and you had one West African class your whole life, and then you get into a West African dance company right out of college, and it’s with Chuck Davis, of all people, and you have peppermint oil in your nose to make sure you can actually keep up the stamina to keep breathing through the set, and he’s in the wing shouting, ‘Let’s go, Christal, let’s go!!!’”



Patrick Corbin in Taylor’s Black Tuesday

Patrick Corbin, on Paul Taylor

Corbin danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company from 1989 to 2005. He has recently joined the faculty of University of Southern California Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

“Paul doesn’t necessarily have a technique, but a style, a Graham-based style. His influences are great and varied. You’re creating a sense of weight and weight change, and a certain use of the spine that makes a body available for a multitude of dance styles.

I think the contemporary ethic is phenomenal, this new eclectic way, using yoga and ideas out of space, along with postmodern stuff and modern stuff and ballet. It does create a certain kind of movement invention in class. It’s a big tent, and we need it all. These [traditional] exercises and these principles were built on single people’s bodies and minds, and so it’s a real physical connection to them. I just think it’s so important. And it’s fun! Students discover things like, ‘Oh, we can sustain a jumping combination.’ Because that’s something that’s lacking in the whole contemporary movement, being airborne for long periods of time. The floor work is phenomenal, and the movement invention, but they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we never jump. That’s right, so let’s jump.’

Paul Taylor (1962)

Usually a Taylor class is built on exercises from different dances. Within that, you also have some of these iconic shapes and patterns he normally uses. I always give the students an opportunity to experiment in little ways with the Taylor-based exercises, or with some of Paul’s choreography, whether we’re improvising spatially or on some other kind of principle. That’s how I keep it current, to open it up to the young people in class. They are interested in their own process. So, if I can click into what that process is, what’s going on in the dance community right now, then it gets the students jazzed about seeing Paul’s work through their own experience.

Lisa Viola and Corbin in Taylor’s Aureole

The biggest thing I learned from Paul is that you’re trying to get to the truth of a dancer. And I think that is something very important when I’m teaching people to connect with these exercises. Paul says that technique is a means to an end for communication. So we’re trying to communicate through these, at this point, decades-old (and one day they will be centuries-old) exercises that go to our human core.”



Mosley created The Hearts of Men project, bringing together male high school, college and professional dancers.

Earl Mosley, on Lester Horton

Mosley is on faculty at Montclair State University and The Ailey School in New York City.

“If you don’t have a strong foundation, you’re going to come up short. So I always try to keep students captivated. We might be doing what you’d call a traditional modern dance combination in class, and I’ll throw in a hip-hop element, or funky pedestrian movement combinations, and students love that. But no matter what I do, the warm-up is always built on the foundation of keeping the Horton technique as pure as possible, based on what Ms. [Ana Marie] Forsythe and Milton Myers and other teachers handed down to me.

Ana Marie Forsythe, teaching Horton technique at The Ailey School

During those times of Pearl Lang and Ethel Winter and all these great teachers—Denise Jefferson—it was a matter of learning not just the big positions, the end result, but how do you get there, how do you get from one place to another honestly, through doing the work? You have to be clever to help students understand the importance of process. I myself would go see a Taylor Swift concert. I would watch the VMAs, and I will make sure I’m as current as I can be with the latest Beyoncé video. A lot of the dancers who work with those artists, I’ve been fortunate enough to teach. I’ll use them as examples of doing work that demands a versatile dancer. Underneath more contemporary, very edgy, street styles are still strong technical bodies that went through a process of making sure they could speak loudly in many different voices.

Horton’s Sacre du Printemps (1931)

I no longer dance, as a dancer, but every now and then I go take Ms. Forsythe’s classes, just to reimmerse myself within the technique. Trying to stay relevant with today’s dancers, it would be so easy to change it. Going back to the source helps me to stay grounded and remember, ‘That’s where this is coming from.’ And how to move it forward so that today’s dancers can say, ‘OK, it’s useful for me.’”





Neels in Walkaround Time (1968)

Sandra Neels, on Merce Cunningham

Neels performed with Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1963 to 1973. She is associate professor of dance at Winthrop University in South Carolina.

“I almost think that Merce was the first contemporary teacher, because my idea of contemporary is a fusion between ballet and modern. Because I’m in the South and things are softer down here, as well as hotter, I do something called a lyrical Cunningham. The students seem to really like it because it is much more free-flowing and not as erect all the time. I’ve added things, like threading through a negative space with the opposite body part, to give it more flow. And I did that in Merce’s studio when he was watching, and he didn’t say anything bad to me about it. He liked the class.

Cunningham in 1997

His classes were definitely the hardest classes I ever had. He wouldn’t give a lot of hints other than just, ‘Hold your torso, hold everything.’ For him, it was all about being centered. He would say those words, ‘Center yourself.’ But he wouldn’t say how. If anything, now, I use visualization and shapes to refer to, in order to achieve the Cunningham positions that are innate in his technique. I’m changing all the time, and I can’t stay in one place because dance is evolving.”




Bebe Miller, on Alwin Nikolais/Murray Louis

Miller is distinguished professor in dance at The Ohio State University. She formed the Bebe Miller Company in 1985.

“My experience with Nikolais technique was formative, from age 3 or 4 ’til about 14. The beginning of my own professional training was with Nina Wiener, who came out of Tharp. Working with Nina was more about standing on my leg, ballet influence, really technically hard, which was different from the fun and the snap and the space, and the line and volume and all the abstract, energy/time dynamic that I got from Murray [Louis]. That said, I think that as I’ve gone on, I definitely feel that the things that I ‘rejected’ maybe from Nikolais, I’ve come back to see in another light. I’ve found myself in my composition classes talking about tensile involvement, (which is a direct title of Nik’s) in order to convey something about the inherent dynamic in the body.

Nikolais’ Tensile Involvement, performed by Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company

I can imitate a Murray phrase like, boop! Your eyebrows go up, and you feel the spirit, and you prance across the floor. That’s not necessarily what I do, but I know where it comes from in me, and I add my own abstraction or substitution of other elements. I’m speaking not necessarily of Nikolais technique, but Murray’s teaching of Nikolais, to be specific. His use of improvisation is deeply rooted in me and is something I feel is utterly necessary for dance training—its sense of abstraction, its sense of width, its sense of dynamic exploration, is in my fundamental tool kit.

I still remember two really specific improv prompts: empty chocolate box and spice jar. Make that happen with six other dancers—jump up and do it. Like all fantastic teachers, I see Murray moving and paying attention to us. My choices of how I want to give over information are related to him. Not that I do what he did, but I have that as some kind of a reflective base, to either move away from or toward.”



Daniel Lewis, on José Limón

Lewis danced with the José Limón Dance Company from 1962 to 1974. He is founding dean of dance (retired) for New World School of the Arts in Miami.

“The thing about Limón technique is every teacher teaches it differently. José never codified his technique. He did that deliberately. He didn’t believe that any movement or any teaching could only be done one way. Therefore, a lot of us have our own approaches. We all come up with our own terminology. José had his. He always talked about the body as an orchestra, and each part of the body is a different part of the orchestra.

José Limón and Ruth Currier in Night Spell by Doris Humphrey (1951)

I don’t feel a loyalty to maintain José’s technique the way he taught it. I feel a loyalty to the style he created. José once said in a commencement speech at Juilliard, “Don’t spit in the face of tradition. Remember the old girl, your mother.” And it makes sense. You’ve got to have something to go from. My loyalty does lie with José, but I’m open to taking it wherever it needs to go.

How do you achieve José’s style? It’s a universal technique—it’s not like Graham; it’s freer. It’s built on gravity: how you fight away from gravity and how you give in to gravity. The giving in is probably more important, because other techniques have always fought gravity. When I teach it, I add centering to it, which comes from my ballet background.”



E. Gaynell Sherrod, on Katherine Dunham

A Fulbright-Hays scholar steeped in African Diaspora dance, music and theater, Sherrod is chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University dance department.

“When Dunham was creating this work, there was not a lot of opportunity for black people to study dance. It was catch-as-catch-can. I call it teaching from scratch; she pulled a lot of things together. It’s a very holistic approach to teaching. You’re not only teaching movement, but the meaning behind the movement—the breathing, why the student wants to dance, how you’re engaging the student in understanding the importance of dance, preparing the student for performance, preparing the student to work in ensemble, preparing the student to make certain kinds of choices, understanding the musicality, understanding the origins of some of the movement, the rhythms, the songs.

“Rara Tonga” from Dunham’s Tropical Revue (1943)

I recall once in a class, in Ms. Dunham’s last three years of teaching, she did something that veered from the way it had been done. One of the Dunham people whispered in her ear, tried to correct her, and she said, ‘Well, it has to evolve, and that’s the way we’re doing it now.’ She was about 95 or so when she said that. She was always talking about the evolution and the development of the practice and the technique. But at the same time holding onto the fundamental aspect of what it is: this system that would allow dancers to learn a technique that had their bodies ready, open and available to learn any kind of dancing.”




Hawkins in Geography of Noon (1964)

Katherine Duke, on Erick Hawkins

Duke was a member of Erick Hawkins Dance Company from 1986 to 1991. She is now artistic director of the Erick Hawkins Dance Foundation.

“I think Erick’s floor work was the first time I ever found my center. It opened the door to flexibility, and then not tensing the muscles—the letting go. It’s a good letting go that can make these incredible changes happen. I try really hard not to change the floor work. I do add stuff in, because I think you have to do that just to be real. But as far as the work, the technique, I really try hard to stay very close to what I was doing when I was working with him, and what he showed me and inspired me to do.

I do try to share Erick with students, in a real sense. My favorite quote is, ‘The natural state of man’s mind is delight.’ I think Erick is the epitome of that, because when your body is moving the way it should be moving and you’ve got that conscious, in-tune mind, and your soul is dancing out through all that, it is delightful.

At the end of class I ask, ‘Did you do something that you liked today, or that you didn’t like?’ I ask them to share. I like to know that they learned something. It’s very important to me that they don’t just go and have a workout. To me, that’s the technique. It’s mind, body, soul; it’s not just physical.”



Zall, performing Graham’s Lamentation

Deborah Zall, on Martha Graham

Zall has made a career as a solo dance artist. She has been on the faculty of the Martha Graham School and conducts independent workshops in Graham technique.

“I teach the orthodox technique. It’s exactly what Martha Graham taught me. I think we have to keep that orthodoxy alive in order to understand and do the repertory, because the repertory comes out of that technique. I may change a count, or the musicality may change, but the fundamental technique is there. The floor work, the falls, the knee work, everything I know. The internalization, the organic thrust, that it’s within the body, that it’s the body that does the movement. It’s not the arms or the shoulders or the back—it’s from the pelvis.

Martha Graham

When I was at Juilliard, we were doing the turns around the back. Martha was teaching and she ran up to me and slapped me across the face. She said, ‘It is not face-body; it is body-face. And so when you move, you move from here’—and she hit her pelvis—‘not from there,’ and she hit me again. And I will never forget that, and I tell the story to my class whenever I’m teaching it. I also tell the story as an illustration of the movement coming from the pelvis. And that I remember. I didn’t wash my face for a week.

The thing that we have to understand is that the Graham technique comes from the inside out, not from the outside in. We were taught with images. Give students something that they can relate to, like, ‘You’re embracing someone with the contraction.’ Or the breath: ‘You’re crying, you’re laughing.’ That’s what they’re going to do when they perform, I hope.”

Photos (from top): by Julieta Cervantes; by Johan Elbers, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; Alan Kimara Dixon, courtesy of Christal Brown; courtesy of DM archives; by Lois Greenfield, courtesy of Paul Taylor Dance Company; Jack Mitchell, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; Paul B. Goode, courtesy of PTDC; courtesy of Earl Mosley’s Institute of the Arts; Matthew Murphy; courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; by James Klosty, courtesy of Merce Cunningham Trust; Annie Leibovitz, courtesy of MC Trust; Julieta Cervantes, courtesy of Bebe Miller Company; Fred Hayes, courtesy The Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance; by Rose Eichenbaum, courtesy of New World School of the Arts; courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; courtesy of Sherrod; Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The NYPL for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation; courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; Nan Melville, courtesy of the photographer; courtesy of DM archives

Featured Articles

How Dancers’ Workshop is distinguishing Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as a destination for dance

Like many others who are drawn to the rugged beauty of Jackson Hole, with its world-famous skiing and other outdoor sports, Babs Case arrived for what she thought would be a temporary visit and ended up staying indefinitely.

Francesca Romo, formerly of Gallim Dance, teaches at Dancers’ Workshop and performs with Contemporary Dance Wyoming.

A seasoned arts administrator who was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, Case headed out west to teach a series of workshops in Wyoming through the Lincoln Center Institute. Before going to Jackson—a ski town with a year-round population of only 10,000—she had heard about a job opening at Dancers’ Workshop, a beloved local dance studio that offered a youth dance program with occasional performances by its adult faculty members. Sixteen years later, Case has built that organization into a dance oasis that stands out as a model, even among its larger urban-based counterparts.

However, back in 1999 when she first arrived, Case quickly realized the nonprofit was undergoing major staffing and directional changes. There was enough upheaval that she nearly turned around and left. But she could see an upside—for Dancers’ Workshop and for her own ambition.










While training youth is vital to the mission, adult classes are key to financial stability.

A Worthy Dance Destination

Part of her attraction to Jackson was the plan to build the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts, which was completed in 2007, but at the time was in its infancy. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ll probably be dead by the time they build that building, but who knows?’” she says. She became a driving force behind the project, and now Dancers’ Workshop occupies the second floor of the educational wing of the facility, with five dance studios there and one in a building next door. The campus also includes a 500-seat theater where DW hosts New York City Ballet MOVES (the touring group of New York City Ballet) every summer, as well as companies like Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Pilobolus, Gallim Dance and Elisa Monte Dance.

Rachel Holmes, formerly of Elisa Monte Dance, is school director.

Case began bringing dance companies to Jackson while the Center Theater was still under construction. Elisa Monte Dance and the Richard Alston Dance Company were among the first to visit, performing in the Jackson Hole High School theater. “I’ve never been afraid to talk to anybody,” says Case, who was the founding director of the Center for the Arts in Stuart, Florida, for 12 years. Over the course of her career, she’s been the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant and the Florida and Wyoming Fellowship awards for choreography.

“I’ve always just started with who I want to bring,” she says. “I don’t even see myself as a presenter. I see myself as someone who loves dance, and so I try to choose artists whose work I love.” Regular visits to New York keep her in touch with what is going on in the broader dance world.

“Babs reminded me of the impulses that were everywhere in the early days of my career,” says Bill T. Jones, who first visited Jackson with his company in 2014. “She was out there in the mountains, and yet she had a hunger for new dance work.”

“She really treated us like we were guests,” he says. “She introduced us to her friends; she cooked for us; she made us see what a residency could be in this rich community.” All the outdoor adventures made the experience feel “like going to summer camp,” yet “there was a seriousness in the theater,” Jones says. “It was a lovely theater. There were talented people around. It felt as if we were working in a place where work got done.”

During that residency, Jones and his company developed the new work Analogy/Dora: Tramontane (co-commissioned by Dancers’ Workshop, Peak Performances at Montclair State University and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), which had its premiere this summer in both New Jersey and Jackson. This was DW’s second foray into co-commissioning, after similarly supporting the creation of Gallim Dance’s Fold Here in 2013.

Artistic director Babs Case has been recognized with the Wyoming Governor’s Arts Award and the Cultural Council of Jackson Hole Award for Creativity.

Teachers and Artists

Rachel Holmes first visited Dancers’ Workshop in 2006 while on tour with Elisa Monte Dance. “I fell in love with the beauty of Jackson and the kinds of resources it had to offer artists for being such a small town,” she says. “I instantly wanted to be Babs’ friend, and I would spend my free time out of the dance studio making art with her in her art studio. After living in New York City for 12 years dancing—working two or three jobs at a time and struggling to make ends meet—I was ready to make a big change in my life.”

She began visiting every year to teach, perform or help with educational residencies elsewhere in Wyoming. When the school director position opened at Dancers’ Workshop, she made the plunge full-time.

Francesca Romo, formerly of Gallim Dance, also now resides in Jackson. Both Holmes and Romo perform with the Dancers’ Workshop resident company, Contemporary Dance Wyoming (CDW). The six members of the ensemble serve as core instructors in the school and lead outreach programs for school children in rural areas of Wyoming.

Case’s newest work for CDW, Eyeing the Needle.

With one or two dedicated concerts in Jackson per year, CDW often performs at local art events and tours around the region. It also participates in shared showings with visiting companies, and this past summer former Gallim dancer Jonathan Wyndham created a new work for it. “It’s powerful right now,” says Case. “The work is amazing.”

The School

The Dancers’ Workshop youth program serves about 275 students each year and includes more than 50 classes per week in a variety of styles. (The studio now has seven full-time staff members and a total of 22 instructors, many of whom are part-time.) Dedicated middle and high school dancers have the option to audition for the Junior Repertory Company, which involves a more rigorous training schedule, additional performance opportunities and master classes with visiting companies.

As vital as the youth program is to Dancers’ Workshop’s mission, the real potential for growth is in the market for adults. Case started building that enrollment when she realized that in a small town there would always be a limited number of children to participate in dance programs. “There are so many athletic adults in this community who have the power to buy a ticket, who have the power to sign up for a class,” she says. “It also expands our audience base, because now we have a large group of adults who are interested in learning about dance.”

The program includes 30 to 35 classes per week in modern, ballet, hip hop and a number of ballroom styles, and it currently serves about 450 people. Most popular among the fitness offerings are Pilates classes.

All in all, the organization is perhaps best described as an ecosystem in which the school, the artists (both local and visiting) and the patrons all serve to challenge, inspire and elevate one another. And yet for those outside it, Jackson remains an unexpected dance destination. Says Case: “I’ll never forget Richard Alston saying to me, ‘This is such an odd and wonderful experience. We’re touring to L.A., Dallas, New York...and Jackson Hole.’” DT

Garnet Henderson is a dancer, choreographer and freelance writer based in New York City.

Photos from top: Thinkstock; (6) by Franziska Strauss; by Brent Blue, by Jeffrey Kaphan, both courtesy of Dancers’ Workshop





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