The young hopefuls who study with Ellen Robbins, the resident dance educator at New York City’s Dance Theater Workshop, learn more sophisticated facets of the artform than many dance majors do in college. Robbins not only teaches flawless technique, but leads structured improvisations and encourages choreographic explorations. When DT caught up with her one morning in mid-June, she was especially busy, having just run the weeklong teacher intensive, “Growing a Dancer,” sponsored by the 92nd Street Y.
More than an educator, Robbins is an artist whose medium is children. She says she intends to give her students, primarily ages 5 to 18, “a close connection to the aesthetic experience of art.” Some of her alumni, such as Julia Stiles and Claire Danes, go on to illustrious careers in other artforms, but many others become appreciators of art. “I want students to learn to enjoy doing something well, and understand that art takes time and that it has to grow,” Robbins explains. “I think that’s invaluable to any life experience.”
Robbins’ commitment to music and dance started as a child. “Dance was always important to me. I danced with my sisters in the living room,” she says. Her father, who went to Columbia University and The Juilliard School simultaneously, was a mathematician and violinist in the New York Philharmonic. Though an artist himself, he tried to talk her out of being a dancer because he thought it too hard a life. The tactic almost worked. After studying at The Juilliard Preparatory Division with Pearl Lang from ages 12 to 18, Robbins attended New York University on a full science scholarship and eventually transferred to Brandeis University, where she graduated with a degree in psychology.
It was while taking science courses at Brandeis, however, that Robbins’ love for teaching emerged. To satisfy a physical education requirement, she joined the dance club. The instructor agreed to let her teach, and due to popular demand, she taught the next year as well.
After graduation, she set out to craft a teaching style of her own. She became a member of Mary Anthony’s dance company and taught a pre-beginner class for adults at her studio. “These were pedestrians, real beginners,” Robbins explains. “I had to have language for someone who had no preconceived ideas.”
Soon, Robbins got a second job teaching both adult and children’s classes at a small studio on Long Island. She quickly realized that she needed to tweak her approach in order to reach the children. “I started making up poems and ways of bringing the same kind of technical interest to their level,” she says. During this time, the birth of her nephew, Paul Sanchez, had a profound impact on her educational approach. By trying out teaching techniques on him, she developed a deeper sense of how children learn.
Robbins was also entrenched in the NYC dance scene, attending workshops and substitute teaching at the then brand-new DTW, which was established by three friends in 1965 as a choreographers’ collective. When DTW moved to its current location on 19th Street in the mid 1970s, Robbins was asked to teach on a more regular basis. “My life changed because I was able to be in one place instead of moving around,” she says. DTW embraced her program for children from the get-go.
Robbins, who has no children of her own, admits that if she were a mother, it would be difficult to devote so much time and energy to her work. In addition to teaching 13 classes a week, she meets during off-hours with students who want individual help with dance- making projects. “In terms of choreography, she’ll say it’s not so important that you have a good idea but that you have an idea, and then you can polish it,” explains Brynn Rosen, who was in the first class Robbins taught at DTW and is now her teaching assistant.
At the beginning of her tenure at DTW, Robbins rebelled against producing an annual recital, opting instead for end-of-year technique demonstrations. “I was all about process,” she says. Now, her 5-, 6- and 7-year-old classes each have a technique demonstration as well as a solo performed for parents in the studio. Students 8 and older choose their own music and perform solos in DTW’s massive theater. There’s a separate concert for each class, divided by age.
Isabella Giovannini, 13, who has been dancing with Robbins since age 4, describes the process as very nurturing. “We’ve always made solos, but when we were younger she gave us music, and they would be much shorter and really guided.”
Each 5-year-old class creates a dance (which they must also title) to Mozart’s “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Robbins guides them using the AABA structure. “B means ‘be different,’” she explains. “I tell them all I care about is that they have an idea for A that they can repeat, and B is different and that they end it.” To imprint this concept, she starts with across-the-floor work. First, it’s straightforward movements, such as skipping and galloping. “One day I’ll say, ‘Now we’ll do a dancing sentence. You can’t repeat one movement and you have to get from this corner to that one. Then I ask them to make a dancing sandwich.” The imagery is that the first third of the room that students travel across is bread. The center third is the filling —peanut butter, tuna fish, turkey, etc.— and the last, the bread again. “That’s how they learn A, B, A—bread, peanut butter, bread,” she explains.
Even with the 5-year-olds, Robbins monitors class discussions on each student’s choreography. “I ask, ‘Does anybody have something they’d like to say? What would make this dance better? I don’t want to hear that you just like it,’” she says. “I teach them the language of ‘you could’ instead of ‘you should.’”
Not all of the pieces performed by Robbins’ students are self-choreographed; she creates works on them as well. Much of her own dance-making, however, also includes improvisation and involves “seams that open so that there are parts that dancers have to do and there are parts that they create,” she explains. “Almost every single dance has areas of movement that are infused with the children’s own ideas and choreography.”
In Garden Party, for instance, there are set sequences of steps, but each character has to create his or her own scenario upon entrance. “There’s a part where everything goes wrong and they argue and have fights, so they choreograph that,” says Robbins. “Then they all get a little tipsy with wine and choreograph a tipsy solo.” Rosen says having a narrative helps achieve the emotional and physical quality that Robbins is trying to achieve. “They know why they’re doing it,” Rosen explains.
Indeed, structured improvisation plays a huge role in the development of Robbins’ students, and this is one reason each class is divided by age. “They’re improvising about whatever they feel like,” she explains. “You can’t talk to a 5-year-old the way you talk to a 7-year-old.”
The Halloween dance, which students perform during the last 15 minutes of one class each year until age 8, is a standard structured improvisation in her program. The piece is based on a Halloween poem. “I tell them where to go but not how to go,” she says. Each year, the students get a little more detail and direction. By the second year the black cats aren’t just walking, they’re walking in profile, and the wind isn’t merely blowing, it’s blowing into a whirlpool. No technical moves are wasted in her composition; there has to be a specific reason for a character to do every move so there’s a reason to learn it.
Not only are students who rise through the ranks of Robbins’ program able to make choreographically sound dances, they have solid technique, as well. “I feel like Ellen has given me such a good technical sense,” Rosen says. “I can pick up anything.”
Robbins is acutely attuned to the kinesthetic sense of movement, and the word kinesthesia quickly becomes a part of her students’ vocabulary. “If it feels good, it probably is good and probably looks good, too,” Robbins says. She even has them do movements in the wrong way so they feel the difference. “My whole point is to not teach a style but to teach principles of movement and attention to music, dynamics and phrasing,” she says.
Her use of imagery in explaining technique resonates with her young dancers. Before attending Robbins’ classes, Giovannini took ballet from another teacher. “I remember hating pliés,” she says. “Now I don’t. In ballet we did them in a circle and it was like making a diamond,” she explains. “Then Ellen said, ‘You zip your legs back up,’ and it was just so much more interesting.”
Other exercises include “toast,” which is about connecting images and movement. “The idea is that my kids can distinguish between being in the air on the beat and being on the ground on the beat or landing on the beat,” Robbins says. “I’m starting to teach them that they can play with the accents.” Toast starts with students sitting on the ground, legs outstretched and feet relaxed. On her count they all flex their feet. This evolves into a full-body movement in which the students start in a low crouch and, on Robbins’ count, individually jump in the air and create shapes according to different themes such as weather, holidays and eggs. Robbins also introduces the concept of jumping on the beat in accordance with the personality of a shape. For example, a raw egg would jump before the beat, whereas a 100-year-old egg would jump after the beat.
Even when it comes to music selection, Robbins incorporates fun into the classroom. Take the “mystery records game,” for instance. “She has a cart with different CDs that she wheels out, and someone closes their eyes and randomly picks a CD and then randomly picks a track,” explains Giovannini. “Then she plays it and we all dance. It’s good practice if you’ve just gone across the floor. You can use what you’ve learned.”
Most importantly, Robbins’ teaching technique is incredibly holistic. “The improvisation brings the passion, the musicality, the dynamic feel and a compositional sense out of the students,” Rosen explains. The way in which Robbins treats kids as actual artists is arguably the most impressive part of her program—and getting professional results out of pint-sized performers is the perfect encore. DT
Sara Jarrett is a freelance writer based in New York City.