Teaching

Dance teachers—we get you. You put up with a lot, and we stand in solidarity with you as you inwardly roll your eyes at every ridiculous comment and question. Check out our list of things we know you are sick of hearing. Get ready to nod your head and say "That's too real!"

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Teaching

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How-To

“It’s not vernacular jazz dance,” says Boross. “It has a lot of ballet, modern and the footwork of tap mixed together.”

Bob Boross surveys the group of jazz students before him who are attempting to layer a complicated port de bras on top of a foot warm-up that requires one half of the body to be in parallel and the other in turnout. “You’re all thinking very hard,” he says. “Relax your faces a little bit.”

Boross understands his students’ struggle. This is his second day teaching Matt Mattox technique to dancers taking part in an intensive in New York City (sponsored by Jazz Choreography Enterprises), and most of them have never studied Mattox’s style of jazz. The technique’s strong ballet foundation, tricky isolations and difficult-to-coordinate arm and leg movements make it easy for students to tense up, rather than appear relaxed, as Mattox always famously did. “It’s about mastering your body,” says Boross, who often teaches the elements of a Mattox warm-up exercise in layers—feet first, then port de bras. “Getting that relaxed feeling—even though you’re doing strenuous things—is a very complex assignment.”

His own introduction to Mattox and his style was a baptism by fire, too. A latecomer to dance—Boross didn’t start until he was a teenager—he dropped in on a monthlong Mattox workshop at UCLA for the last 10 days and soon found himself working one-on-one with him. After decades of extensive study with Mattox, who passed away in 2013, Boross is now a freelance choreographer and teacher; he leads master classes throughout the U.S. and abroad. “It’s not vernacular jazz dance,” says Boross. “It has a lot of ballet, modern and the footwork of tap mixed together.” In fact, that’s why Mattox referred to it as “freestyle”(a term he borrowed from Eugene Loring)—because it encompasses several techniques.

As Boross circles the room, clapping to accent the technique’s tricky rhythms or adjust a student’s sacrum in a maddeningly articulate hip circle, he offers helpful imagery for the dancers to chew on. To encourage dynamics, he asks that they imagine their bodies are sports cars. “Think about how you would drive it,” he says. “I want to see you working hard and still enjoying your sports car.”

But Mattox’s codified warm-up exercises aren’t all tricky tendus and isolations. A particularly strenuous one requires the dancers to begin in a first-position grand plié and double-bounce into a grand second plié. (“I need someone with young, strong legs,” Boross jokes, asking a student to demonstrate as he explains.) It’s that diversity of movement which draws him to Mattox’s style. “It’s one technique that will satisfy a dancer’s needs—dancers have to do so many things these days,” says Boross. “It makes dancers responsive and employable and keeps you healthy.” DT

Bob Boross made his Broadway debut in the 1981 revival of Can-Can. He has an MA from the Gallatin School of New York University and has been a professor at Illinois State University, Western Kentucky University, Stephens College, Radford University, the University of California, Irvine, and Shenandoah University. He studied extensively with jazz legend Matt Mattox and wrote his master’s thesis on Mattox’s career. Boross’ writings have been published in the anthology Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches.

Skye Mattox is the granddaughter of Matt Mattox and has danced in the Broadway revivals of On the Town (2014) and West Side Story (2009).

Photos by Kyle Froman

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How-To

Marnie Wood (center) encourages her students at the Martha Graham School to establish their identities from an early age.When Martha Graham taught class at the American Dance Festival in the 1950s, she often gave an exercise with contractions and releases—but no counts. “Instead, she would have students imagine they were sand diviners trying to foresee the future,” says Marnie Wood, director emerita of the Martha Graham School and co-founder of the University of California, Berkeley, dance program. “She asked them to reach out as if they were trying to find answers, come up with nothing and reach out again.” Graham used imagery to inspire movement and encouraged dancers to draw from personal experiences. This method, she believed, helped dancers find their own language.

In today’s dance world, where so much emphasis is placed on technique and athleticism, it’s easy for dancers to lose their voices—or not find them at all. A lack of self-expression can lead to robotic movement and flat, lifeless dancing. But teachers can help students develop a unique approach within the frame of technique. Here are seven ways to inspire individuality in students of all styles of dance, from ballet to hip hop.

Nurture enthusiasm. When dancers love what they do, it shows. Rafael Grigorian, founder and director of Rafael Grigorian School of Ballet in New York, tries to foster happiness and excitement in his youngest students. “With students as young as 6, I don’t want to scare them in advance with very hard, demanding classes,” says Grigorian. “They learn simple steps and have fun. Then, by age 8 or 9, they’re ready for more discipline and start to understand what they have to do to further achieve that happiness.” Students shouldn’t stop using their imaginations, either, when they graduate from creative movement classes to more structured, technical lessons.

Encourage ownership. Young dancers at the Graham School take ownership of their dancing with a simple, seated exercise, sometimes done at the start of classes. “They hold their arms in first position, then put them in fifth overhead and say the words, ‘my name,’” explains Wood. “When they open their arms to second position, they say their name. Finally, they bring their arms down and say, ‘So be it.’ Children reveal themselves, say who they are and let it stand.” The purpose of this exercise is for students to articulate themselves verbally and physically, establish their identity and learn that dance isn’t all about imitating the teacher.

Include improvisation. Dancers who create movement of their own gain a deeper understanding of how their bodies move, what feels good to them and how they can best express themselves. In a style of dance like hip hop, improvisation is key. “If you’re going to be a hip-hop dancer, you have to know how to freestyle,” says Tanji Harper, instructor at the American Rhythm Center and artistic director of The Happiness Club in Chicago. “It’s creating movement off the top of your head and just freely dancing. You have to have an individual style.” She has her students freestyle before and after a combination so they discover their own way to move. Harper says the biggest part of her job is to help students find their individual voices: “They have to, if they want to dance professionally. It will be part of their job.”

Develop stage presence. Harper says that personality in dance is part confidence, part vocabulary and part showmanship. Facial expression is an important factor in that equation. “Have you ever seen a student who has it all in their body and nothing in the face? There’s no story being told,” she says. “That’s another level I like to develop: stage presence. I’m not training army dancers.”

Champion observation. Sometimes dancers need to get out of the mirror to find themselves. Encourage them to watch other dancers at the studio, in performance and even online. “Who touches their heart the most?” asks Grigorian. “When they find someone they love, it gives them the opportunity to recognize themselves.” He will ask students what they like about certain dancers and what inspires them, in an effort to better understand his dancers and help them develop as artists. “They cannot give the best of themselves if they can’t find themselves,” he says. “When it happens, something inside of them starts to explode.”

Introduce outside inspiration. Grigorian will ask students to visit a library or museum and look for art that speaks to them. The dancers then bring a story or painting back, and he creates an exhibit of this artwork on his studio walls. “After this,” he says, “I notice that they start to do class a little differently.”

Shuffle your faculty. Studying with a different teacher can also inspire a new approach to movement and help students learn more about themselves. Harper encourages students to take classes from many teachers, in many styles of dance, to become versatile and well-rounded. “They need to work with other people to gain confidence and build their vocabulary,” she says. “It will help them find their individual swag, star quality and way of doing what they’re doing.” DT

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

Photos by Brigid Pierce, courtesy of the Martha Graham School

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Higher Ed

VCU grad David Claypoole, aloft, now dances with Fort Wayne Ballet—which he credits to his professional experience with Richmond Ballet while in college.

Upon graduating from the Baltimore School for the Arts, dancer Courtney Celeste Spears was faced with a difficult decision: Should she head to college for a dance degree, or enroll in a pre-professional training program to get inside access to a company? Thanks to Fordham University’s partnership with The Ailey School in New York City, she managed to do both—and began apprenticing with Ailey II while still a junior. Dual-enrollment programs like this one can offer students the best of both worlds, but only if they know how to navigate them.

Finding the Right Fit

Melanie Person, who co-directs The Ailey School, encourages interested applicants to work backward in their decision-making. “What are you trying to accomplish? Obviously if you want a performing career, you want a program that is quite rigorous,” she says. “If you want to dance but don’t necessarily see yourself onstage, you might want a BA.”

While Spears chose Fordham, ballet dancer David Claypoole picked Virginia Commonwealth University because of its partnership with Richmond Ballet. “I had been going to its summer programs and was already entrenched in ballet,” he says, “but I knew I needed that little push to secure my ballet technique and give me access to a more contemporary side.”

He spent most of his first two years taking dance classes at Richmond Ballet and academic classes at VCU, even managing to squeeze in a business minor with course work in marketing and real estate. Upon graduating, he was offered a place with Richmond Ballet II.

While success stories such as these are common at both VCU and Fordham, “it’s important to get the details about the program,” says Judy Jacob, who directs the school at Richmond Ballet. “Are there opportunities for advancement? To perform? Is a trainee program going to help them audition, or is it going to restrict them?”

At Syracuse University in New York state, a majority of the university’s visual and performing arts majors elect to spend the final semester of their senior year in New York City, as part of the university’s Tepper Semester. “Syracuse is known for having an excellent musical theater program,” says program director Lisa Nicholas. “When we designed it, we wanted it to be a pre-professional, conservatory-style program.”

Ailey/Fordham student Courtney Celeste Spears (now with Ailey II) in Christian von Howard’s At This Time, In This Place

The Audition Process

Most dual-enrollment programs, like the Ailey/Fordham one, require separate applications for each participating institution, plus an audition, including a solo. At VCU, the auditions include both improvisation and an interview. Dance chair E. Gaynell Sherrod looks for risk takers—“students who are innovators,” she says—and dancers who have a point of view. “How do they see dance in the larger social cultural perspective?”

When VCU students audition for Richmond Ballet, however, physicality plays a more significant role. Jacob says, it’s all about “beautiful feet, lines, flexibility, technique and physique.”

Though an audition isn’t required for Syracuse BFA students to take part in the Tepper Semester, BA students from Syracuse and other well-established musical theater schools, such as Carnegie Mellon and The Boston Conservatory, are welcome to participate and need to audition. All students must provide letters of recommendation.

A Balancing Act

Of course, finding the right program and gaining admittance is only half the battle. Balancing the artistic and academic demands of a dual enrollment program requires careful planning. “I’d start with 8:30 ballet at Ailey to get it out of the way, then run back to Fordham for traditional academics, then back to Ailey for Horton, then back to Fordham,” says Spears.

Claypoole spent his mornings at VCU and his afternoons at Richmond Ballet, although he was always sure to participate in the university’s Friday afternoon workshops in order to work with visiting artists such as Camille A. Brown, Rennie Harris and Doug Varone.

After a placement class, Syracuse students begin their NYC semester with a week of exploratory classes at Broadway Dance Center. They then choose three classes that they’d like to continue taking, ranging from tap to musical theater, and earn three course credits in return. To supplement this training, students can receive a range of classes, including private voice lessons, classes in advanced performance technique, on- and off-camera coaching, tickets to more than two dozen performances (both on- and off-Broadway) and at least a dozen of what Nicholas terms “cultural field trips.” “We want them to learn not just the business,” she explains, “but what art is being done.”

Success Stories

Ten current members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater are Ailey/Fordham BFA graduates; other graduates have gone on to dance with Ballet Hispanico, Alonzo King LINES Ballet and Cirque du Soleil. And while it can be difficult to take on a double major in these programs, students at Fordham have earned additional degrees in communications, African American Studies, political science and psychology.

At VCU, dual-enrollment students comprise only a small percentage of the university’s larger dance program, but they swell the ranks at Richmond Ballet. Graduates have completed summer intensives with Urban Bush Women, BalletX and Philadanco, and Claypoole recently signed a contract with Fort Wayne Ballet.

Many Tepper Semester students—who are provided with the option of fully furnished apartments in New York during their semester there—never leave the city, because the Tepper Semester’s fast-track exposure has helped them land a role on Broadway before they even graduate. “It’s a fabulous way to get to know people,” says Nicholas. DT

Kat Richter is a writer, dancer and professor of anthropology. She lives in Philadelphia where she is artistic director of the Lady Hoofers Tap Ensemble.

Photo by Sarah Ferguson, courtesy of VCU; by Eduardo Patino, courtesy of Ailey/Fordham BFA program

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How-To

Getting your dancers to find their rhythm in a group improvisation can be tough, but they’ll grow closer as a team.

Dance competitions call for meticulously polished routines, stunning costumes and bold performances. But the newest category hitting the competition circuit is just the opposite. It’s incredibly stripped down in presentation and movement and is centered around mess-making and risk-taking.

Once reserved for the classroom, improvisation is increasingly making its way to dance competition stages, for groups, duets and soloists. It offers students a chance to test their individual artistry and decision-making skills in a high-pressure environment. But though improv is rooted in spontaneity, it’s a skill that needs to be fine-tuned. Readying it for the stage, instead of using it solely as an exploration, is a unique practice.

The Rules

Generally, improvisation at competitions is open to soloists, duets and small groups of all ages. Time limits range from 45 seconds to 3 minutes. At some events, dancers are allowed to pick a dance style during registration; other competitions leave the category open to interpretation. Most competitions give dancers a 10-second preview of the music that has been selected for them right before they take the stage, and each entry dances to something different. After that, it’s in the dancers’ hands: Whatever they create onstage is what they’ll be judged on.

How It Will Benefit Your Dancers

Many competition dancers are very Type A—they’ve spent their training years perfecting their technique and learning how to execute choreography with exacting detail. Improvisation encourages free thinking, allows them to discover their own way of moving and forces them to get a little messy.

Putting that onstage heightens all of those ideas and adds bigger-picture elements. Instead of moving freely, students have to think about how their dancing is perceived by the judges and audience, and they have to shape the piece in the moment, while staying in tune with the dancers around them. “Group improv is all about listening—it’s always a conversation,” says Open Call judge Calen Kurka.

The challenge of improvisation onstage is different for each dancer. Shy personalities may be most timid; technicians may fall back on generic steps; outgoing students may try to overpower the group. “With improv, you really have to check your ego at the door,” says Christy Curtis of CC & Co. Dance Complex in Raleigh, North Carolina, whose dancers have been competing in the improv category for two years. “We had to talk to some dancers about making sure they were equally involved with everyone around them, feeling the people around them.” The biggest change Curtis sees in her dancers is that they learn to work better together and become closer as a team.

Knowing how to improvise in a high-pressure environment, in front of judges who are critiquing, is also essential to dancers who are auditioning for summer intensives, college programs and professional companies. And many choreographers use improv as a way to generate movement. “A lot of dance construction revolves around improvisation,” says NUVO judge Jason Parsons. “Choreographers want to see how the dancer uniquely puts themselves inside what’s being made.”

Putting improv on a stage requires students to create the piece in the moment while staying in line with the group.

From the Judges’ Point of View

The most successful improv, says Parsons, is one that makes him forget he’s actually watching an improvisation. Before dancers take the stage, he suggests circling up to talk about how the music makes them want to move, be it with big, sweeping limbs or punchy gestures. “A huge part of improv is connecting with the music,” says Kurka. “In the first couple seconds onstage, I want to see how they’re going to use the music to bring up artistic concepts.”

It’s also important that dancers use pure movement that’s individual to them, instead of strings of technical steps and tricks they’ve learned in class. “I want to see the dancer, not codified movement,” says Parsons. “I love seeing people move from their most internal and authentic place.”

If they’re going to add more technical elements, it’s important that they “fit into the conversation,” says Kurka. “It’s about recognizing that turns make an audience feel a certain way, maybe signifying freedom. Or that extending a leg can have tension.”

Susan Barr, who owns Above the Barre Dance & Gymnastics in Berea, Ohio, says she encourages her dancers to include “about 80 percent pure movement and only 20 percent technique.” Finally, there should be some kind of arc to the piece, which might include a build in movement, intensity or structure.

Though there’s no actual right or wrong when it comes to improv, the dancers certainly won’t create a successful product every single time they take the stage. That’s one of the most beautiful parts of the practice: It’s a heightened dancing experience that depends on trial and error. And the most gratifying part of that, says Barr, is watching students overcoming their fears, and, eventually, walking offstage and telling her they can’t wait to try it again. “When we first tried this, I was so nervous for the kids,” she says. “But when they came off with smiles on their faces, I knew it was the right thing.” DT

Kristin Schwab, a former dancer, is pursuing an MS at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. 

Are Your Dancers Ready?

Competition isn’t the time for dancers who have little improv experience to experiment. CC & Co.’s Christy Curtis reserves this category for her highest-level dancers, ages 14 and up. “You need dancers who are mature and creatively very open,” she says. Curtis doesn’t hold dedicated rehearsals, and instead works with her group once a week after class for 10 to 15 minutes to give them critiques.

Tips:

Improv for the Stage

  • Have a beginning “Do you want to start on the floor or standing?” asks Above the Barre’s Susan Barr. “They should always have a beginning in mind, and take a position.”
  • Think of what usually makes dances successful Encourage dancers to use the whole stage and vary the heights—on the ground to the space above their heads—and textures of their dancing.
  • Designate one dancer as the leader in group improvs “We always had one person who would pick a motif, maybe a gesture, that dancers could repeat,” says CC & Co.’s Christy Curtis. It doesn’t mean that they’re the star of the show or that they even have to stand at the front—they’re just helping guide the dance.
  • Set goals for the dance “It’s always good to come into the space with specific tasks,” says NUVO judge Jason Parsons. “Things fall short when everyone’s just moving for movement’s sake.” Maybe dancers have to include a section in slow motion, perform a series of movements in unison or have a moment where everyone is touching. Having a loose checklist helps them generate ideas in the moment.
  • Less is more “Not everybody has to be onstage the whole time,” says Curtis. “Sometimes you’re a part of the process by not dancing, or just being in the space and standing there.”

Thinkstock; courtesy of Open Call

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Higher Ed

After becoming independent, Hunter College’s dance department saw increased enrollment.

When searching for the right college dance program (either as a student or faculty) your first concern is for quality of learning. You look for a good match in curriculum, degree options and subject emphasis. But how much attention should you pay to management structure? Whether a university dance program is independent or is housed within a broader department can have a huge impact on how it operates and what it can offer students. And the way administrative decisions are made says a lot about how dance is viewed by the college and the surrounding community. Though there’s no one right way for dance to exist within a university, there are reasons to champion both structures. DT asked professors familiar with both to comment.

The Independent Dance Department

When dance is an independent program, it doesn’t compete with other interests (like music or theater) for the use of the department’s budget. For example, at Hunter College in New York City, dance recently separated from music and, as an independent department, manages its own budget. This allowed the administration to focus on acquiring dance-specific resources, such as accompanists for technique classes, and the school has recently put in new sprung floors in two studios. “It allows us to focus on space specifically for dance without having to worry about a single space budget for both music and dance,” says acting provost and vice president for academic affairs Lon Kaufman.

Leadership of a dance program that is part of a larger department may be in the hands of a professor from theater, music or another program. When independent, a dance department will have a dance professor as director.

One challenge, though, is that dance departments may not have their own production staff. When the dance program at The University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg split from theater in 2012, current department chair Stacy Reischman Fletcher found that they would need to arrange for their own lighting and costumes. “Once we split, the hardest thing was production support,” she says. “We now budget for that. But it really is concert to concert. We can’t just assume that the theater person is going to light our works for us.”

For students wanting to immerse themselves fully in dance, an independent dance department might be a supportive choice. “A reason our split worked, and this is not always the case, was that we had no curriculum overlap,” says Fletcher. “Dance majors were not required to take any theater classes, and theater majors were not required to take any dance classes.”

At USM and Hunter, separating from other programs has been overwhelmingly positive. Hunter College has seen an increase in enrollment in dance. Likewise, USM’s dance department is thriving, currently at capacity with about 75 dance majors.

At UNT, the theater students provide lighting and costumes for the dance majors’ thesis concert.

When Dance Is Part of a Greater Whole

Being part of a larger department can be a boost for a dance program. “We have the opportunity to have more impact and presence on campus,” says Miriam Giguere, head of the Department of Performing Arts at Drexel University in Philadelphia, which houses dance, theater and music. “The opportunities are even greater, and there’s more of a sense of collaboration than there is of competition.”

Drexel has two theaters that belong to the whole department. “We’re not competing with theater and music for space,” says Giguere. “We share it because it’s all our space.” Similarly, at the University of North Texas in Denton, dance and theater are one department and share a building and the theater. The department chair is a theater professor, but the faculty works together to create a schedule for using facilities that meets both programs’ needs.

Human resources factor in as well. At Drexel and UNT, the dance programs share a technical director and production staff with their department’s other programs. “The dance majors get a fully produced concert,” says UNT associate professor Mary Lynn Babcock. The theater professors and their students provide costumes and lighting. “In return, the theater design tech students learn about lighting and costuming for dance,” she says.

Depending on the setup of a larger department, administrative channels can present a challenge. Before the split at USM, Fletcher says she had to jump through some extra hoops to accomplish program goals. “Because I was the director of dance within the department, it created an extra layer of confusing bureaucracy. Some things had to be routed through the chair, which was unnecessary, since we didn’t share anything with theater,” she says.

Allocation of resources can also be an issue. Fletcher mentioned scheduling conflicts that prevented dance from being able to use the theater department’s technical director. “It had gotten to the point where we were having to outsource on our own,” she says.

If interacting with other types of majors is important to a student, being part of a joint department is extremely beneficial. At Drexel, collaboration is not only encouraged, the faculty facilitates it. Giguere cites the department’s annual Performance Charrette as an example of Drexel’s multidisciplinary opportunities. For 72 hours, students from different disciplines work together in faculty-supervised teams to create a performance. Dancers and musicians participate, as well as students from other college programs like visual arts and digital media. “This structure allows students to be very creative and entrepreneurial,” says Giguere. “If they come to us with an idea for a project, we don’t have to cross any kind of administrative boundary to make something happen for them.” DT

Photos (from top): by Julie Lemberger, courtesy of Hunter College; by Smith Wilson Photography, courtesy of University of North Texas

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