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One tactic: Post a statement on your studio’s website about your commitment to proper training, per master teacher Susan Williams, seen here at Gus Giordano Dance.Former American Ballet Theatre soloist Anna Liceica has been judging the Youth America Grand Prix since 2007. “Once in a while, we see someone who tries to do too many turns without good form or musicality,” she says. “We don’t encourage it, and that dancer does not place high.” Judges (and artistic directors in attendance) might appreciate the spectacle, but they take technique and artistry into account when assessing the overall dancer. “Of course it’s nice to do a lot of pirouettes and jump high,” says Liceica. “But if the rest isn’t there, the tricks mean nothing.”

In today’s world of instant gratification, it can be hard to make students and their families understand the value of consistent, careful training. By establishing a good foundation first, you enable a dancer to then tackle the flashiest steps. But many teachers fear they’ll lose students if they take the time to break things down and focus on the details that make up good technique. On the flip side, there’s no doubt that bravura sells tickets, boosts studio enrollment and might even earn some dancers a paycheck. For teachers, the trick is to establish a healthy and responsible path from the basics to bravura.

Don’t Try This at Home

Few people will argue the benefits of proper alignment, strength and a good understanding of the basics. “Technique makes you last longer as a dancer,” says master teacher Susan Quinn Williams. “Plus, it looks phenomenal.” Yet some students are in such a rush to do tricks—before having a strong foundation—that they risk getting injured. “You have to monitor your students and make sure everyone knows your stance on the issue,” says Williams. She suggests posting a statement on your school’s website about your commitment to proper training and printing up a pamphlet describing your training method as a handout for parents and students. “If they don’t agree with it, and they just want to flail around and have fun,” she says, “then it’s not the right place for them.”

While you want students to find inspiration at the theater, in videos and online, help them understand that the studio—under your supervision—is the best place to experiment. When Williams heard that some of her students wanted to buy a stretching contraption they found online, she stopped them in their tracks. “No way,” she said. “They were talking about strapping their bodies to gain flexibility and doing some aggressive exercises they saw on YouTube. I explained that they needed to have a professional teacher guide them to stretch properly.”

Technique First

Jaime Randall Farnworth, owner of Bobbie’s School of Performing Arts in Newbury Park, California, tells students that simple steps are building blocks for solid technique. And since more and more competitions are rewarding dancers for beautifully executed performances, the results are helping to prove her point. “Soloists with 90-degree turned-out legs stand out, as opposed to the ones who get their leg to 180 by lifting their hip,” she says. “As a teacher, it encourages you to go back and refine your students’ technique rather than throwing them too much information at once.”

Liceica agrees that quality is key. “It has to be taught in class, from when they’re really young, that lines and execution are more important than quantity,” she says. She stresses the importance of things like using every muscle in the foot, thinking about turnout and making clean lines. She also recommends taking pictures of students in class, rehearsal or performance to give them a visual tool of reference. “The young generation is so into photos and social media,” Liceica says. “Even if you don’t actually take a picture, ask them how they think it would look? Make them think that their position is about to be immortalized. The minute I say something like that, they’re all pointing their feet.”

Spectacle, when done well—with solid technique and artistry—can be thrilling.

Flash Can Be Fun

Every style of dance, from ballet to hip hop, presents an opportunity for showmanship and jaw-dropping feats of athleticism. Liceica encourages students to push for tricks if they can do them well and musically. “I wouldn’t want to hold anyone back, especially if there’s a natural ability,” she says. “I hope teachers encourage kids to hone their natural talents and still bring the artistry.” But if a student can do five pirouettes with no form or finish, for example, try pulling the reins a bit. Have them go back to three or four turns with correct placement before they start pushing again for more.

Bravura can get everyone in the audience on their feet. But like most things in life, balance is key. Spend time showing dancers how they can link steps beautifully, and make sure they do so with the right feeling and quality. “You want to inspire and motivate them, and show that artistry in their dancing touches people on a higher level,” says Liceica. “If they can connect with their audience and make them feel something, the audience goes home remembering it.” 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: Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth Photography, courtesy of Gus Giordano Dance (2); by TAKE Creative, courtesy of Farnworth

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“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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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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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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Kids, Put Your Clothes On

Seeing tiny tots covered in bling while gyrating to a suggestive song is a hot-button issue for judges, teachers and parents alike. Particularly when that’s the number that wins top honors at competition. Just how much of a factor is age-appropriate choreography, costuming and music in scoring? Or to put it bluntly, why do the judges continue to reward behavior that makes nearly everyone cringe?

The situation has improved somewhat, says Francisco Gella, choreographer and 24 Seven Dance Convention faculty member and judge. He thinks that because more competition kids have access to concert dance, via YouTube and live performance, they can see that in professional dance, the costume trend is more subdued. “I am seeing fewer problems, but it depends on which coast you are on,” he says. “I see more of these issues on the West Coast, which is more the center of commercial dance, whereas the East Coast is more tied to concert dance. Generally, the more rhinestones, the less technique.”

Last season he witnessed a group of tiny dancers shaking to “Money” from Cabaret, complete with fake currency attached to costumes that included bustiers and garter belts. “It did affect their score negatively; we consider appearance, costumes and confidence, all of which come together in a situation like this,” Gella says.

“Some teachers thank me for my remarks, while others just never come back,” he says. “We may have become desensitized about overt sexuality, because we can get lost in the process.” But it can be a reality check, he says, to watch the reaction of the general public when they see these tiny tots parading around in their skimpy attire at the hotel or a nearby Starbucks.

Scoring, of course, involves a variety of factors, and judges must weigh their decisions. “It depends on whether it’s only an issue of costume or only inappropriate content—or the combination of both,” says Gella. “If the dance is executed phenomenally, it will still tend to score high, based on the performance. But as judges, we do point out why we feel a costume may be inappropriate or if the choreography is too graphic for the age of the dancer.”

But when music, moves and costumes are all inappropriate, Gella will judge the number harshly. “I would go as far as penalizing it one award category lower,” he says. “Things get a bit tricky, because if that inappropriate dance wins, it sends a message that judges condone those types of dances.”

Choreographer Joey Dowling of New York City Dance Alliance (NYCDA), points out that each competition comes with a somewhat different set of values. And what constitutes age-appropriate varies from person to person. “I will see parents and teachers screaming with enthusiasm when their tiny students are dancing in bikini tops and shorts,” she says. “They obviously think it’s OK. For younger ones, it is really more about the teachers and parents, because they are making or allowing the costume choices.”

Dowling has never deducted points for costume issues, though she might mention it in her comments. But inappropriate choreography is another matter. “The suggestive/inappropriate moves/choreography do have an effect on my overall score,” she says. “Some studios try to wear flashy costumes or do suggestive moves to cover up the fact that they are not trying to push their technique.”

If she feels uncomfortable by what has happened onstage, she has no trouble explaining why to those in charge. “At the end of the day you are paying to be judged,” she says. “I often find myself wishing the teacher spent more time listening to the music—and, more importantly, the lyrics to the song that 7- to 12-year-olds are dancing to. Several times while I am sitting in a judge’s chair, I am disappointed, thinking, ‘Why would this teacher let these minis dance to this song?’ It’s so important to make sure that the students know exactly what the song is about, the exact lyric on specific moves and how they are interpreting the song.”

She’s also a stickler for dancers understanding what they are doing—whether they’re juniors or seniors. And dance steps with direct sexual suggestions have no home in this age group. “Twerking is not appropriate for a 17-year-old,” she says. “They have no idea what it means. These are the best kids at the studio and that affects the younger students.”

 

What the Judges Want to See

Help your dancers improve their performance—and scores—with this advice from veteran competition faculty: Martha Nichols, Judy Rice and Suzi Taylor.

Connect with your ensemble. Everyone can be dancing at the same time, but not necessarily together, because they don’t acknowledge each other. “Relax and have a good time,” says Martha Nichols of New York City Dance Alliance. “Be grateful to be up there dancing with the people who you like. Be truly present onstage.”

Mind the musicality. Dancers need to listen to the music, and teachers need to work with their students to actually listen.

Pay attention to transitions. Be creative with transitions so they’re transparent (we don’t see them). In other words, don’t use skipping to go from one combination to another. Transitions separate the amateur from the professional.

Choreograph well within the technical ability of your dancers. Don’t be seduced by tricks, and keep choreography appropriate to the technical level of the students. “Resist the urge to stick poorly performed fouettés in each number,” says Judy Rice of Artists Simply Human. “It’s a holdover from the days of mandatory tricks.”

Be consistent when it comes to style. Don’t stick a classical pirouette in a hip-hop piece.

Wings are for exits and entrances. Dancers should not be visible in the wings, and they should be clear on which wing to come and go from. Go over this with your dancers before you get onstage.

Start strong. First impressions count. Even the way you come out onto the stage and stand is important.

Avoid unflattering angles. Turn or angle movements to avoid crotch shots.

Costumes should match the tone of the piece. An earthy number set to a cool indie song should not be costumed in hot-pink dresses with sequins and diamonds. It’s confusing.

Just say no to stirrup tights with shoes. Stirrup tights are fine with bare feet, but they cut the line with shoes.

Tags have to go.Cut the tags out of your costumes and use a Sharpie to mark out visible brand labels on shirts.

Wear the pair. The trend of wearing only one shoe so you can turn needs to stop. No professional company does this and neither should anyone in a competition team.

 

What the Judges Would Prefer to Never See Again

Dead-Fish Face

Watch for a stunned open mouth and other bad facial habits. Teachers need to work on more natural facial expressions. “The open mouth is never attractive. They might think it’s dramatic, but it’s not,” says Suzi Taylor of NYCDA. “The same is true of angry face.”

Wandering Eyes

Looking at the other dancers to see what comes next or gazing about the stage. Wandering eyes are very distracting.

Prop Problems

If you drop a prop, pick it up immediately, or everyone, including the dancers, will be looking at that clump of hair that just fell off in the middle of the stage. It’s distracting to the audience and the poor dancers who now have to find a way to dance around the object left on the stage floor.

Lip Syncing

Mouthing the lyrics of a song is irritating and distracting.

Weird Hands

Hands are not like feet, in that they can be easily changed and they truly complete the line of the choreography. Clawed or paddle hands are just as bad as unpointed feet. “I either see Mortal Kombat claws or an open-holding-an-orange situation,” says Martha Nichols of NYCDA. “The hands are forgotten and the line stops at the wrist. Hands are part of the shape of the body. They can be a form of punctuation.”

Low Artistry

Dancers who either over-perform or don’t bring enough. Dance with intention. “There’s been such a focus on technique, we forget that it’s still a show,” says Nichols. “Your steps might be beautiful, but what are you saying and why? I am seeing a lack of honesty.”

 

What’s in Your Dance Director’s Bag?

One can never be too prepared. When things break, rip and get left on the bus, that doesn’t need to ruin the show. Here are some things to be sure to pack.

Place a Go-bag

backstage so it can be easily found. It should contain Band-Aids, first-aid kit, hair spray, bobbie pins, safety pins, ice packs, hair gel, scissors, extra makeup, ibuprofen and tissues.

•Extra costume accessories (earrings, sunglasses, gloves, head pieces)

•Medical kit: Advil, Tylenol, Midol, tape, scissors, Band-Aids, New-Skin, Ace wrap, instant ice packs, tampons, finger splint, BENGAY.

•Extra props

•Rosin for the pointe dancers

•Nail-polish remover

•Hair nets

•Bobbie pins, large and small

•Safety pins

•Extra tights

•Sewing kit

•Hair spray

•Hair gel

•Scissors

•Tissues

Plus

•Backup music in several different formats: CDs, iPad, flash drive

•Extra costume bin for the dressing room. It contains any and all extra costume pieces.

Paperwork to go

Create a comprehensive spreadsheet that shows every payment and the breakdown of what’s included: competition fees, observer bands, etc. There’s always a parent who insists that they pre-purchased an observer band when they really didn’t.

Also bring:

• Original registration paperwork and confirmations from the event

• Copies of release forms—one set for the convention, one set for the school director

• Packing list for all props, with load-in and load-out times

 

Conquering the Call Sheet

Sue Sampson-Dalena of The Dance Studio of Fresno recommends that you create a call sheet for each dancer with all of the following:

• A list of each dance she is cast in

• Call time to the dressing room

• Check-in time with appropriate staff member

• Any pertinent props or costume notes

• Who will pick up the award

• What room number they are to report to backstage

“We meet in the dressing room 90 minutes before our assigned competition time. I then take the dancers to another location in the hotel and we give them ballet class. I usually stake that out before I walk into the room,” says Sampson-Dalena. “After class it’s up to each individual dancer to then stay warm. My dancers are expected to help the younger dancers with quick changes, and of course support and watch their teammates compete or perform.”

Gift Giving

Consider giving an inspirational note or small gift to each dancer during the wristband pass-out. “We like to include an encouraging note with candy or a small gift,” says Christy Curtis of CC & Co. Dance Complex. “The note will express our personal theme. We sometimes give candy, bracelets, inspiration rocks, Giving Keys.”

 

A Day in the Life of Stacey Tookey

Emmy-nominated choreographer Stacey Tookey has choreographed and judged for the Canadian and American versions of “So You Think You Can Dance.” Currently, she travels 30 weekends a year as faculty with the NUVO dance convention. Her schedule may be grueling, but she has a system that works. Friday and Sunday are travel days, with Monday reserved for time with her daughter and actor husband, who takes over child care during her weekends away. (If he has an audition, they get a babysitter.)

Tookey says she gets back as much from teaching as she gives. “I want them, through my movement, to get out of their heads and into their hearts. That’s a huge part of it—to see a change in a dancer in a short amount of time. I am so grateful to see that confidence get turned on. I will mention a dancer in the back and say, ‘I saw you,’ then the next day they are front and center.”

Here, she walks us through a typical day on convention duty.

Tookey (left), rehearsing with Makenzie Dustman and Kathryn McCormick of Tookey’s company, STILL MOTION

6:30 Wake up and shower. Get dressed in Lululemon leggings and a shirt, layered with a sweatshirt and sweats. “Layers are key ’cause you never know how cold a convention center or hotel can be. I have packing down to a science and travel with a carry-on and pack super light with just what I need. I always have a few luxuries like a scented candle, small humidifier and lots of gluten- and dairy-free snacks.”

7:00 Breakfast of egg whites, fruit and green or black tea, while FaceTiming with her husband Gene and daughter Harper. “I need time to settle in and not feel jolted into the day. I want to feel calm and ready to inspire and to be inspired. It takes some time to place myself in that mood.”

7:30 Head down to the convention floor to hug and reconnect with the rest of the teachers. “Our faculty is so close! We just saw each other last weekend, but we still need a minute to catch up.”

7:45 Warm up for 45 minutes with Gyrotonic and Pilates mat exercises and some yoga thrown in. Even though she has demonstrators, she needs to get her body ready for a hectic day of teaching back-to-back classes. If she has extra time, she will also do a My YogaToGo session in her hotel room. “As the mother of a toddler, I need time to just take care of me.”

8:30 Welcome and faculty introductions. “It’s the kick-off for our day.” She averages six to nine classes per day, including minis, juniors, teen, seniors and teachers. She has all her combinations set for the season with the same one in each city for each division, which allows her to see how various cities compare to each other and what they need to work on.

Tookey, with STILL MOTION company member
Chelsea Thedinga

9:00–9:45 Minis. “The minis always make me smile. Ever since I became a mom, I have experienced even more joy from watching these young dancers. They are simply fearless and adorable. I can’t wait to see Harper win the mini ballroom.”

9:45–10:30 Juniors. “The juniors are the age group I am usually the most impressed with. They are so incredibly talented—and becoming so much stronger at a younger age each year. I feel that they are old enough to grasp more mature movement as well as take corrections, but they are young enough that they are still so confident and will do anything you ask.” u

10:30–11:15 Teens. “This age group is usually the most diverse in level and the most likely to need a pep talk for confidence to get them get out of their heads. It’s the teen years that are so difficult. Insecurities and self-doubt are strong, so my goal is to get them to break through that and allow themselves to shine. It makes me so happy when that happens.”

11:15–12:00 Lunch. Tookey makes time to sign autographs and photos. “I really enjoy this part, and I have been photographed in elevators and in the ladies’ room. I remember how much I looked up to my own teachers.”

12–1:15 Seniors. It’s important to build in time for inspirational messages. “I like to give a pep talk about the freedom to make mistakes, especially for the seniors. It’s such a difficult time. All eyes are on you.”

1:15–2:30 Teachers. “Working with teachers is always satisfying,” even though it comes with challenges because teachers expect different things from her, depending on their age. “I have young teachers who want to dance and older teachers who want to hear me speak. I work on my ideas about creating more expansive and refined dancers, how to push dancers beyond their safety zones.”

3:00 Break. Catch up on e-mails, shower, grab some food (and a tea) and FaceTime with Gene and Harper once more to find out how their day has gone.

5:00–10:00 Dinner with faculty. “We really enjoy each other.” During competition season, she spends the evening at the judges’ table.

10:00 Wind down with a hot Epsom salt bath. “Yes, I pack those!” Read a book or watch an episode of Parenthood or Scandal on Netflix. “As a new mom, I say good-night and go up to my room and catch a movie and enjoy some rare time to myself.”

11:00 Lights out.

Illustration by Emily Giacalone; by Bill Hebert, courtesy of STILL MOTION Dance Company; Thinkstock; Bag: Just For Kix, shot by Nathan Sayers

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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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