DT Awards

The 2012 Dance Teacher Awards: Angela Whitehill

Coaching pre-professional dancers for 35 summers

When Angela Whitehill moved to rural East Burke, Vermont, in 1975, it was so her husband could open a bed and breakfast. But when she spotted a spacious barn within a hilltop estate, she was seized by a dream of her own. “I knew it would be the perfect place to start the next Jacob’s Pillow,” she says. “I became obsessed with it.”

When the property was sold a year later and repurposed as a conference center, she leapt at the opportunity. Over the course of a four-hour meeting, she persuaded the new owner to fund a dance program for the summer of 1978.

“I told him the people who were coming to the conferences would be paying a lot of money for a month out in the wild, and they might want something to do on a Saturday night,” she says. “I suggested he turn the barn into a theater, and we could charge for tickets to pay for the floors and that kind of thing. And that’s exactly what happened.

Since Burklyn Ballet Theatre’s inception 35 years ago, the six-week summer intensive for dancers ages 12–25 has grown from 19 to over 200 students. Whitehill credits its progress to the consistent quality of her instructors. For the first few seasons, faculty included David Howard, Cherie Noble and Alexander Bennett. “All the money I ever had went into the teachers,” she says. “I wanted those kids to have the best in the world.”

Now held at neighboring Johnson State College in Vermont, BBT offers three mandatory technique classes daily, and dancers attend seminars, additional technique classes and rehearsals in the afternoons and evenings. They perform a different ballet each weekend, and though it’s an intense schedule, the program is a draw for students who relish onstage opportunities, Whitehill says.

Her daughter-in-law Joanne Whitehill  took over as artistic director in 2005, but Angela hasn’t completely retired. In addition to guest teaching during her visits to BBT, she focuses on her costume-making business, having honed her sewing skills as the program’s sole costume mistress for several years.

Today, her company Not Just Tutus has made costumes for Nutcracker Key West, Long Island Ballet Theatre and dancers competing in the Youth America Grand Prix and the Helsinki International Ballet Competition. “I miss teaching terribly,” she says. “I just walk in like a matriarch every once in a while. But Joanne’s doing a wonderful job.”

 

Photo courtesy of Angela Whitehill

Former students of Kelley gather around a cardboard cutout made in his honor at the recent tribute. Photo courtesy of Merritt

Every dancer has a teacher who makes an impression. The kind of impression that makes you want to become a dancer or a teacher in the first place. For Mara Merritt, owner of Merritt Dance Center in Schenectady, NY, and countless others, that teacher was Charles Kelley.

Known as "Chuck" to most, Kelley was born December 4, 1936. He was a master teacher in tap, jazz and acrobatics, who wrote syllabuses for national dance conventions like Dance Masters of America. Growing up in upstate New York, Merritt's parents, both dance teachers, took her into Manhattan every Friday to study with Kelley. First at the old Ed Sullivan Theater and the New York Center of Dance in Times Square, then years later at Broadway Dance Center.

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Photo courtesy of DM archives

"It's hard not to get too hurt in this profession."

Ann Reinking got real earlier this month at New York City Dance Alliance Foundation's Bright Lights Shining Stars gala. She was being honored as a 2017 NYCDA Foundation Ambassador for the Arts, and her speech was so moving that we had to share the entire thing with you.

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Photo by Grant Halverson, courtesy of ADF

As a soloist with William Forsythe's Ballet Frankfurt and later as his assistant, Elizabeth Corbett got to experience firsthand the groundbreaking choreographer's influence on contemporary ballet. "I find it fascinating and never-ending," she says of his work. "It was a repertory that was constantly changing over time and still is." Now on faculty with the American Dance Festival, Corbett brings Forsythe's repertory and processes to the dancers in class every summer.

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During seated stretches, I encourage my students to sit straight on their sits bones and then fold forward at the hips—even if they don't go forward very far. One student tells me that if she sits as I instruct, she can't reach forward at all. Why?
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Teachers & Role Models

In 2011, New York City–based choreographer Pedro Ruiz returned to Cuba after 21 years of dancing with Ballet Hispanico and more than 30 years being away. The experience was so moving that he created The Windows Project as a continuous cultural collaboration between American artists and Cuban dancers.

"I was so overwhelmed seeing all the dancers do Afro-Cuban dance with live music. It was the moment my soul reconnected to Cuba and to my roots," says Ruiz of his first trip back. "I started weeping." He saw that, while Cuban companies and schools have amazing knowledge and passion for dance, they needed access to train with teachers in a variety of techniques, and choreographers outside of Cuba. "Cuba is still struggling economically, so the dancers also don't have good ballet shoes or costumes, and The Windows Project was my way to begin to help," he says.

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How-To
Thinkstock

Midway through every semester at Indiana University Bloomington, contemporary professor Stephanie Nugent notices that her students aren't quite as awake as they were the first week of classes. They're tired from midterm exams and bring less energy to the studio. Nugent, too, feels the lull. "Teaching in academia is an arc with many peaks and valleys," she says, noting that the repetition of exercises can get monotonous. "On days when it feels like we've been doing the same thing over and over, I give students an improvisational prompt, and it reignites all of our interests. It's something to investigate, rather than something to repeat."

Most teachers experience a moment of stagnation at some point. Maybe students aren't progressing as fast as you feel they should, or you feel uninspired by the daily routine. Factors outside the studio, like administrative work, can also deplete your energy reserves. During these low and slow times, consider the following ideas to find inspiration and give yourself—and your students—a boost.

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Teachers & Role Models
Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy of BalletMet

Long before switching from ballet to Broadway became de rigueur, Edwaard Liang shocked everyone by leaving New York City Ballet to join the Broadway cast of the musical Fosse. Eleven years later, he defied expectations again by taking over as BalletMet's artistic director—without putting his robust freelance choreography career on hold. Liang, it seems, doesn't pay much heed to the conventional approach to a dance career.

In his four years with BalletMet, Liang has sought to challenge his dancers with diverse repertory that goes far beyond the typical confines of classical and contemporary ballet. This month, to celebrate BalletMet's 40th anniversary, the company teamed up with Ohio State University's dance department and the Wexner Center for the Arts to offer a smorgasbord of dance styles: from William Forsythe's singular brand of leggy-brainy dance to Ohad Naharin's exuberant Minus 16, performed alongside OSU dance students. Here, he talks to DT about the effect his choices have had on his career.

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