4 Essential Skills for Teaching Artists

Fifth-graders in lower ManhattanMeghan Grupposo never planned on becoming a teaching artist. She graduated from Juilliard in 2000 and went on to dance and choreograph for the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center. But a stress fracture from her senior year of high school kept coming back. “I needed to find another avenue to live my passion," she says.

Fortunately, her Juilliard ballroom instructors, Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau, were holding auditions for teaching artists. “I was mortified at the thought of having to speak in front of people," Grupposo says—a severe challenge for any would-be educator—but she got the job with Dancing Classrooms and now teaches 16 ballroom dance classes per week to public-school students across New York City. Like all successful educators, she had to learn that classroom settings require a very different skill set from the traditional dance studio.

1. Engaging students who didn't choose to dance

The key to success, says Miki Ohlsen, artistic director of Island Moving Company, is understanding that students in public-school dance programs aren't self-selecting. “In a studio, they want to be there," she says. “But in our outreach programs, we have to find ways to engage each and every student, some who don't want to dance, maybe haven't had breakfast or don't have warm clothing."

Her company does this by making its curriculum directly relevant. “We talk about what gives us our motivations: poetry, news articles or the world around us. Then we build a dance just like we would build text, using verbs or action words to tell a story."

Middle school ballroom partnersRodney Lopez, a teaching artist with Dancing Classrooms who now serves as its executive director, urges his educators to remember that mastering technique is not the goal. “You have to impart more than technical skill. You have to be a coach, a facilitator, a source of inspiration and a joyful mentor. Technical mastery will happen along the way, but it's not the point."

So, when Grupposo encounters reluctant male students, she might refer to Victor Cruz's dance moves in the end zone. Then, she helps them to see that learning to dance is a transferable skill. “We talk about the pivot turn, for example. How else will you use it? In basketball."

2. Staying centered as an educator

“The work of a teaching artist is incredibly rewarding, but it's not easy," says Lopez. “You have to put in the personal work so you can bring your best self to the classroom and bring the best out in these kids."

Grupposo refers to this as becoming “triggerless." “If they push, we're not gonna push back," she says. “Nothing the students say is wrong."

While a dance teacher working in a studio environment might reprimand students for making too much noise, Grupposo works to maintain a positive environment throughout her entire class. She thanks her students for being quiet, even when they're being loud, and asks them to face front by saying, “I need all your beautiful faces toward me. You look amazing!" Her classes emphasize respect and teamwork, reinforcing Dulaine's Dancing Classrooms principles of compassion, humor and joy.

A similar philosophy informs the work of teaching artists at National Dance Institute. Although founded by famous New York City Ballet dancer Jacques d'Amboise, the organization doesn't teach ballet per se. “We believe that every child deserves to dance, and that every child can dance," says Emily Meisner, director of professional development.

Math students in Rhode Island

3. Using gender-neutral language

Language plays a huge role in student engagement. This can be tricky when teaching a form like ballroom, which has a long history of strict gender roles. Dancing Classrooms tries to ensure that classrooms have a relatively even split between males and females. But Grupposo calls them “apples" and “oranges," or “inner circle" and “outer circle" dancers.

“We did some Title IX work to see how we could gender neutralize," she says. “Some of the schools ask for it outright. And even though we use the terms 'ladies' and 'gentlemen,' our students get to decide where they fit on that scale."

One child, for example, had recently come out as transgender. He insisted that he was a boy and wanted to be referred to as such. Grupposo was happy to honor this request.

4. Empowering all students to succeed

At NDI, Meisner encourages her trainees to be larger than life in their movements. “If you want the dancer to do 100 percent, you have to do 150 percent. What a child sees is as important as what you tell them."

Island Moving Company leads a residency at Claiborne Pell Elementary School in Newport, Rhode Island.In a typical NDI class, students change their orientation at regular intervals. The lack of “front" and “back" reinforces the philosophy that every child can dance, because there's no way to hide “less talented" dancers in the back row. It also keeps children engaged. “They never know when they're suddenly going to be at the front. They don't get to hide, and they don't get to follow."

At Dancing Classrooms, Gruposso uses a variety of classroom management techniques including call-and-response (she claps a rhythm, and the students play it back), physical shapes and gestures.

“Schools are structured in such a way that people with certain kinds of talent move to the top," Lopez explains. “If you don't fit into that mode of logical intelligence—if you have kinesthetic or artistic intelligence instead—or if you're labeled as 'special needs,' you're going to be tracked for a less ideal experience."

The magic of teaching artistry, he says, “is when you get to see the class clown or the kid who never does well on tests show up, experience success and be proud of themselves. It never gets old." DT

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and professor of both cultural anthropology and dance. She lives in Philadelphia.

Photo by Matthew Murphy; courtesy of Dancing Classrooms; by Kim Fuller, courtesy of Island Moving Co.; photo by Jen Carter, courtesy of Island Moving Company

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Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

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"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


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How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

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