A Reason to Move

The walls of the Vicky Simegiatos Performing Arts Center in Brooklyn, New York, are covered with framed newspaper clippings and photos of Simegiatos’ students (including her two daughters, Despina and Matina, who now help run the school). But though this sort of display is warmly familiar to studio owners everywhere, the dancers in Simegiatos’ photos aren’t the usual smiling teens in tutus.

One is a young girl mourning the loss of her boyfriend after a fatal car crash; there’s a cheeky maid, dreaming of love; others are animals lurking and crawling on the ground. Actually, they’re all members of the senior VSPAC competition team, but their repertoire demands that they inhabit a wide variety of characters. When they perform, their long lines stretch farther because their acting skills fill each movement with meaning.

While technical ability is imperative to a dancer’s success, it is only one part of the artform. Yasuko Tokunaga, director of the dance division at The Boston Conservatory, believes that studying acting can help reveal the qualities that make dancers captivating performers. “Dance is at a very high technical level now,” Tokunaga says. “But there are few dancers who dance with the heart. People are hungry for dancers who are artistic, who dance with the imagination and intention.” Acting can teach dancers how to connect with their own emotions and find the vital energy that draws an audience’s attention. And perhaps most importantly, acting makes dancers more versatile performers. Every choreographer has a vision, and the dancer who is able to transform herself for each piece is the one most likely to work.

Simegiatos’ teaching philosophy integrates acting techniques at every level of instruction (her students range from age 3 to adult). And she isn’t alone in recognizing the importance of acting for dancers. Many college-level dance programs, including those of Juilliard, The Boston Conservatory and Manhattanville College, also require that their students take an acting course.

At the VSPAC, acting lessons are woven into the dance classes. Dancers learn classical pantomime gestures, but they also do more contemporary acting exercises to expand their imaginations. For the youngest students, Simegiatos provides scenarios in which to explore and create. “I give them a setting: You are in a big forest and you see the sky is blue,” she says. Then she puts on music while the dancers move across the floor freely, without choreography. The goal is to get the students to “understand how to create movement to match the feeling.”

But if you’re unfamiliar with acting, another way to bring acting to your students is to take a class yourself. Richard Feldman, who has taught in Juilliard’s drama division for over 20 years and teaches the dance division’s mandatory “Acting for Dancers” course, suggests that instructors seek out a beginning acting class. When teachers engage with the material firsthand, they can select the exercises that they find most beneficial. And after having a sensory experience, Feldman says, an acting book can be a helpful reminder when you bring that experience to your classroom. (See below for suggestions.)

Ridding dancers of their current bad acting habits is also critical. Ara Fitzgerald, associate director of the dance and theater department at Manhattanville College, finds that “indicating,” or simply pretending, can be tempting for students used to competition dancing, where the focus is on displaying technique and the emotive qualities are thus frequently shallow. Fitzgerald and Feldman both cover the mirrors in their classrooms, which Fitzgerald says can help alleviate the tendency to wear an emotion rather than dance through it. Instead, she suggests using one of Viola Spolin’s classic acting exercises in which partners mirror each other’s movement, one leading while the other follows. Fitzgerald says this “develops the essential skills of listening and moving in relationship to another.”

The vocal aspect of acting is perhaps the most daunting for dancers, since they are more comfortable communicating with their bodies. Carol Rosenfeld, who currently works at HB Studio in New York, has taught acting for about 40 years and frequently has dancers in her classes. When working with text, she has her students do a simple reading first. “Talk about impressions, what the play is about, who the characters are. Then direct everyone to go back and read the play again,” Rosenfeld says.

In his Juilliard classes, Feldman takes this exercise a step further. He asks his dance students to choose a person who somehow attracts or intrigues them, and has them build a story about that person. “They explore that life on their feet, creating imaginary circumstances, asking questions with the senses,” Feldman wrote in an article for The Juilliard Journal about the exercise. The students detail the sights, sounds and smells of this imaginary life. Finally, they select a short piece of text, like a poem, and speak it as the character they’ve developed.

Recently dancers at The Juilliard School worked with choreographer (and Juilliard alumnus) Ohad Naharin, who has developed his own dance vocabulary, largely image-based, called “gaga.” Undoubtedly, the dancers’ training with Feldman helped them translate their technical foundation into this new language. “They find that the techniques that they’ve learned are not ‘it,’ but the way to ‘it,’” Feldman says. “In any artform you’re looking for revelation and spontaneity and the feeling that the artist is making it up in the moment, that something is moving them.” DT

Acting Resources for Dancers

Classes
l The American Musical and Dramatic Academy, with branches in New York and Los Angeles, offers a new BFA in dance theater. www.amda.edu
l HB Studio, an acting studio in New York City, offers classes for students as young as 9, as well as adults. www.hbstudio.org
l Acting Studio Chicago offers classes for adults of all experience levels and courses for kids and teens. www.actingstudiochicago.com
l For those in non-urban areas, many local YMCAs offer drama and acting classes. www.ymca.net to find locations.

Books, DVDs and CDs
l The Six Questions: Acting Technique for Dance Performance, by Daniel Nagrin (University of Pittsburgh Press)
l The Actor and The Target, by Declan Donnellan (Theatre Communications Group)
l The Viewpoints Book: The Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition, by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau (Theatre Communications Group)
l Improvisation for the Theatre, by Viola Spolin
l Uta Hagen’s Acting Class: The DVDs, Applause Books
l Viola Spolin’s Theater Games for the Classroom: A Multimedia Teacher’s Guide (CD-ROM), Northwestern University Press

**Click to watch John Selya, Carmen de Lavallade, Warren Adams, and George de la Pena speak at an Acting for Dancers seminar moderated by Dance Magazine's Editor in Chief, Wendy Perron.

Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer based in New York City.

photo by Rosalie O'Connor

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"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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"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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