A Winning Warm-Up

Find the pre-show routine that will help your students look their best onstage.

Students from Valentina Kozlova’s Dance Conservatory of New York prepare for a performance.

The performance is about to begin, but your students are distracted, nervous and cold. Some girls are making frantic last-minute costume adjustments; others are standing idle in the wings. With only a few minutes until curtain, none of them seem prepared to dance. How can you avoid this scenario?

Many teachers rely on pre-performance warm-ups to make sure their students are ready for the challenges they’ll face onstage. Yet there are different ways to get dancers warm and focused, and the kind of warm-up you give has to reflect your dancers’ needs and the performance atmosphere they are about to experience. Dance Teacher talked to three teachers about their very different warm-up strategies.

 

The Hands-On Approach

If your students have trouble getting motivated and gelling as a team, a highly structured warm-up will help them focus. Wendy Miner, artistic director of The Performers Ballet Jazz Company in Albuquerque, gives a mandatory warm-up before each performance. “We take attendance; if they’re not there, we hunt them down,” she says. She starts the warm-up about 90 minutes before the performance starts, so that students are still warm by performance time but have at least 30 minutes before the onstage call to put finishing touches on hair and makeup.

If it’s a ballet performance, Miner gives a ballet class; a jazz performance, something more jazzy. She avoids giving new, unfamiliar steps. “It’s important that they do the actual movements they’ll be doing onstage,” she says. “If the piece has a lot of jumps, then those are the kinds of things I’ll give them in class.”

A warm-up with the entire group prepares students mentally, too, by building a sense of camaraderie. Miner finds that her mandatory group warm-up makes her students feel like a team, which in turn helps them present themselves as a unified group onstage.

 

Have Students Take the Lead

While some teachers prefer to guide the warm-up themselves, others encourage more advanced students to take the lead—a strategy that works especially well for large groups spanning a wide age range. Anne Forrest, artistic director of Inspire School of Dance in Naperville, Illinois, has company dancers give the warm-up. It’s a method that keeps students of all ages engaged and challenged before the show. Though the older students usually just give a shortened version of Forrest’s comfortingly familiar, traditional warm-up—which includes head and shoulder rolls, stretches, sit-ups and pushups, and a few simple plié and tendu combinations—each leader gets to choose her own playlist, which gives her a chance to put a personal stamp on the exercises.

But when large groups face especially high-pressure scenarios, it can be helpful for the teacher to be a bit more involved in the pre-show routine. Prior to a stressful competition or a performance with dancers from other schools, Forrest will participate more actively in the warm-up to ensure that her students stay calm and focused. She’ll then usher her students to a space that’s away from everyone, so they can take a moment to focus. “I’ll stay and joke around, just to make it a little more lighthearted and ease nerves,” she says.

 

Rehearsal as Warm-Up

Small groups of advanced students don’t require the same type of handholding when it comes to warming up. They often benefit more from last-minute coaching. “Instead of leading a warm-up, I rehearse my students onstage on the day of the performance, full-out, a couple of times,” says Valentina Kozlova of Valentina Kozlova’s Dance Conservatory of New York. That way, the students get warm while focusing on what’s about to happen onstage. Each student does a brief barre on her own before the rehearsal, but “everything goes toward the rehearsal, not the warm-up.” Kozlova’s students are also not allowed to do anything extra, like Pilates or yoga, on the day of the show. “I want them practicing exactly what they’re going to dance,” she says, instead of wasting energy elsewhere.

And Kozlova recommends taking a very short break between the rehearsal and the show, only one or two hours. Otherwise, anxiety builds as the dancers sit and wait. She also works on mental readiness during that last rehearsal. An especially anxious dancer might get more encouragement; a more confident performer might get bigger corrections. “Some people get more nervous than others,” she says. “It’s a process.” DT

 

Julie Diana is a principal dancer at Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA in English from University of Pennsylvania.

Photo: Students from Valentina Kozlova’s Dance Conservatory of New York prepare for a performance. (by Helen Bibilouri, courtesy of Dance Conservatory of New York)

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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