“Ready, dancers,” says Denise Jefferson in a soothing voice, prompting the 9 am modern class at The Ailey School to begin a series of floor exercises. As the 17 students contract and elongate their muscular bodies to the steady beat of a drum, Jefferson circles the room gracefully: chin lifted, hands on her hips and eyes focused intently on the dancers. Dressed in a pale bluish-green leotard and a navy blue knit jumpsuit folded at the waist, Jefferson’s lean yet sculpted figure resembles those of students less than half her age.

 

Though her physique seemingly hasn’t changed with the years, Jefferson’s teaching style has. “When I was younger, I would scream and yell more—not necessarily negatively—but I was more personal and high-energy,” she says. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started believing in creating an artist by creating a safe environment. You don’t have to intimidate—that’s old school. You support the students.”

 

It is as the director of The Ailey School that “Ms. J” guides the approximately 4,000 students who attend classes annually. The legendary Alvin Ailey himself selected Jefferson for the esteemed position in 1984. In collaboration with Judith Jamison, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and The Ailey School, Jefferson perpetuates Ailey’s mission to make dance accessible to all.

 

Yet, with wisdom and sophistication Jefferson has exceeded this original goal. Though Jefferson is most recently regarded for breaking new ground with the development of the Ailey/Fordham BFA program, for the past 18 years she has helped establish the foundation for the school’s preeminence.

 

A diverse course curriculum, including Horton- and Graham-based techniques, ballet, jazz and Western African dance, allows students to become well-rounded dancers capable of performing AAADT repertory, in ballet or modern dance companies or on Broadway. In keeping with Ailey’s belief that dance instruction should be for everyone, students can also choose from a range of training levels, including First Steps (ages 3-6); the Junior Division (ages 3-17); the Fellowship Program (ages 15-21); the Ailey/Fordham BFA in Dance; and open-to-the-public classes.

 

Respect for the educational process, however, is non-negotiable. Pre-professional students must abide by dress codes and rules, respect the faculty and attend classes regularly. “I believe very much in rules and traditions,” says Jefferson. If a student is acting out, Jefferson persists in discovering the root of the problem. On staff is a mix of female and male faculty advisors as well as a psychologist and a nutritionist. “I don’t want to just tell kids to lose weight,” says Jefferson. “It’s about giving them tools so they can make informed, good judgments, not beating your own ideas into their heads.”

 

Whether students feed into the renowned AAADT or its second company, Alvin Ailey II, join professional dance troupes in the United States and abroad or just become fervent supporters of the arts, they leave the school with invaluable tools for the future. “Through the arts your own voice is validated, your uniqueness is appreciated, your communication skills are developed, you learn discipline, time management and a respect for authority—all wonderful things that can go beyond dancing,” says Jefferson.

 

Though she directs a school associated with one of the leading NYC modern dance troupes, Jefferson grew up in Chicago training for a career in ballet with a strict teacher named Edna L. McRae. “It didn’t really touch my heart,” says Jefferson of ballet. “I liked moving, but I didn’t really enjoy pointe work.” It was as an undergraduate at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, that Jefferson was first exposed to a modern class, which she had enrolled in to fulfill a college gym requirement: “I thought, ‘Why am I sitting on the floor? Where are my pink tights? What is this improv?’”

 

Her resistance toward modern dance diminished when she took a class with dancer and choreographer Donald McKayle at the New England Conservatory in Boston. “The power, the passion, the classicism and the intelligence behind [modern technique] excited me tremendously,” she says.

 

After receiving a BA in French at Wheaton, Jefferson decided to pursue a career in dance. She traveled to New York City and began taking classes at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, and four months later, received a scholarship. Two years later, Jefferson was discovered in class by former Graham dancer Pearl Lang and asked to join the Pearl Lang Dance Company. Meanwhile she was earning an MA in French at New York University. In 1969, her daughter Francesca Harper was born—the first among the many professional dancers that Jefferson would later create. (Harper, a former member of the Frankfurt Ballet, is currently on tour with Fosse and has been recently commissioned by Jamison to create a new work for AAADT.)

 

A severe knee injury turned Jefferson’s focus from performing to teaching. She fell in love slowly with her new occupation. “I would see my friends dancing, or a piece that I really wanted to do, and it was kind of painful,” she says. “It took about a year for me to get past that longing.” Jefferson started teaching at New York University as well as at The Ailey School, where she joined the faculty in 1974. “My teaching really accelerated,” she says. “I was given more classes because the students were enthusiastic and I was getting results from them.”

 

Jefferson’s next career shift—from educator to director of The Ailey School—yet again proved successful. Noticing more high school students opting to go on to college dance programs instead of moving into professional companies, Jefferson, along with the program’s co-director Edward Bristow, created the Ailey/Fordham BFA in Dance in 1998. The four-year, full-time program enables students to develop as both artists and academics through the completion of 140 credits in a balance of dance and liberal arts courses.

 

This year, the first class of the Ailey/Fordham BFA program will graduate. “Our students have really been able to eat at this academic feast at Fordham,” says Jefferson. “Dancers are fabulous students. They are some of the most committed, disciplined, focused people, with good time management and critical and analytical skills.” Currently Jefferson is assisting two students in the program with a proposal to Fordham for a dual degree—a BA and a BFA. She is also looking to develop an MFA program with a concentration in performance and pedagogy in the future.

 

Jefferson’s eclectic background prepares her for the many situations that arise at The Ailey School. Fully aware of the benefits of a well-rounded education, she is able to help BFA students bridge the gap between academics and the arts. Sharing the discoveries of her own life’s path enables Jefferson to guide students into their own bright futures. DT

 

Photo by Eduardo Patino

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: I'm looking to create some summer rituals and traditions at my studio. What are some of the things you do?

A: Creating fun and engaging moments for your students, staff and families can have a positive impact on your studio culture. Whether it's a big event or a small gesture, we've found that traditions build connection, boost morale and create strong bonds. I reached out to a variety of studio owners to gather some ideas for you to try this summer. Here's what they had to say.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Sam Williams and Jaxon Willard after competition at RADIX. Photo courtesy of Williams

Self-choreographed solos are becoming increasingly popular on the competition circuit these days, leading dance teachers to incorporate more creative mentoring into their rehearsal and class schedules. In this new world of developing both technical training and choreographic prowess, finding the right balance of assisting without totally hijacking a student's choreographic process can be difficult.

To help, we caught up with a teacher who's already braved these waters by assisting "World of Dance" phenom Jaxon Willard with his viral audition solos. Center Stage Performing Arts Studio company director Sam Williams from Orem, Utah, shares her sage wisdom below.

Check it out!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance studios are run by creative people with busy schedules, who have a love-hate relationship with props and sequins. The results of all this glitter and glam? General mass chaos in every drawer, costume closet and prop corner of the studio. Let's be honest, not many dance teachers are particularly known for their tidiness. The ability to get 21 dancers to spot in total synchronization? Absolutely! The stamina to run 10 solos, 5 group numbers, 2 ballet classes and 1 jazz class in one day? Of course! The emotional maturity to navigate a minefield of angry parents and hormonal teenagers? You know it!

Keeping the studio tidy? Well...that's another story.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox