Alberto Del Saz

How I teach the Nikolais/Louis philosophy

Del Saz coaches dancer Austin Sora to use her épaulement to send energy outward, instead of pulling away from her reaching arm.

In a studio at Marymount Manhattan College, Alberto Del Saz gently coaches young adults through a floor warm-up. They balance on their tailbones, trying to elongate their spines while their arms and legs float in Vs off the floor. This is their fourth Nikolais/Louis class as freshmen dance majors, and they are fully engaged in the floor exercises, developed to help them find freedom and agility in their bodies when they come to standing. Even in the early stages of class, there is an emphasis on commitment, presence and imagination. “Don’t kick your leg; extend it,” Del Saz says, as the group turns to a side-lying développé and fondu series. “Extend long into a new dimension.”

As a former dancer with the Nikolais/Louis company and co-director (with Murray Louis) of the foundation, Del Saz considers himself the ambassador and keeper of this 60-year-old philosophy of movement—“I hesitate to call it a technique,” he says. “I call it a philosophy because you really have to get to know the principles first.” He believes it can build character in young dancers as much as strength. “This is their first reality check,” he says of his first-year students. It is a chance to build a work ethic, yes, but he hopes for more. “They want to be so good, so perfect, but instead, I want them to find out who they are.”

Taking a break between combinations, Del Saz draws his knees up to his chest and invites the students in close to share the four guiding principles of the avant-garde modern dance pioneers Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis: shape, space, time and motion. Throughout class, he makes frequent use of the founders’ terminology. He pushes the students to contemplate even more abstract concepts particular to Nikolais/Louis: totality—meaning every molecule of the body understands the purpose; immediacy, or being present and open to “the magical moment”; and decentralization, when the self is so engaged in the dance that it is removed from its surroundings. The core of his quietly demanding approach to teaching modern dance is embedded in this heady framework.

Though Del Saz stays true to the warm-up sequences he was taught during his training at the Nikolais/Louis Foundation school lab, improvisation is also a huge part of the method. “The moment you become predictable to the audience, you are doomed,” he says. Indeed, Nikolais Dance Theatre productions were often suprisingly magical, even psychedelic. Del Saz clearly retains an element of the unexpected in his calm command of the room. He seems at once a mix of both enthusiastic rigor and Zen ease. His compact and chiseled frame, clad all in black, threads in and out of the students struggling with the musicality of a longer combination, adjusting form and demonstrating different dynamic possibilities. Poised to move in any direction at any moment, he swivels to face them, making a request for their last round of the phrase: “Keep me on my toes. I am excited about the whole picture here.” He says he teaches knowing the reward for his efforts will come when he doesn’t have to question anymore, when the dancers begin to embrace the freedom in moving with intention and lose themselves in the performance. DT

Alberto Del Saz won Spain’s National Championship for ice-skating in 1979. His dance career began after finishing a tour of Holiday on Ice. He needed a new creative outlet and moved to New York City to train as a dancer. Del Saz wrote to Graham, Cunningham and Taylor before finding a home with Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis. After training in the Nikolais/Louis school for a year, Del Saz joined the company in 1985 and toured extensively until it closed in 1999. He is co-director of the Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance and continues to collaborate with and direct the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company (the sole company with rights to Nikolais/Louis work) when they perform Nikolais repertory. He’s also a professor of dance at Marymount Manhattan College and Hunter College.

Dancer: Austin Sora graduated from Marymount Manhattan College in May 2014 and dances with Buglisi Dance Theatre as an apprentice.


Photography by Kyle Froman

Teacher Voices
Getty Images

I often teach ballet over Zoom in the evenings, shortly after sunset. Without the natural light coming from my living room window, I drag a table lamp next to my portable barre so that the computer's camera can see me clearly enough. I prop the laptop on a chair taken from the kitchen and then spend the next few hours running back and forth between the computer screen of Zoom tiles and my makeshift dance floor.

Much of this setup is the result of my attempts to recreate the most important aspects of an in-person dance studio: I have a barre, a floor and as much space as I can reasonably give myself within a small apartment. I do not, however, have a mirror, and neither do most of my students.

Keep reading... Show less
Allie Burke, courtesy Lo Cascio

If you'd hear it on the radio, you won't hear it in Anthony Lo Cascio's tap classes.

"If I play a song that my kids know, I'm kind of disappointed in myself," he says. "I either want to be on the cutting edge or playing the classics."

He finds that most of today's trendy tracks lack the depth needed for tap, and that there's a disconnect between kids and popular music. "They have trouble finding the beat compared to older genres," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Courtesy Lovely Leaps

After the birth of her daughter in 2018, engineer Lisa McCabe had reservations about returning to the workforce full-time. And while she wanted to stay home with the new baby, she wasn't ready to stop contributing financially to her family (after all, she'd had a successful career designing cables for government drones). So, when she got a call that September from an area preschool to lead its dance program, she saw an opportunity.

The invitation to teach wasn't completely out of the blue. McCabe had grown up dancing in Southern California and had a great reputation from serving as her church's dance teacher and team coach the previous three years (stopping only to take a break as a new mother). She agreed to teach ballet and jazz at the preschool on Fridays and from there created an age-appropriate class based on her own training in the Cecchetti and RAD methods. It was a success: In three months, class enrollment went from six to 24 students, and just one year later, McCabe's blossoming Lovely Leaps brand had contracts with eight preschools and three additional teachers.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.