Teaching Tips

How to Make a Boy Feel Comfortable Onstage—When He's Surrounded By Girls

Photo by Seth Block, courtesy of Norwalk Metropolitan Youth Ballet

Adam Holms, co-founder and artistic director of the Norwalk Metropolitan Youth Ballet in Connecticut, was once the only boy at a dance studio where his teacher wasn't sure what to do with him. “Recital pieces were always tailored to the girls, and I had to do the exact same choreography," he says. “For this one dance, I had to wear a cheap, sequined vest with blue bell-bottom jazz pants, while all the girls had these beautiful blue tutus. My costume was an afterthought."

If you have a lone male student in a class or the studio, the situation can present a choreographic—not to mention costuming—conundrum. Having a male presence, whether he's 4 or 14, changes the dynamic of a recital piece, and it's important to make him feel comfortable and a part of the team.


Deborah Lysholm, owner of Heartbeat Performing Arts Center in Apple Valley, Minnesota, says it's about acknowledging his individuality and not letting him feel ignored—or like an afterthought. “Embrace the gender difference and highlight the resulting energy," she says. “Never try to make an apple an orange."

Ultimately, a young male dancer needs the same thing any young female dance student needs: an age-appropriate role that he can relate to, one that emphasizes correct technique, and a costume in which he feels comfortable onstage. As choreographer, there are choices you can make to accomplish this. “Appreciate the challenge," Lysholm says, “as a way for you to grow and to shine as a creative teacher and choreographer."

Focus on a Story Line

Consider creating dances—or an entire show—with a specific story line. “I build the experience around storytelling because, for boys, this is a sure way to make them feel engaged and to hook them into the process," says Holms. This past spring, the studio's recital was an original adaptation of The Steadfast Tin Soldier. “Pantomime and character development is an easy way for dancers to feel connected to a role," he says. “And if you create dances that celebrate your students' personalities and technical abilities, you will always hit a home run."

Lysholm says elementary- and middle school–age boys especially respond well to story-based dances, while high school students are usually most interested in channeling their emotions into their performance. “Elementary students respond enthusiastically when they understand they are part of a story, making it seem a team effort," she says.

Emphasize Partnering

Talk to the entire class throughout the school year about the roles of male and female dancers, as well as the importance of partnering, especially in ballet classes. Holms begins this discussion with students as young as 6, so they understand early on that “the role of a guy in ballet is to complement a girl," he says. “It also helps girls understand why they have to dance with a boy, and it teaches respect."

With 6- to 8-year-olds, simple partnering may involve walking hand in hand, or the boy can present a girl while he holds one hand on his hip. Boys 8 to 12 at Norwalk Metropolitan Youth Ballet work on stage presence, and Holms always creates at least one moment in each dance for the boy to showcase his male technique (a tour en l'air, a kneeling position, an echappé battu). Boys 13 and up begin traditional partnering (small lifts and shoulder sits) in addition to the boy's featured moment onstage. “If a piece has 15 girls and one guy, all 15 girls get to partner the boy," Holms says. “Maybe it's just a brief moment where two girls each have one hand on his shoulders or he just walks one around in a circle, but each girl should feel like she's equally important onstage."

Select Appropriate Costuming

Highlight gender differences when choosing costumes, unless you choreograph a dance that is specifically meant to be gender-neutral. “It gives more 'real life' to the dance piece and allows each dancer to comfortably give it their all, naturally and instinctively," Lysholm says. “If you need to camouflage the imbalance of genders, be creative. Have each dancer in the same costume but a different color, or the same color but a different costume." During Heartbeat's “Dr. Who" musical theater–based recital production, for example, the 5-year-old tap class performed in a Western-themed dance where all the girls were cowgirls and the boy was a ranch hand. That same class also danced together in a ballet piece where each student, regardless of gender, was costumed as a different alien. Whatever you choose, make sure the boy feels like there has been equal thought and effort put into his costuming as the girls'.


Technique
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.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"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.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
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.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

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."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"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."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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