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Ballet West's Allison DeBona and Rex Tilton Are #CoupleGoals

To celebrate Valentine's Day in the most dance-centric way possible, we sat down with five powerhouse dance-teaching couples to talk about their love stories. What do they admire about each other? What are their couple goals and their teaching philosophies, and how do they make their relationships work, especially when they work together? Get ready to swoon!


Rex Tilton and Allison DeBona are a dance match made in heaven. The Ballet West principal and soloist have commanded the stage together since Tilton joined the company in 2008 (DeBona joined in 2007). The two gained national attention during their stint on the CW series "Breaking Pointe."

Together, they are not only dynamic performers and artistic soul mates, but compassionate and effective teachers in the classroom. For the past three years, they have teamed with Ballet West to create a summer intensive: artÉmotion. The program is meant to be a stepping stone toward a future with Ballet West Academy. Last summer, 17 of the dancers who attended artÉmotion were accepted as company trainees.

Photos by Jim Lafferty

Rex: We met when I came to Salt Lake City to audition for Ballet West. The first time I saw her I was completely blown away—I thought she was the most beautiful girl in the room. I kept thinking, "I really hope I get a job here!" We became friends after that, but she was with someone else at the time, so it wasn't a thing for a while. Then the next year we got to dance together in a pas de deux, and it ignited a flame. We haven't left each other's side since.

Allison: Rex is so consistent! Watching run-throughs of ballets can be very stressful because you feel nerves for your fellow dancers. You think, "I hope they do OK," over and over, but nobody ever has to do that with Rex. They can trust him to be successful and to get the job done.

Rex: There's no denying that Allison is a very talented dancer—anyone can see that. But more than being technically proficient, she is an incredible performer. She is good at switching from one character to another. She can go from being ethereal and enchanting in "Emeralds" to a completely evil person in another ballet. She is an amazing actress.

Allison: Being off of work at Ballet West for three months in the summer is not ideal. To help, I wanted to find a job that Rex and I could enjoy doing, that would also allow us to travel and stay in shape. Teaching and creating this intensive has made that possible for us. It's been such a huge blessing. I was always afraid of how I would eventually transition out of performing, but now it's all a little less scary.

Rex: We love teaching children, but we also thought it was important that we held an adult program as well. The response we got after the first adult session was really incredible. We came to see that our culture deems ballet to be something that is only for people who can perform at an incredibly high level, and we don't buy in to that. We feel like ballet should be something for everyone to appreciate at a physical level at any age. We believe it can bring joy and confidence into people's lives and encourage them to really value dance.

Allison: It's gratifying and we love it, but we would be lying if we said that teaching didn't come with challenges. The biggest one I face is knowing how to build my students' self-confidence. So many of them are wonderfully talented, but they don't see that in themselves. It is so important to me that I bring out the best in them and show them how strong they are.


We played the Newlywed Game with Rex and Allison—check out how they did!

Meet the four other couples including Kirven and Antonio Bouthit-Boyd, Simon Ball and Frances Perez-Ball, Randi Kemper and Hefa Tuita and Allison Holker and Stephen "tWitch" Boss.

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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