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“The Joy Is in the Work”: Ann Reinking’s Unsung Legacy as a Teacher

The author with Reinking. Photo courtesy Donovan

What's left behind when a dance teacher dies?

Martha Graham famously said, "A dancer dies twice—once when they stop dancing, and this first death is more painful." Graham left unsaid the fact that though the dancer dies, the dance teacher survives.

Ann Reinking's performance career has rightfully been lauded and appraised since her sudden passing on December 12 at age 71. Largely left unsung has been another crucial aspect of her life's work: her devotion to teaching.

Her legacy as a dance educator has received comparatively little recognition, perhaps because she trained many of us who became chorus dancers but not stars. Along with thousands of other non–bold-faced names, Reinking was my teacher.

If you were lucky enough to study with Reinking, what she taught went beyond technique: She showed you how to live more fully. "You're special, but so is everybody else" was one truth Reinking was fond of saying, and also one that she took to heart. She was humble, often noting that "part of being a dancer is also being just a little bit insecure."

Reinking had many maxims she repeated to students. Another was: "Be careful what you practice because that's what you'll get good at." And practice, Reinking knew, makes dancers.

For the price of a dance class, you could learn from a legend. The truth is that a star like Reinking didn't have to teach at all. The fact that she did tells you about her values and the responsibility she felt to pass on what she knew. It's less true that "those who can't do, teach" than it is that those who can teach, do.

In her classes at Steps on Broadway and at the summer program she founded in 1991, the Broadway Theatre Project (BTP), Reinking brought a level of care, a commitment to high standards and generous helpings of Broadway star power to the arduous process of becoming a dancer. Her oft-repeated mantra was "The joy is in the work."

If her dancing raised the bar for dance in musicals, then in the studio Reinking's attentiveness to the whole dancer did the same for her students. Her palpable pleasure in the work showed students why dance mattered and why they did, too. In a Facebook post, dancer, teacher and choreographer Felicity Stiverson remembered skipping her college class to attend Reinking's class at Steps. Reinking asked for her headshot one day after class and soon cast her in a pre–City Center Encores! workshop for Chicago. "Her belief in me made my little 18-year-old dancer heart really believe in itself," said Stiverson on Facebook.

While tributes from famous fans poured in after Reinking's passing, so did many from the dancers who studied with Annie (as she invited you to call her). What comes through in these is her generosity and willingness to share her triumphs and her trials. I vividly recall these moments—especially when she spoke about how difficult it was for her to find work as a dancer. She told of leaving auditions in tears and sometimes spending upwards of a year unemployed even during the dance boom of the 1970s.

On social media, dancer, teacher and choreographer Carol Schuberg remembered taking Reinking's classes at Steps in the 1990s, when sometimes only 10 or 15 students would show up. Reinking was still unstinting in her desire to nurture dancers and told those who showed up: "'Always come back to rehearsal the next day with the choreography better, work on it once you get home after rehearsal, and bring it back better.'"

BTP apprentices (as students were called) learned from Reinking for three intensive weeks in the summer. Choreographer Chase Brock attended BTP as a teen and recalled in a Facebook post, "She was fiercely determined, she did not mince words with us, and she would not let us off the hook. In so many ways we were treated not as students but as professionals, and every one of us improved exponentially from working with her."

Reinking was passionate in her joy and in her anger. I still fondly recall a withering, old-school dressing down that she delivered to us BTP apprentices. She cared so much about every detail that when students didn't rise to the level she wanted you to reach, it almost seemed to be a kind of betrayal of the enormous trust she placed in you. She didn't suffer fools gladly. But above all, she had fun.

In a Facebook post, dancer and teacher Peter King-Yuen recalls an audition for Reinking where she noticed on his resumé that his special skills included "Ann Reinking as Roxie Hart." She promptly made him do his impersonation for her. He said, "I did the whole monologue. I did it and she couldn't stop laughing. That raspy laugh that you'll never forget."

Reinking even used auditions as teaching opportunities. I attended an audition for a replacement spot in the national tour of Fosse where she called over a small group of us who hadn't made the cut. She told us, "Any of you could do this show, but today we're looking for someone who fits the costume of the person leaving the show. Keep coming back and maybe it will be your turn."

Reinking often told us, "Your dreams will all come true, just not in the way you planned." For many of us, our dream was being able to learn from Annie. It's not Reinking's famously long legs or her sinuous port de bras that will stay with me, but just how much of her soul she shared every time she stepped into the studio. Ann Reinking the dancer has gone too soon, but her teachings live on.

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.

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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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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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