Ashly Costa Talks Ballroom, Conventions and How The Two Worlds Collide

Ashly Costa (photo by Katharine Rich, courtesy of NUVO Dance Convention)

In 2006, "Dancing With the Stars" alum Ashly Costa taught one of the first ballroom classes ever brought to the convention stage. She's now known for inspiring competition royalty to dream of becoming ballroom champions. Her secret? Teaching kids to fake it 'til they make it. "Trying something new is terrifying at first, but if they dive in 100 percent and not tiptoe, by the end of my class they are begging their parents for ballroom shoes," Costa says, "It's completely addicting." Costa, who now teaches for NUVO Dance Convention, likes to use dance terminology her jazz students are already familiar with when teaching new ballroom steps. She turns phrases like "volta" (a samba step) into things they've heard of before, like "ball-change," making all the difference in helping dancers feel confident in transitioning between styles.

Dance Teacher: What challenges should studio owners expect to face when adding ballroom to their curriculum?

Ashly Costa: Finding ballroom teachers who are willing to teach at competition studios isn't easy. There's a big gap between the ballroom and convention worlds, and very few of us have ever crossed the line. Once you find a teacher who is willing to work with comp kids, they are likely to only teach pure technique until it is perfect. That's great if your students want to be professional ballroom dancers, but what most of these jazz dancers are looking for is simply skills that will help them book jobs in the commercial dance industry. Look for teachers who are willing to give your studio what it needs.

DT: How do you teach ballroom in a convention setting?

AC: I generally teach the dancers the steps without a partner, because for 98 percent of them, this is the first ballroom class they have ever taken. I stick with cha-cha, samba and jive, and start by teaching them about rhythm, because it's the most important part of ballroom. They need the basics, so I give them the steps across the floor and then incorporate them into a combo. Unlike other classes during the weekend, I can't just throw a routine at them, or it will be a mess! It's really great, though, the convention-scene kids are just devouring it. It's terrifying for them at first, but they just start to fall in love with it."

DT: Tell us about the first convention ballroom class you ever taught.

AC: It was at West Coast Dance Explosion in 2006, right after "Dancing With the Stars" began. John Crutchman called me and said he had a vision for how ballroom could work on the convention circuit and asked me to head it up. I grew up doing conventions, so I knew the structure of the classes and how everything worked. Because of this, he let me run with it, and his Nationals that year was my first time teaching a class like this. Rick Robinson [famed ballroom teacher] met me there, and we taught together. We danced for them at the finale, and it went really well. I remember I was scared because it was a whole new structure, and it was something that had never ever been done before. Thankfully, it worked!

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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