Ballet Class Blogging: No bullying in ballet

Each class at Groove with Me begins with a group discussion. They encourage students to be open with their feelings and know that their statements or questions are valid and important. My group of girls on Saturday (ages 5–6) likes to tell me about birthday parties, their moms' ages and what they did at the park. But my Thursday evening girls (ages 6–8) can handle slightly more intense conversations. Here are my favorites from the past few weeks:

 

One week we talked about why we should eat healthy foods, and why it's especially important as dancers. "If you eat healthy then you will have energy to dance," said my first student. Bingo! The next student said: "If you eat junk food, your stomach will get big and you'll be too lopsided and you'll lose your balance, and even fall off the stage." (I explained that ballerinas come in many shapes and sizes, but the most important thing is to eat enough and to eat healthy things so your muscles can be strong—her answer was just too cute not to include.) We mentioned which before-class-snacks are healthy, and I made sure to stress drinking milk and orange juice for strong bones.

For tips to bring nutrition programs to your classroom: Click here.

 

 

Last week, one of my 7-year-old students said, "My week was terrible. There is a girl at school who keeps bossing me around. She won't stop telling me what to do." A few hands shot in the air.

"Did you ask her to stop?" asked the first student.

"Yes."

"Maybe ask her why she's bossing you around," said the next girl.

"Yeah, I don't even think she knows she's being bossy," was her next reply.

"And if she doesn't stop, you should tell a teacher," said the third. I was so proud of their advice!

 

 

And finally, at the end of January, Groove with Me recognized "No Name-Calling Week." My assistant teacher from the Teen Leadership Committee led an activity during our circle time that put together a few of these anti-bullying exercises to make it time/place appropriate. (Teen Leadership Committee  is a program for older students to assist in younger classes and develop leadership skills. They meet once per week as a group with the program coordinator to discuss their achievements or challenges. After each assisted class, teens fill out a site report—like a progress journal.)

Our abridged activity:

 

--Girls discussed that everyone has a unique name. We asked each girl in our circle to say their name, and if they knew, who named them, where it came from, and what their name means.

 

--Then, we discussed what it feels like to be called something negative. Responses I jotted down: "It feels like everybody is the same and you are different." "It feels hurtful." "You feel angry and targeted."

 

--Next, we shared how we feel when someone says something positive to us, and how it feels to say something positive to someone else.

 

--One at a time, students stood in the middle of the circle. Everyone sitting repeated her name and called out positive traits. It was an affirmation: You are smart, kind, beautiful and important.

 

I was surprised that many girls were still nervous to stand in front of their peers, even though they knew positive characteristics were coming. But everyone sitting in the circle smiled as they spoke—proving that it feels just as good to say nice words as to receive them.

 

 

Photo of the healthy snack kids all rave about: Ants on a log

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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