Be Our Guest

You’ve invited a celebrity choreographer to your studio to create a number for your senior dancers. Now what?

Choreographer Lauren Adams has strong ties to Spotlight Dance Works. She began her training there with Liz Schmidt’s mentor.

Megan Lawson is on a mission: finish choreographing the senior piece for Dance Impressions studio in just three days. Typically, she likes to take four days for such a project, but this piece spotlights star senior Mattie Love—alongside 15 other dancers—and Love needs to head out on tour with New York City Dance Alliance within 72 hours. There’s also much at stake: The Utah-based studio travels to NYCDA Nationals as a team only once every four years, and a lot is riding on this piece.

Though Lawson is admittedly stressed out by the time crunch, you wouldn’t know it. The dynamic, quirky guest choreographer, known for her two-time stint on MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew” with her crew Fanny Pak, is more than up for the challenge. The work begins right after school on a wintry December day, goes late, resumes at 3 pm the next day and doesn’t stop until 9:30 pm. Clad in a bold flowered onesie and armed with Starbucks, Lawson provides high energy that’s contagious—and much needed considering the task at hand.

“When Megan comes, the kids tap into their colorful side; there’s a great energy, and she really brings out their personalities,” says studio director Kandee Allen.

The process of selecting the other 15 dancers has been relatively simple; this isn’t Lawson’s first visit to Dance Impressions. (Allen and Lawson originally met through a referral from Allen’s sister, who owns The Dance Zone in Las Vegas.) “Generally, most choreographers can figure out who they want really quickly; Megan usually uses a short improv session or four counts of eight,” says Allen. “She can nail what kids have to offer really well.”

Though the to-do list is long, Lawson’s guest residency isn’t all work and no play—amid the master classes and choreography, Allen makes time to take Lawson on a drive into the mountains of Park City, UT, and to get her favorite mango pistachio wild rice pudding at a local deli. And, of course, Lawson can’t leave without signing the signature wall that displays the John Hancocks of all of the prominent choreographers who’ve visited the studio—from Joey Dowling to Travis Wall to Cedar Lake dancer Matthew Rich.

The piece, set to Sade’s “Morning Bird,” debuts just a few months later at NUVO, and it goes on to win “Critics’ Choice” at NYCDA Nationals. “It was really magical and simple,” says Allen. “It was all about flying free—with one bird setting the others free.”

As Dance Impressions’ experience with Lawson demonstrates, bringing in a guest choreographer can be a rewarding growth experience. “Outside choreographers see the kids differently than their regular teachers, so they challenge them in new ways and give them something fresh,” says Allen, who brings in as many as six guest artists every year. 

At Chesterfield, Michigan–based Spotlight Dance Works, owner Liz Schmidt has developed ongoing relationships with choreographers such as Lauren Adams (who has visited for the last 15 years), Sonya Tayeh and Brooke Pierotti—and continues to bring in new talent every year as well.

“It gives our students the chance to have a special piece choreographed by someone who is a hero to them,” says Schmidt. “By getting to know them and their work on a more personal level, it makes the kids feel more confident at conventions; plus, it’s a huge growth experience because they’re working on choreography that’s out of their comfort zones.”

But as Allen and Schmidt will tell you, it takes planning and commitment to pull off a successful collaboration. Here’s how they do it.

 

Planning ahead. Doing ample legwork ahead of time will ensure a smooth experience for both company director and choreographer. Step one typically involves nailing down the logistics—cost, length of stay, what the visit will entail and accommodations/travel. It’s important to provide ample lead time; Allen says she has booked choreographers with anywhere from three days’ to six months’ notice.

Pre-communication is key. For instance, choreographer Lauren Adams says that there have been numerous times where she’s arrived at a studio and realized that the planned schedule won’t work for her needs. “Make sure that the choreographer gets full breaks, and be sure to consult him or her before finalizing the schedule,” she says.

Yet, even with the best planning, be prepared to handle last-minute requests. It comes with the territory, says Allen, who recalls instances where she had to find a pinball machine on wheels for Joey Dowling and a portable grand piano for Travis Wall. “Most choreographers are so busy with shows and jobs that they end up planning last minute,” she says. “We try to get a checklist ahead of time, but that doesn’t always happen.”

 

Length of stay. At Spotlight Dance Works, Schmidt invites choreographers to stay for a long weekend, starting with master classes on Friday (90 minutes for each of the three age groups: junior, teen and senior), followed by morning classes on Saturday and two days of choreography with the seniors. “Most choreographers feel comfortable with two days—it gives them a good headstart the first day, and then they can come back with fresh eyes and finish up,” she says.

 

Megan Lawson’s Morningbird won National Senior Critics’ Choice at New York City Dance Alliance in 2012.

Dancer/artist introductions. 

Holding master classes can play an important role in maximizing the choreographer’s contributions, says Allen. “Some choreographers know exactly what they want to do and set it beforehand, but others want to take a few days and create in the moment,” she says, adding that visiting artists spend anywhere from one day to one week at the studio. “Starting with a master class allows the choreographer to get to know the kids and see how they move, and that directs the piece and who they want to use.”

It’s helpful to prime your dancers ahead of time to make the most of the opportunity. “One thing I always coach kids on is to do their research ahead of time on who’s coming in,” says Adams, urging that they consult YouTube or the choreographer’s website to get a feel for what to expect. She also advises company directors to instruct dancers to treat the experience like an audition: “Choreographers are always looking to build relationships for future collaborations and jobs.”

 

Time and expenses. Some choreographers charge per dancer, while others will charge a flat fee per small or large group (around $1,200–$1,600, in Schmidt’s experience). According to Allen, typical “per dancer” quotes fall between $80 and $200 (with the average around $125/dancer), and that’s before any expenses such as hotel, flights and food are figured in. “We often try to coordinate visits for when they’ll already be in town for convention, which helps to drive down the cost,” says Allen.

When Schmidt enlists choreographers like Nick Lazzarini and Travis Wall to visit Spotlight Dance Works, she uses the master classes to help offset costs. “We always open up the master classes to people outside the studio with a base price of $25/class,” says Schmidt, who splits the choreography fee evenly among the dancers who are selected for pieces.

 

Housing. Logistics must be agreed on and arranged ahead of time. Both Schmidt and Allen take care of making all arrangements for visiting choreographers. Lawson and other choreographers visiting Dance Impressions usually stay at the nearby Country Inn & Suites, while Schmidt offers her spare room to choreographers who come on a recurrent basis. “I’ve become friendly with choreographers like Lauren, Sonya and Brooke, so they’ll usually just stay with me,” she says, adding that she still always provides the option of staying at a hotel.

 

Holding auditions. Once a guest artist has arrived safely on site, he or she is often ready to dive right in and start creating. Adams visits approximately 20 studios every year, and she prefers to select students for pieces via audition. “At the majority of places I visit, I’ll do a master class that serves as the audition,” she says. “It gives the dancers a chance to get used to my style and how demanding I am, so that it’s not a shock.”

Schmidt adds that holding auditions can help choreographers better pinpoint who’s up for the challenge. “Of course, there are those same six kids whom every choreographer will pick because they are the strongest and most exceptional,” she says. “It does get competitive, but usually the ones who aren’t picked aren’t ready yet or can’t pick up style as quickly. If they’re not ready, I would rather they not be in the piece.”

 

Social activities. Creating a welcoming, comfortable environment is integral to a smooth visit. Over the years, Schmidt has found that each guest has different needs and wants. “Some choreographers want to hang out and go to dinner; others just want to relax alone at the hotel,” she says. “Some want to start choreography bright and early; others want to sleep in. We try to feel out their idea of the perfect weekend and make that happen for them.”

Allen suggests going out of your way to make it a memorable experience for the choreographer. “If they’re up for it, we can do some fun things like hiking or snowboarding,” she says. Schmidt also goes the extra mile, offering personal touches such as asking the choreographer’s preferred airline/hotel chain and dietary needs.

 

Lauren Adams choreographed I Love You for Spotlight Dance Works.

Rehearsing. The work continues long after the choreographer leaves the studio and the director and dancers are left to continue perfecting the piece(s). One of the challenges can be keeping the integrity of the piece intact, as well as refraining from “over-cleaning” to where the original piece is no longer recognizable.

“A lot can get lost in translation to the point where it loses the desired dynamic and performance quality,” says Adams, who asks studios to send her videos for review throughout the season. “If it gets too rehearsed, it doesn’t look fresh—I want it to stay vibrant.”

Though a “stickler for things being clean,” Schmidt avoids this tendency by observing while the choreographer is teaching and taking detailed notes and videos. “I’ll also ask the choreographer, ‘Who is my go-to person if there are differences? Who’s picking it up the best?’ They’ll give me a few people to look for,” she says.

Keeping an open line of communication is beneficial on both ends of the spectrum, says Adams. She likes to be in the loop on everything from hair to makeup to costuming to how well the piece is progressing. “Once I set a piece, I’m always happy to continue to give feedback,” she says. “I welcome the request and I want to do so—after all, it’s the studio’s name on the piece, but it’s also mine.” DT

Jen Jones Donatelli is a Los Angeles–based freelance journalist who regularly contributes to Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit and Dance Magazine.

Questions to Ask

  • What does the choreographer charge, and how does she determine those rates?

  • What are her upcoming dates of availability?

  • How much time will she need for choreography, and is she willing to conduct master classes while on site?

  • How does she plan to select dancers, and how many pieces is she willing to create during the residency?

  • What’s her ideal schedule, including total hours per day, and how many breaks are needed?

  • Are there any props or other considerations that can be organized ahead of time?

  • How much support is the choreographer willing to give after the visit in terms of feedback? —JJD

Photos (from top) by Natalia Harvey Sanchez, courtesy of Lauren Adams; ProPix, courtesy of Dance Impressions; courtesy of VIP Dance Competition

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

Keep reading... Show less
Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?


The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."


Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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