Studio Owners

Be Our Guest: Inviting Outside Teachers to Your Studio

Thanks to guidance from visiting professors, Shannon Crites School of Dance seniors went on to perform in college, Photo courtesy of LADance Magic

"I've told my students to keep their shoulders down countless times," says Shannon Crites, owner of Shannon Crites School of Dance in Ardmore, OK. “Then, a guest teacher will come in and say, 'You should really release those shoulders,' and they finally do it!" Guest teachers and choreographers offer a fresh perspective to your students' education, and they'll expose them to exciting new styles and create winning choreography for competitions. But balancing your budget and timing can be tricky. Here, four experienced studio owners share how they make the most of every guest who walks through their studio doors.

Ardell Stone

Ardell Stone School of Dancing

Roanoke, VA

About three or four times a year, Ardell Stone invites a guest artist to her studio to teach a master class and choreograph a piece for students on the competition team. But one of her main goals is making sure that as many students as possible get to take advantage. She allows noncompeting students to sign up for classes with the master teacher, offering at least one extra class for about $20 per student. Stone often finds potential guest teachers or choreographers by networking at competitions or teacher workshops. She estimates that she spends upwards of $3,500 for a teacher she really likes, which includes plane tickets (often from California), rental cars and hotel fees. She charges each of about 20 performing students an extra $150 to $200 for a master-class-plus-choreography session. “I don't like my students' families to spend too much money on one choreographer, especially since all the competition kids are required to take part," she says. “But we are in a relatively high socioeconomic area. And, though they charge an arm and a leg, it's well worth every cent."

Shannon Crites

Shannon Crites School of Dance

Ardmore, OK

“We are in a very small community, and doing the same thing all the time can become mundane," says Shannon Crites, who brings master class teachers to her studio two to three times per year. “Guest teachers make our students work at a different level. They keep them in check." To save on costs, Crites often chooses professors from local universities, like University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City University, who have the added benefit of exposing her students to the importance of higher education.

While teachers on the master-class circuit charge up to $500 an hour for a minimum of four classes, those from universities sometimes consider it a promotional visit for their school, so they'll charge less. Crites estimates an average of $350 per class. And costs go down dramatically for local teachers, without the price of airfare or hotel rooms. Crites charges students approximately $150, for a weekend of master classes, usually in the fall, when company students aren't constantly traveling to conventions and competitions.

If she has a university teacher in mind, she'll contact them directly or call the dance department to ask who they would suggest. College teachers have tight schedules, she says, so it's best to check in as early as possible. Crites starts planning in the spring of the school year before.

When she called OCU last year, the school suggested sending a professor and a dean to talk to students and their parents about college. The event transformed into a weekend-long workshop. “I was thrilled," Crites says. “It was a perfect way to promote the importance of education." She plans to hold a similar workshop this year since she saw dramatic results—out of five senior company members who graduated in 2010, four are now dancing in college, she says. “They understand how important it is to have a degree."

Rhoda Burns

Burns Dance Studio

Aiken, SC

When guest choreographers come to Burns Dance Studio, students need to be prepared for an entire weekend of intensive training. Usually in September, a guest artist will set three routines on the studio's performance company.

“This exposes kids to different styles or choreography that's a little bit more current," says owner Rhoda Burns. “They look forward to it, but they know that it's going to be hard work." And missing these all-important weekends is not an option. “If they're a company kid, they know that not only do they have to be here, they have to pay for it," says Burns. “And if they're not here, they have to pay for it anyway."

Burns charges students approximately $150 each (in addition to annual tuition) to cover a choreographer's fee for the weekend, usually about $4,000 for 10 to 15 rehearsal hours. And when enrollment isn't high enough to break even, each dancer pays a little extra. “Most choreographers we bring in are willing to stay with me at my house, and not be in a hotel," says Burns. “That's a big save."

To add some extra fun to choreography weekends, they end with a pool party. On the following Monday, the company performs the routines that they've learned for their parents. And these works will be danced about 8 to 10 times throughout the year in competitions, community shows and during halftime at local high school or college games.

JoJean Retrum

Monona Academy of Dance

Monona, WI

JoJean Retrum, director of Monona Academy of Dance, likes to hire former students as guest teachers, many of whom are currently dancing with nearby Milwaukee Ballet. “Young people can see that getting a job performing is not an unrealistic goal," she says. When alumni teach, Retrum pays them between $50 and $100 per class, and fees for guest teachers are included in students' tuition.

Convincing alumni to return is never difficult, says Retrum, “They enjoy helping the studio out." She stays in touch via Facebook, reaching out often.

She also invites alumni to perform with the school's nonprofit dance company, paying them between $500 and $1,000 per performance. But Retrum says budget is not a primary concern when hiring guests. “I decide what I want the kids to learn, and I do it," she says. “I don't make a lot of money, but I'm rewarded by the feeling I get when I see my current and former students' work."

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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