Face to Face: Bette White Fernandez

Bette White Fernandez first graced the pages of DT—then called Dance Teacher Now—in its inaugural “Spotlight on Successful Teachers” (Summer 1979). And the former Rockette has remained true to her life’s work. Only briefly sidelined after undergoing heart surgery earlier this year, 80-year-old White is now in her 56th year of teaching.
Beginning her dance training at age 8, the Wilmington, Delaware, native relocated to New York City after high school to study with legendary teachers like Martha Graham, Hanya Holm and Luigi. White held several teaching jobs at various studios before founding the Bette White Dance Center in Maplewood, New Jersey, in the early 1970s. (Back then, her monthly rent was only $275 and her ballet, tap, modern, jazz and adult disco classes cost just $3 each!) The studio is still in business, but it is now in the hands of a former student, which White couldn’t be happier about.
Today, the mother of five teaches tap in Long Branch, NJ, where she lives and also performs with the Jersey Shore Seniors Legend Showcase at local charities and fundraisers. Read on as this dedicated teacher shares her teaching joys and some career advice she wishes she’d known three decades ago.

Dance Teacher: After all of these years, what is it about teaching that keeps you going?
Bette White Fernandez: The students are my best friends; they have so much spirit. I’ve always tried to maintain the technique and discipline, but I get caught up with the students’ spirits and just having fun with them. They know I still enjoy it.

DT: What teacher influenced your style the most?
BWF: Luigi influenced me a lot. His style was a segue from jazz to modern, with these flowing movements. Luigi’s whole idea was that you should feel the movement from the inside out, and there was so much expression in his technique. It changed my choreography and the way I was teaching.

DT: Was it a challenge to balance your job while raising a family?
BWF: When my kids were very young, I’d put them on a blanket to play in the corner while I taught; I’d just incorporate them into whatever I was doing. I remember a student once asked why I put a particular kick into a routine, and it was because I had to keep stepping over a Tonka truck while I was choreographing. But my two daughters helped out and both taught when they were older.

DT: Is there anything that you know now that you wish you’d known earlier on in your career?
BWF: I remember when I first began teaching, I’d sometimes put a very shy student in the front row and then they’d drop out. I wish I had known more about human nature and people’s capacity for what they can handle—that took a while.

DT: Do you have any more advice to share with other dance teachers?
BWF: You have to remain excited about dance and not think of it as just a job. And you should really encourage your students and let them lead you. I once showed my boys’ tap class a barrel turn and said, “When you’re older, you’ll be able to do this.” Well, they all went off on their own and started trying it, saying, “Look at me, look at me!” It’s all about listening to your students.

DT: How did you feel about handing over the business you created?
BWF: A former student of mine named Dancette Pratts, who started dancing with me at age 4, is now running my studio (currently called Inspirational Dance). She has danced professionally and always wanted to own a studio, and now she’s there. And that’s the greatest reward we can have as teachers, when our students become teachers. It’s like passing the baton.

Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist based in New York City.

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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