Beyond the Daddy Daughter Dance

Tapping a valuable source of studio volunteers

Studio dads at In Motion Dance Project are known for extra-vagant sets like this 12-foot storybook.

Sure, it makes us all go warm and fuzzy when we see a papa dancing with his daughter. Yet, when we looked into the ways fathers are part of everyday life at bustling dance studios, we found that dads are doing a lot more than that. From schlepping their children across town to class or figuring out a complicated stage-set problem for an upcoming show, dads are making a difference and having a blast doing it. DT spoke to three studio owners who truly believe that dance is a family affair. Here, they share their experiences on ways to keep studio dads happy and involved with showing off their special skills.

 

In Motion Dance Project

Orlando, Florida

It’s not unusual to see a gaggle of dads wearing matching “Prop Dudes” T-shirts while hard at work designing and building the many set pieces that distinguish the theatrical nature of In Motion Dance Project’s competition numbers. Studio director Amanda Plesa and her husband and partner Api Photnetrakhom both come from the entertainment industry, and she says they’ve used large sets for recitals from the very beginning, when they had only 20 students.

“Our set pieces just keep getting bigger,” she says, and that’s where the dads come in. In particular, they built a giant hand-painted 12-foot storybook set piece for a Mother Goose number for their tween group, which cleaned up at Nationals in 2013.

Located in a business complex, the studio boasts a large parking lot that clears out for weekend building projects. “Dads bring their tools, but we have accumulated quite a few now, too,” says Plesa. “They socialize and have gotten to know each other. Dads like having something to do other than waiting around for the kids.”

As the years have gone by, the set pieces have become more complex and sophisticated in design and construction: Dancers emerging out of a six-foot disco ball made an impact. An eye-grabbing Tarzan number included custom-designed trees and an eight-foot elephant.

“We worked at Disney, so we are used to spectacle,” says Plesa. “Sometimes, rumors circulate at competitions that Disney builds our sets.” The pièce de résistance this season has been a Star Wars set, complete with a spaceship and an X-wing fighter. “I have never seen the dads so excited, and they are so knowledgeable about Star Wars trivia.” Other feats of workmanship include a giant moving bed with a 10-foot Pegasus for a slumber number, and two rock-climbing walls.

But every now and then, the dads get ahead of themselves. Once, they built a complex carousel that was very time-consuming to set up. Trouble occurred when there was no way to know which dancer was going to end up where. “I have never been so stressed watching a dance,” says Plesa. “The dads always bring their tools to the venues just for any contingency that might occur.”

Of course, the men are building not only sets but lifelong friendships, and Plesa understands that can only be good for the studio. Recently, they all did a “warrior run” together, complete with obstacles. “My husband is CEO of the Prop Dudes, but he enlists help from other unsuspecting dads for leadership positions along the way,” she says.

 

Fathers at Spezio’s Dance Dynamics earn Dance Dollars when they volunteer.

Spezio’s Dance Dynamics

Amherst, New York

While Michelle Spezio Ferm will be the first to admit that a dad has helped shovel snow, mostly she has her dancers’ fathers busy doing higher-level work, like helping with fundraising, computer issues, studio upgrades and set construction.

“Our dads are an integral part of our studio life,” she says. “We like to use our parents’ talents to be part of their children’s lives.” Fathers have negotiated leasing agreements, pitched in with marketing ideas, made cubbies for storage, painted the studio and even solved lobby wi-fi problems. At recitals they have been known to dress up in tuxedos to usher.

The helping-dad philosophy starts at home with Ferm’s husband, Mark, an accountant who does the studio’s taxes and more. “Our dads take a lot of pride in what they do for the studio,” she says. “And I really enjoy finding out how they want to get involved.”

An incentive program called Dance Dollars, a studio-based currency that can be applied to their children’s tuition, has helped. Fathers can earn Dance Dollars by helping out in various activities.

One of Ferm’s favorite events is an annual fundraising cookout that takes place during picture weekend. The fathers take over the sprawling parking lot, put up a tent, crank up the grills and turn what might have been a long, boring day into a bustling party that the whole studio community can enjoy. Over the course of one weekend, 1,500 photos are taken and many hotdogs and burgers sold. The dads don their “SDD Dad” shirts and have a blast grilling and chatting up the families.

Of course, Spezio dads are ace set-builders and over the years have turned out many distinctive pieces for competitions and recitals. On occasion, however, they forget the sets will likely be handled by women. “Some pieces are made so sturdy, they are difficult for us teachers to quickly place,” says Ferm. She’s learned it’s best to agree on specifications up front. “We always review the size and weight of the prop so it is sturdy yet easy to maneuver.”

 

Boni’s Dance & Performing Arts Studio Inc.

The Woodlands, Texas

When the 2- and 3-year-olds of Boni’s Dance finish their recital numbers, they are greeted onstage by their fathers bearing flowers. The dads then carry the tiny dancers off the stage, which always draws a collective “aww” from the audience. “Once, a dad came onstage with a baby in a Snugly,” says owner Bonnie Schuetz. It gets even more moving when these babies grow into seniors, and their fathers once again come to fetch their daughters from the stage during senior recital tributes. “Some jump on the backs of their dads,” she says. “It’s always fun to watch.”

Schuetz has witnessed a huge shift in the dad-involvement department from when she started 30 years ago. “We have dads who are the sole caretakers of their children, so we see them not only taking their kids to and from class but making ponytails and buns, coming to costume fittings and sewing costumes.” The guys perform an array of activities, and the only area where they cannot help out is the dressing rooms backstage.

Lifelong friendships have developed among the Prop Dudes of In Motion Dance Project.

Like Ferm and Plesa, Schuetz has dads on set-building duties. And they not only build the sets but cart them off to competition events, as well. You will find them tirelessly working backstage and then ready to load up and drive home—not an easy task considering the studio’s busy competition schedule.

Because being a dance dad is by its nature a temporary gig, Schuetz always makes sure there’s a new crop of leaders coming up the pike so that the tradition can continue. The dads learn the ropes from other dads, so there’s already a system in place to welcome the new dads into studio life. DT

Nancy Wozny’s dad took her to her first dance concert. She writes about the arts from Houston, Texas

 

Photos (from top) courtesy of In Motion Dance Project; courtesy of Boni’s Dance; courtesy of Spezio’s Dance Dynamics; courtesy of In Motion Dance Project

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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