Philadelphia’s Headlong Performance Institute crosses disciplines to create whole artists.

The first assignment students get when arriving at Headlong Performance Institute is to create a three-minute self-portrait. They can use whatever idiom they choose—dance, theater, song, visual art or a mix of genres. And that’s just the beginning. They’ll spend the next 14 weeks studying movement techniques, commedia dell’arte, clowning, contact improvisation, dramaturgy, mask work and other cross-disciplinary artforms, all while seeing dance and theater performances and learning the practical skills they’ll need to succeed as artists.

The semester-long experimental dance and theater program based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has a broad scope, but its mission is simple: to create mature artists who are comfortable using whatever discipline necessary to get their vision across. “We train the body, voice, face and mind to help students learn to use all of themselves onstage,” explains Andrew Simonet, one of the institute’s founders. “Many choreographers and directors today want you to be able to develop relationships onstage, to be able to speak, to move articulately and to generate ideas.”

For dancers, this means learning to embody a character, vocalize onstage, speak about art and collaborate with artists in other disciplines to create work that defies categorization. No matter the discipline, every student is challenged—and changed.

Swan Song, part of the final showing for the fall 2010 Headlong Performance Institute class, with creator-performers (L to R) Abby Wacker, Caitlin Hellerer and Allison Caw.

In the Beginning

The program is the brainchild of Simonet, Amy Smith and David Brick. The three Wesleyan University graduates also run Headlong Dance Theater, a company they founded in 1993 that’s known for tackling heady topics with wit and wry humor. HDT had done short-term college residencies, and, according to Smith, the institute came out of a desire to continue working with college students, but in a more intensive format.

They began brainstorming a curriculum in 2006 and reached out to four fellow Philadelphia artists: Aaron Cromie, an actor, director, puppeteer, maskmaker and commedia dell’arte performer; Quinn Bauriedel, co-artistic director of Pig Iron Theatre Company; Emmanuelle Delpech-Ramey, a former Pig Iron member who now makes her own work; and Mark Lord, HDT’s company dramaturge and director of the theater program at Bryn Mawr College. The multidisciplinary team reflects HDT’s philosophy that artforms should overlap. “We believe in the expansion of forms of dance and theater,” Smith says. “Our culture often identifies them as two separate forms, and they’re really not. I’ve always wanted the dance field to expand to include theatrical elements, for dancers to be trained to use voices and faces, and vice versa—for actors to use their bodies.”

A Headlong salon showing during the fall 2010 Performance Institute semester

How It Works

The institute launched in fall 2008 and students earn four full course credits (generally 12 or 16 credit hours, depending on their home institution) through Bryn Mawr College. Students apply by submitting an artistic statement and a work sample, which might be a DVD of dance or theater work or even a piece of visual art, as well as letters of recommendation and a transcript. Generally, the institute receives 20 to 25 applications a year; the average class size is around 15. The program accepts both current college students and college graduates (students have ranged in age from 19 to 37)—which means dance educators looking to broaden their skills can attend the program, or they can recommend it to students. To succeed at the institute, Simonet says dancers need “courage; an interest in expanding what you can do and what you can create; comfort in what you do well and in trying new things; and an interest in making art that is about something.”

The curriculum is extremely ambitious. One day might begin with yoga or Pilates, progress to a two-hour clown or mask class and then finish with “Creative Process” class, in which students create and analyze their own work. On another day, students might do dance improvisation and then have a class in art theory. The institute’s “Life of the Artist” course covers budgeting, fundraising, resumés, taxes, day jobs, grant-writing and other practical aspects of being a working artist. Each Friday, a salon series gives students the chance to present works-in-progress for feedback. (Between weekly assignments and final projects, students spend about eight hours a week in the studio rehearsing, outside of regular class hours.) The semester culminates in a multidisciplinary, collaborative performance at Christ Church Theater in downtown Philadelphia.

Though the program follows a basic framework, faculty members are flexible about tailoring the experience to each group of students. “We ask, ‘Who are you, as an artist?’” Simonet says. “They can’t answer that by making the kind of work I make. Headlong Performance Institute supports students finding their voice.”

Creating Artists—and Community

Working outside of one’s comfort zone is challenging—but it also facilitates growth. “What I loved about the program was that I could really fail there,” says Britney Hines, a Dickinson College theater and dance alum who attended in fall 2009. “It was such a good lesson to show something [to your peers and faculty] that you’ve put a lot of time into and see that it just doesn’t work—and then to use constructive criticism to bring it to that next phase.”

Marcel Williams Foster, a dancer and actor from Colorado with a biological anthropology background who also attended in 2009, experienced a similar transformation. “I came in with a lot of professional experience, including publication in scientific journals,” he says. “My approach to choreography was to come into the studio with my thesis, thinking, ‘My idea is precious and nobody’s going to touch it.’” Foster says that the institute faculty helped him find a sense of play in his work. “I learned to go into a piece with a clear idea, but also to be committed to seeing it change and transform.”

Foster and Hines both chose to stay in Philadelphia after the program and launch new ventures of their own. They co-produced The Jane Goodall: Experience, a theater piece in which Foster, who conducted primate research in Tanzania prior to attending the institute, portrayed Jane Goodall. The show was performed at the 2010 Philly Fringe Festival. Foster, Hines and other institute alums also run Hybridge Arts Collective, which puts on a multidisciplinary salon series, Last Mondays, where up-and-coming performers can present work.

Even if a student arrives a trained dancer and chooses to stay in the dance realm, she’ll leave the program with a new arsenal of creative tools. “My dream is that we’re helping to create a generation of artists who work in an ensemble collaborative fashion,” Smith says, “using the techniques we teach to create work that we can’t even imagine.” DT

Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer in New York City.

Photos from top: by Andrew Simonet, courtesy of Headlong Performance Institute; by Lauren Dubowski, courtesy of Headlong Performance Institute

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Mitchell Button, courtesy of the artist

Dusty Button prefers music with a range. "There needs to be a beginning, a climax and a strong ending. Like a movie," she says. The award-winning dancer, who joined American Ballet Theatre's second company, ABT II, at 18, has always been drawn to lyric-free tracks filled with dynamic phrasing, rhythms and composition. "Whether it's the violin, piano or cello, instrumental music gives me more inspiration. I want the dancers and the audience to feel something new," she adds.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network

When the news broke that Prince George, currently third in line for the British throne, would be continuing ballet classes as part of his school curriculum this year, we were as excited as anyone. (OK, maybe more excited.)

This was not, it seems, a sentiment shared by "Good Morning America" host Lara Spencer.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo via Claudia Dean World on YouTube

Most parents start off pretty clueless when it comes to doing their dancer's hair. If you don't want your students coming in with elastic-wrapped bird's nests on their heads, you may want to give them some guidance. But who has time to teach each individual parent how to do their child's hair? Not you! So, we have a solution: YouTube hair tutorials.

These three classical hairdo vids are exactly what your dancers need to look fabulous and ready to work every time they step in your studio.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Via @madisongoodman_ on Instagram

Nationals season is behind us, but we just aren't quite over it yet. We've been thinking a lot about the freakishly talented winners of these competitions, and want to know a bit more about the people who got them to where they are. So, we asked three current national title holders to tell us the most powerful piece of advice their dance teacher ever gave them. What they have to say will melt your heart.

Way to go, dance teachers! Your'e doing amazing things for the rising generation!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox