Dance Teacher Awards

Dance Teacher Award Honorees Bo and Stephanie Spassoff Lead The Rock School With Kindness

Tiffany Yoon, courtesy The Rock School

Missed the 2020 Dance Teacher Awards? Watch them on-demand here.

As directors of The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, Bo and Stephanie Spassoff run not just a ballet academy but an all-encompassing campus that includes dorms and an academic program. The married couple, who often teach together and share two children, have trained an impressive list of alumni. Michaela DePrince, Beckanne Sisk, Isaac and Esteban Hernandez, Christine Shevchenko, Taylor Stanley and Derek Dunn all attended The Rock School, which also has a large number of international students. Their students have regularly competed in the New York Finals of Youth America Grand Prix, and The Rock has been named Outstanding School in the YAGP Philadelphia semifinal for 14 years in a row.

But beyond these accolades, at the heart of their training is compassion. "Bo and Stephanie have a very warm and caring energy," says Dunn, now a principal dancer at Boston Ballet. "They push students to do their best, but they use positive reinforcement and crack jokes to break the tension. It takes the fear of failing away and gives students a chance to try new things and push past their comfort zones."

Developing a kinder, gentler way of teaching was very important to Stephanie, The Rock's artistic director. She felt timid in her own ballet classes growing up, even after landing her first job in the corps of American Ballet Theatre. "It was very strict, and it was harsh, and that's one reason I was so afraid as a dancer," Stephanie says.

Stephanie, wearing all black and pointe shoes, demonstrates at the front of a classroom full of teenage girls

Catherine Park, courtesy The Rock School

The Spassoffs met at ABT, where Bo landed after dancing with the Dutch National Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet. They later joined San Francisco Ballet, where Bo danced and Stephanie prepared to have their first son, before running Savannah Ballet and Ballet Oklahoma and their affiliated schools.

They moved to Philadelphia to join Pennsylvania Ballet, where Bo was a ballet master and Stephanie a soloist. Eventually they took over the school and saw it through a split with the company in 1992, when it looked like Pennsylvania Ballet might go bankrupt. In 2007, Pennsylvania Ballet moved out of the building.

This, the Spassoffs found, gave them freedom. They now had more studios, so they could hire more teachers, beef up their summer program and retain more students year-round. They set out to establish a home where dancers could live and learn both ballet and academics.

Now there are dorms across the street from The Rock, an on-site cafeteria and Rock Academics, which includes both online education and in-person teaching. (Students also enjoy a prom and a graduation ceremony.) The school has a costume shop, an outreach program that teaches 20,000 schoolchildren and the satellite campus Rock West in suburban Chester County.

The Spassoffs' teaching methods were influenced by Stanley Williams and David Howard; their own training style is a mix. "It's an anatomical and kinesthetic approach to 'how do you most effectively take a specific body, look at what it needs and give it what it needs, as far as a ballet career is concerned?'" says Bo, who serves as The Rock's president and director.

The pair have surrounded themselves with faculty hailing from the U.S., Cuba, Europe and Russia, which Dunn says is another reason for the school's success: "The teachers expose the students to all styles of technique." And it shows—throughout the years, dancers have earned awards at YAGP, the Moscow International Ballet Competition, The World Ballet Competition and the USA International Ballet Competition. Many incoming students have been drawn by the 2011 documentary First Position, which featured DePrince and others competing at YAGP. ("We still get recognized in airports," Stephanie says.)

After more than 30 years leading The Rock, Bo hopes their legacy will be, first and foremost, that they were kind directors who happened to produce wonderful dancers. And according to Dunn, they're right on track.

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.

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.