Border Crossings

The Kids Excel program in El Paso inspires students in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

Zulema Galindo teaching at Moises Soteno Elementary School in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

The audience sitting on the gymnasium floor of Western Hills Elementary School in El Paso, Texas, fidgeted and squirmed. A few minutes into the Kids Excel dance performance, though, the fidgets and pokes began to mimic the arm movements of the dancers up front—the Western Hills fourth-grade class—as they leaped, twirled and threw their hands in the air. “Kids Excel! Kids Excel!” shouted the performers and much of their elementary-aged audience.

It is this infectious enthusiasm that drives the Kids Excel El Paso program, which uses dance to inspire curiosity, set high expectations and encourage self-discipline. “We’re using art to stimulate our students, to engage them to a point where minds are turned on,” says Gemtria St Clair, a former ballet dancer and executive/artistic director of Kids Excel. The approach has been so successful that FEMAP, a health and community development organization in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, contacted St Clair in the spring of 2008 about starting a similar program across the border.

“Send me a dance teacher,” said St Clair, who regularly trains potential Kids Excel instructors. FEMAP selected one of their staff members, Zulema Galindo, who has a background in folklorico, contemporary dance and ballet. In the fall of 2008, Galindo spent two weeks apprenticing with St Clair. The teachers kept in touch and last spring, Galindo shadowed St Clair in the classroom and behind the scenes, as St Clair coordinated a dance performance. In September 2010, Galindo began teaching more than 200 low-income students in Ciudad Juárez, a city that has become the epicenter of an increasingly violent drug war between Mexican drug cartels. Galindo now makes weekly visits to El Paso, where she observes St Clair teach the same curriculum she’s implementing in her own classroom.

When Galindo travels to El Paso, St Clair, who speaks some Spanish but is not fluent, relies heavily on nonverbal communication to demonstrate teaching techniques and classroom management methods. “Interestingly, the work is not really about talking,” she says. “It’s about doing and showing.” When necessary, other Kids Excel staff members serve as translators, and they are developing a Spanish version of the Kids Excel curriculum.

Both Kids Excel and Galindo’s program use the National Dance Institute (NDI) curriculum, which operates within the school day. Students learn fractions by experimenting with tempo, describe movement with adverbs and metaphors and move like liquid, gas and solid molecules. Furthermore, NDI techniques ask students to self-assess, meet standards of excellence and demonstrate focus—all valuable skills back inside the core classroom.

“The idea is that the success that they experience within an NDI program is going to spill over into every aspect of their life,” says Tracy Straus, NDI’s associate artistic director. In addition to her work with St Clair, Galindo spent five weeks in New York and Connecticut last summer, training with NDI and observing lessons in schools and summer camps.

NDI programs, which are free of charge to participants, target low-income students who have little, if any, firsthand experience with the arts. In El Paso, Kids Excel reaches 2,220 students in 26 schools; every fourth-grader in the schools attends a weekly 45-minute class. The sessions are upbeat and fast-paced. “There’s a whole bag of tricks for keeping children interested while they learn,” says St Clair.

Working with St Clair has exposed Galindo to an entirely new way of working in the classroom. “The first time I went to see Gemtria, I was struck by the rhythm of the class and her natural, expressive way of working with the students,” Galindo says. Unlike more traditional teaching methods, the approach allows students to make decisions and act as leaders, whether by asking them to demonstrate a step for the rest of class or perform a solo in a school performance. Galindo has learned to make teaching less formal, to use humor and to find ways to make every child feel successful. “I love what the class gives to the children,” she says. “In Juárez, the children are very stressed. In this class they can find something that lets them forget for a while what’s going on.”

“We’re trying to reach children who are challenged and troubled,” says St Clair. “You have to learn how to engage and motivate and inspire and bring those children along with you.” She trains Galindo and other instructors to assess qualitative details: How much fun are the students having? How much are they sweating? How engaged are all members of the class?

Asking for such complete commitment slowly changes the way that children perceive themselves. “As teachers we can kneel down in front of a child and say, ‘I’m not giving up on you,’” says St Clair. “That may be something they’ve never heard before in their lives.” DT

Sara Versluis is a freelance writer and former English teacher who lives in Minnesota.

Photo by Mario Galindo, courtesy of FEMAP

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.

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.