Brian Friedman

 

"Get dramatic about it!" Shoulder surgery didn't keep Friedman from teaching full-out in New York for The PULSE.

"Dance was my life–even before I was a dancer. My training started from osmosis. When I was 7 years old I would watch my mother teach at Scottsdale Community College and I knew what was going on with dance. I had an eye for it,” says Brian Friedman, dancer, choreographer, director, teacher and entrepreneur, about his passion for the artform. Now 33, Friedman commutes between Los Angeles and London, where he is creative director on “America’s Got Talent” and Simon Cowell’s TV show “The X Factor.” A virtual rock star of the dance world, he’s choreographed for pop icons Britney Spears and Beyoncé and also served as a judge and choreographer for three seasons on Fox’s hit television show “So You Think You Can Dance.” But, of everything Friedman does, including designing shoes and clothing, he says teaching is the most rewarding.

 

“As long as I can move and talk, I will teach,” says the shaved-headed dynamo. “For every person who’s trained their whole life, it’s their duty to give back and make sure the next generation is strong. It also helps other people achieve their dreams.”

 

Friedman began dreaming early on. With his father often away on business, the youngster formed a close bond with his mother, Judi Friedman, who taught him time steps, piqués and pirouettes before he actually enrolled in dance class at age 11. Shortly thereafter, he moved to L.A. with his mother to begin working as a dancer, landing roles in the musical Newsies, directed by Kenny Ortega (High School Musical), and the TV series “Kids Incorporated.” Friedman, who also attended the Dupree and Tremaine dance conventions, recalls his on-the-job training as invaluable.

 

“I learned so much on movie sets,” he says. “Working with Kenny and then with Twyla Tharp on I’ll Do Anything, I was able to soak in things at such a young age.” As a youth, he also worked with Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul and others.

 

Friedman makes up a verbal score full of whimsy and imagery as he demonstrates: "Whack it, drop it, shoo-shoo gaga woo; one two bam-bam tooga-tooga woo-ha; you hold here, crown of life, press it down, hugga bug." Friedman makes up a verbal score full of whimsy and imagery as he demonstrates: "Whack it, drop it, shoo-shoo gaga woo; one two bam-bam tooga-tooga woo-ha; you hold here, crown of life, press it down, hugga bug."

Friedman cites choreographer Marguerite Derricks (Fame) as his main dance teacher and Jamie King (director of Rihanna’s Last Girl on Earth Tour) as idol and mentor. “Marguerite took me under her wing and gave me the technical base. Jamie is the person who made me see a bigger picture and want to be more—a creative director and choreographer, not only a dancer.”

 

Then, at 16, the born multitasker opened a dance school with his mother in Scottsdale, where he taught jazz and hip-hop classes and she instructed ballet and tap. Although that school no longer exists, Friedman makes use of his teaching expertise by co-directing The PULSE On Tour, a national convention with classes featuring headlining choreographers Wade Robson and Mia Michaels, among others.

 

However he chooses to express himself, Friedman is commanding: six feet tall and sporting a tattoo on his right forearm with the Hebrew words for “to be free.” Charismatic onstage and off, he is articulate and self-possessed—but without a “divo” attitude. His enthusiasm is contagious, befitting his superstar status on YouTube, where his videos receive hundreds of thousands of hits. He’s also got more than 30,000 followers on Twitter. But charting his life in 140 characters doesn’t begin to tell the story, a big part of which is his work at The PULSE.

 

“Teaching up to 700 people at one time is difficult,” says Friedman, “but you make sure that every student feels connected to you. When I’m onstage, I make it a point to be personable so that each person feels I’m talking to them and that the note or correction is directed at them. I want them to feel that I understand who they are and that I’m on their level. Once you have that relationship, anything is possible.”

 

Regarding studio teaching, Friedman says it’s a different animal, with the hands-on approach to technique and routines helping make students better dancers. “You can be more thorough [in the studio],” he says, adding, “If it wasn’t for studio teachers, we wouldn’t have professional dancers.”

 

Friedman’s co-director at The PULSE is choreographer and “SYTYCD” judge Mia Michaels. The two met in the ’90s at a dance convention, and Michaels began working with him at The PULSE several years later. Together, the pair approves the whole faculty roster, as well as classes, the layout of production and the Protégé Program, which offers scholarships to young dancers.

 

“The kids love Brian, but they know they can’t pull any [stuff] with him,” says Michaels. “We’re old-school like that. They’ve got to do the work, and we let them know when they need to be better. As teachers, we’re bringing artistry to the kids, instead of a dance-school mentality.”

 

Friedman is particularly proud of his students who have gone on to have successful careers of their own, including Tucker Barkley, 20. A hip-hop dancer and choreographer, Barkley studied with Friedman at conventions for eight years. Singled out by Friedman at a Monsters of Hip-Hop event, Barkley has supported himself by dancing and choreographing since he was 15. He attributes much of his success to Friedman.

 

“In class you are pushed to the full extent of your ability,” says Barkley. “When you mess up, he’ll give you that look and you know you’re wrong. Then you have to pull up and fix yourself, and everything will work out. You have no choice but to grow and become a better dancer because Brian doesn’t take no for an answer. He won’t let you not give it everything you can.”

 

As for the cultural impact and über-popularity of shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” Friedman opines freely, especially on the contestants’ “wow” factor—the spectacular jumps and turns that make audiences go wild.

 

“A lot of the dancers have trained like Olympic athletes,” he points out, “and you can’t look down on that. But there’s not a lot of artistry in, say, running track—it’s technical and falls under athleticism. I choose artistry with strong technique over tricks any day.”

 

“I enjoy a dancer who has it all: technique, artistry and athleticism,” Friedman adds. “Being able to push yourself further than what is expected is an amazing gift. That’s the wow factor for me.”

 

And while Friedman doesn’t have much downtime (he splits his time between London and L.A. and travels about 40 days annually with The PULSE), he’s happy to hang out at his Southern California home.

Besides, says Friedman, his work is fun and that’s what fuels him. Indeed, much of his work ethic stems from his philosophical attitude—that, essentially, nothing’s impossible. When he puts on his headset and commands those hundreds of dancers to “be an open canvas and paint this new movement into your space,” it is not only seductive, it seems within reach.

 

“It’s all about self-belief, determination and drive,” he says. “Immerse yourself and you can truly achieve anything.” DT

 

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning freelance arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Dance Magazine and other publications. She also teaches Dance as an Artform at Santa Monica College and the University of Southern California.

 

GETTING GANKY

 

This flamboyant, extravagant dance style, which Brian Friedman helped create and popularize, is all over the commercial dance scene. Friedman was one of the first choreographers to use the style and initially referred to it as “ganking.” Using Britney Spears as his muse, he created his own recipe for a “ganky stew,” which he describes as “a mixture of drag queen performance, vogueing, house and thrashy jazz.” He adds: “It has to be powerful and dominant, almost like you’re getting into a fight with a dance move. Mash it, stab it, kill it and then walk away with confidence.”

 

Though ganky seems like feminine movement, it’s definitely not just for females. “While it’s very girly dancing, sexism should be squashed,” Friedman says. “This style will continue to spread like wildfire,” he continues, “because it’s fun to watch and even more fun to do.” —Monica Levy

 

Click this link to watch clips from Brian Friedman's class for The PULSE On Tour in New York City.

Photo by Rachel Papo

Health & Body
Getty Images

The term "body shaming" might bring up memories of that instructor from your own training who made critical remarks about—or even poked and prodded—dancers' bodies.

Thankfully, we're (mostly) past the days when authority figures felt free to openly mock a dancer's appearance. But body shaming remains a toxic presence in the studio, says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, psychologist for Atlanta Ballet: "It's just more hidden and more subtle." Here's how to make sure your teaching isn't part of the problem.


Watch What You Say...

The cardinal rule of a body-positive teaching style: Correct your students' dancing, not their bodies. Say you're about to ask a dancer to take up more space, possibly because that dancer's legs are on the shorter side. "Just tell them, 'I see you're holding yourself back and I think you could travel more,' or 'I love how fast you can move, but you need to work on making that movement expansive,'" suggests Kathryn Morgan, former soloist with New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet. "The only time I'll bring somebody's body into it is in a positive way, like, 'Your arms are so long and beautiful. Let's use them more.'" In Morgan's experience, there's always a way to reframe a correction so dancers don't conclude that any given body part is a problem that needs fixing.

Jenifer Ringer, former New York City Ballet principal dancer and current dean of dance at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, is careful not to set damagingly narrow expectations when using imagery. To get a young dancer to engage their core, she asks not for a "flat tummy," but for them to bring "belly button to spine." Morgan adds that there's a world of difference between "Why is your butt out?" and "Lift the front of your hips."

Ringer also regularly encourages students to feel and express gratitude for their chance to dance. "I remind them just how miraculous their bodies are," she says. "I want them to marvel at what they're asking their bodies to do." (This is far from just a feel-good ritual, by the way: Gratitude has been scientifically proven to improve poor body image.)

Ringer, smiling in a blue shirt and black pants, sits in a chair at the front of the studio, smiling at the teen ballet students in front of her

Jenifer Ringer. Photo by Paige Ray, courtesy Colburn School

...And What You Don't Say

If paired with a misplaced frown or a terse tone of voice, even a neutral comment from you can trigger a shame spiral in a self-conscious teenage dancer. Of course, teachers can't always leave their own problems outside the studio. Still, be mindful that negative nonverbal cues might be misread as disgust with a dancer's physicality. For students who are mature enough, a little self-awareness and transparency from you can go a long way. Dr. Christina Donaldson, a licensed clinical psychologist who co-founded the Soul Meets Body self-esteem workshop for dancers, says, "When I work with teens, if I have a bad day I'll tell them, 'I've just had a tender day. So if I come across in any way that seems odd, please don't take it personally.'"

Speaking of self-awareness, even the best-intentioned dance educators have internal biases against certain body types. Be honest: Do you devote more time and energy to students whose physical characteristics remind you of your own? Do you agree that "every body is a ballet body," yet tend to give harsher (or fewer) corrections to dancers who don't fit the traditional mold? "Treating dancers who look a certain way differently is a subtle cue that only certain bodies have potential," says Kaslow. Distribute your gifts as a teacher fairly.

Approach With Caution

All that said, there are times when a dance teacher feels the obligation to talk to a student about what's going on with their body. The most obvious instance is sudden weight gain or loss, which usually (but not always) means there's a new emotional or physical issue in the student's life. Because "most children don't have control over what is bought and put in front of them to eat," Donaldson suggests talking to the caregiver if you're concerned about a student aged 18 or younger.

If the student is older, Morgan suggests leaving out the question of weight unless the dancer brings it up on their own. "I would ask, 'Are you okay? I've noticed you seem a bit tense/unhappy/unfocused/anxious.' Start by making sure, in a way that has nothing to do with their body, that they're okay mentally." This strategy becomes especially key if a dancer is intentionally limiting food intake, because giving attention to the visible changes in their body could actually motivate them to double down on restricting. If the student brings up any body concerns of their own accord, you can then "address it from a health and life standpoint," Morgan advises. "Make sure they know you care about them as a human being, not just as a dancer."

Morgan corrects a teenage girl in a pink leotard's tendu at the barre. Two other teen girls at the barre observe

Kathryn Morgan. Photo by Travis Kelley, courtesy Morgan

Body-Positive Studio Policies

A major cause and result of body shame is the drive to compare one's appearance to others'. A thoughtful dress code is one way to reduce this urge to compare and despair. Morgan remembers what a relief it was to put on black tights for partnering class at the School of American Ballet—"which we especially appreciated during the run-up to our periods"—and to wear a skirt during after-lunch classes. When Ringer was formulating Colburn's dress code, she decided that tweens and up would wear dark shades, not pastels. "They're also allowed to wear any leotard they feel comfortable in, as long as it's in the color scheme," she says. Building some flexibility into your dress code can help students feel their best in the studio.

Keep in mind that members of your studio population who already feel different or marginalized—dancers of color, male dancers and trans or nonbinary dancers, to name a few—are at increased risk of body dysmorphia. Body image isn't just a female problem, says Donaldson: "Dancers who are born or identify as male experience eating disorders too. It's just that they fixate on calves and pecs, not waists and thighs." Consider whether your changing rooms, guidelines on hairstyles and tights colors, and other studio rules are as accommodating and affirming as they can be for each and every dancer.

News
Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.


His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.


"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone

Zoom classes have created a host of challenges to overcome, but this new way of learning has also had some surprising perks. Students and educators are becoming more adaptable. Creativity is blossoming even amid space constraints. Dancers have been able to broaden their horizons without ever leaving home.

In short, in a year filled with setbacks, there is still a lot to celebrate. Dance Teacher spoke to four teachers about the virtual victories they've seen thus far and how they hope to keep the momentum going back in the classroom.


1. Respecting the Basics

Like many ballet instructors, Kate Crews Linsley, academy principal at the School of Nashville Ballet, designed her remote classes to home in on foundational elements like stance, alignment and connection of the eyes to the port de bras. Now that her dancers have returned to the studio, they're reaping the benefits of spending so much time focused on these details.

Linsley says there's also been a mindset shift: an increased willingness to pause and figure something out before moving forward. "On Zoom, because we couldn't do all of center, we could take our time at barre," she says. "The kids saw that it's great to ask questions—to make sure that they really understand the principles of each movement. Everything in ballet builds into something else. Going back to basics is not going backwards."

2. Fostering Creativity

"Since the start of the pandemic, my class content has been driven toward imagination," says Dana Wilson, who teaches jazz for New York City Dance Alliance, among other organizations. For example, she might ask students to picture themselves dancing on a beach. "We're all tired of our living rooms," she jokes—but the exercise is about more than an escape from reality. "Taking ownership of the element of imagination helps you develop a creative identity and makes you intrinsically more interesting to watch," Wilson says. "I want imagination to be a baseline, no matter the style." When dancing at home instead of in a room full of peers, students can feel safer experimenting. Then, the next time they're asked to call on their creativity in person, they'll be ready to shine.

3. No Hiding in the Back

For choreographer Al Blackstone, who teaches theater dance at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway in addition to working with young students at Downtown Dance Factory in Tribeca, one benefit of Zoom is that it puts every dancer on equal display. "Kids that tended to hide in the back of the room suddenly weren't able to do that," he says. From the start of virtual classes, Blackstone made it a point to frequently call out names and give specific feedback, so everyone felt seen. As the months passed, "I saw progress in leaps and bounds," he says. His DDF students have returned to the studio, and while he admits they aren't all rushing to the front row, "they are making bolder choices," he says. "They're more willing to stand out. Dancers who were meeker are more confident, and that's a blessing."

4. Committing to Conditioning

As Linsley and her staff were tweaking their curriculum for Zoom last spring, they built in extra cross-training: yoga, Pilates, floor barre, even high-intensity interval training for stamina. "We wanted to make sure that their fitness was still there when we came back to the studio," Linsley says, "but we didn't want kids to do it on their own." Thanks to this strategy, teachers were able to smoothly guide students back into the rigors of in-person classes, despite the new roadblock of dancing in a mask. Stretch and conditioning offerings will be a permanent part of the School of Nashville Ballet academy's syllabus going forward.

5. Dancing On Camera

Dance films have become a mainstay during the shutdown months, but even in normal times, dancers can benefit from camera training. That's why Wilson has been using her Zoom sessions to teach film terminology and to get dancers comfortable with performing for a camera rather than an audience. "I'll say 'camera right' instead of 'stage left,'" she explains. "I'll ask them to have only their head and shoulders in the frame by this eight-count. You have to think from the device's perspective instead of your own, which takes some rewiring." The Zoom grid allows dancers to see whether they're hitting their marks correctly in real time. For students who hope to go pro, especially in the commercial realm, this aspect of virtual class is a major bright side—and proves there's a market for dedicated dance-for-camera classes in the future.

6. Increasing Access and Opportunity

When anyone can log on from anywhere, training with big-name teachers is much more accessible. But that's just the tip of the digital iceberg. At Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, Utah, students came back in person before many of their coaches were able to travel. So, the school has hosted virtual master classes as well as virtual private coaching on site. "We have a big movie screen," says Kim DelGrosso, Center Stage's artistic director. "It's almost like the teacher is in the room."

At the School of Nashville Ballet, students have been able to Zoom-chat with luminaries like Kathryn Morgan and Marianela Nuñez, and Linsley hopes to schedule more virtual conversations with pros. "To have someone at a top level sit down and share their story—that's a connection we shouldn't let go of," Linsley says. "It's one thing to watch someone dance, but to get to ask them questions and hear their struggles is precious."

7. Encouraging Discipline and Drive

Without hands-on instruction, "dancers have to take ownership of their own training," says DelGrosso. "They have to self-correct. It's their responsibility not to cheat the movement." That sense of discipline will serve them well—if they can hold on to it. Luckily, Linsley points out, the dancers who stuck with remote learning despite it being less than ideal tended to be extremely driven. "So many of our students said, 'I don't care where it is or what's happening, I'll show up. I want to perfect this tendu because it's important to me,'" she says.

Blackstone feels that pushing through Zoom's technical difficulties may have also helped dancers come to appreciate their art form even more. "Anyone who's still taking class at home by themselves has to ask 'Do I really want to do this?'" he says. "The people who've kept at it have found a renewed sense of purpose. They do it because they truly love it."

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