Calling it Quits

Every dance teacher has a similar story about “the one who got away”: the stellar student who had the physique and technique to become a professional dancer, but who chose to quit dance completely. “Devastated” and “secretly in tears” are some of the ways teachers describe their reactions to this kind of loss.

“At around age 14 or 15, most kids are rethinking who they are as people,” says Mike Riera, PhD, author of Staying Connected To Your Teenager. “The reasons for wanting to quit are many: They feel burnt out, they’re under too much pressure or maybe there are other things they want to do.” But rather than standing by helplessly as your protégé walks out the door, there are several ways you can help teenagers assess their situation and determine whether quitting is the best choice.

Scenario One: Family Pressure

Phyllis Balagna, owner of Steppin’ Out—The Studio in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, recently received an e-mail from one her most gifted dancers. In it, the 14-year-old apologized for quitting, but wrote that she intended to follow in her father’s footsteps to become a surgeon.

Parents who are very proud of their child’s dance achievements at the age of 10 may start steering them away from a career in dance, even subconsciously, as the child gets older. “We’ve noticed in our area that many of our students’ parents are doctors or lawyers, and they don’t want their kids to have the difficult life of the artist,” says Kathy Blake of Kathy Blake Dance Studios in Amherst, New Hampshire.

In order to teach both parents and top students about the real world of dance, Blake encourages parents to take their kids to professional auditions, and she also brings groups of students to Los Angeles every other year to talk to professional dancers and hear firsthand stories about the business. When parents and students have an understanding of the world of dance outside the studio, including the availability of dance scholarships, they are more likely to consider it a viable option.

Scenario Two: Type A’s

Often, star pupils are overachievers in other areas of their lives, including athletics and academics, and are eventually forced to choose between dance and another activity. A few years ago, Sue Sampson-Dalena, owner of The Dance Studio of Fresno, California, noticed that one of her top students was drifting off. “You could just tell, Jason’s soul wasn’t in it,” she says. He then announced that he wanted to devote his time to soccer.

Reluctantly, Sampson-Dalena let him go. But for Jason, taking a breather from dance ultimately strengthened his commitment to it—which is often the case for overbooked students. Eight months later, Jason started taking dance classes sporadically and eventually asked to get back on the dance team. “When Jason returned, he was a fabulous leader, he’d built up more upper-body strength and was even more talented,” Sampson-Dalena recalls. Jason Glover went on to become a professional dancer and a top-10 finalist on the hit show “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Of course, you can’t always assume your type-A student will come back after a break. Sometimes it helps to sit down with both student and parent and discuss the situation. A student of Balagna’s who’d been dancing since the age of 3 considered quitting her senior year in order to focus on AP classes, college applications and her cello. Balagna met with the student and her mother and asked the girl what she thought she could handle. Together they figured out a workable dance schedule. “It was a win-win situation for both of us: I am going to get to see her graduate through my studio, and she was able to do what she loves while preparing for the next step in her life,” says Balagna.

You might also try offering your student a job as a teaching assistant or asking her to mentor a young dancer. By expanding her role in the studio, she may deepen her commitment to dance.

Scenario Three: Burnout

After winning trophies and dancing leading roles at a young age, star students may feel that there’s nothing more to strive for once they hit their teens. And it’s also tempting for teachers to overschedule their talented dancers with competitions, classes and recitals. “Quite often, because we want them to be the best, we overwhelm them and they don’t have a life outside of dance,” says Joanne Chapman of the Joanne Chapman School of Dance in Ontario, Canada. “We have to be really careful that we don’t exhaust them physically and mentally.”

If a student feels burnt out, you can suggest that she cut down the number of classes she’s taking each week for a few months. That allows her a chance to rest without leaving the studio behind, and it gives the student time to reevaluate her future in dance. Balagna also has her dancers try different classes with different teachers at the studio in order to keep things fresh. “You have to encourage them to find the right path for themselves,” she says.

If you do find that one of your dancers just can’t take it anymore, don’t forget one of your greatest resources: your former students. When a talented teenager in Sampson-Dalena’s studio felt burnt out and started talking about giving up dance, her former student Jason had a heart-to-heart with her. His words of wisdom convinced the young girl to stay the course and keep on dancing.

A Final Note

Keep in mind that these tips apply not only to your best pupils, but to all your students. Sometimes a dancer will come to you because she feels she’s not good enough and sees no point in continuing. Taking the time to find the right approach for her may help rekindle her love of dance. In the end, there may be nothing you can do but let your students go. With these strategies, you can feel satisfied that you did your best for them and for your business. DT

Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist based in New York City.

Photo: ©iStockphoto.com/George Peters

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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