Class Rivalries

Whispers at the barre. Glares across the studio. Sour attitudes. When jealousy invades your dance class, it quickly begins to affect your students’ behavior—and their performance.

Ballet class can be especially competitive. Here, Boston Ballet School students take the barre.


Classroom rivalries are an inevitable, and unpleasant, aspect of teaching. “No matter how fair you are, the issue is going to come up somehow,” says Shely Pack-Manning, artistic director of Shely Pack Dancers in Half Moon Bay, California. “And you have to be very careful dealing with jealousy issues—because they can get ugly, fast.”


So what should you do when rivalries begin to interfere with your teaching? Here are some suggestions.


Check in with the Parents


Pack-Manning—whose pupils have included numerous competition winners and one of the current Billy Elliot Billys (from the touring cast)—once had a student who was gossiping about another dancer, and the situation got progressively worse. She had conversations with both young dancers and learned that the source of the problem was actually a parent: The gossiper’s mother was fueling the daughter’s jealousy.


Dr. Brian Goonan, PhD, a sports psychologist and consultant at the Ben Stevenson Academy at Houston Ballet, says children tend to have greater issues with jealousy if their families worry more about the outcome of a performance than the effort that was put into it—or if the family’s hopes of stardom are resting on the child’s shoulders. Parents can spark jealousy by asking questions like: “Why can’t you be like so-and-so?” or “Why did she get the part?”


“The child now has someone who is their competitor, and they are at a developmental level where all they know is that another child is getting them in trouble,” Goonan says.


If initial inquiries prove that parents are involved, teachers should tread carefully. “Some parents are fiercely protective of their ‘prodigy,’ and for those parents, any teacher who mentions flaws is not going to be allowed to intervene,” Goonan says. “Not until the family matures will the child be able to get past it.” But if parental involvement appears to be relatively minimal, a conversation with the child and her parents can help ease tension in the classroom.


Reconsider Your Class Structure


Sometimes the way a dance studio is organized can contribute to jealousy and rivalry issues. Teachers at studios with many class levels, for example, might find that students become jealous of peers who are placed in more advanced classes.


Elaine Gail Gardner directs the Nichols Dance Ensemble, an after-school program at a private school for grades 5–12, in Buffalo, New York. The program doesn’t have the hierarchical class structure one sees in traditional studios. Instead, it is designed like a modern dance company: If you are in class, you are in the company and in the show. There are no auditions for parts, and peer practice and interaction is encouraged. “As the students grow in experience, they begin to help each other more,” Gardner says. “Those with greater abilities take on more leadership roles, such as leading group rehearsals to recap a new repertory or filling in missed information to kids who were sick at the last class or rehearsal.”


While the Nichols Dance Ensemble might not be a feasible model for private studios, certain elements of the program—eliminating auditions for parts in the end-of-the-year recital, for example—can ease rivalry issues at studios of any type and size.


Prevention with Young Dancers


Encouraging an everyone-is-equal attitude from the very beginning of training is one of the best ways to prevent rivalries from developing. With her younger students (ages 5–11), Pack-Manning chooses one dancer each class who becomes “star of the day,” and the rest of the students applaud this classmate. “You have to work to be the star, and I don’t give it to them for being the best dancer,” Pack-Manning says. “I give it to them for being the best listener, or if they remember something I said the class before.” She keeps track of who’s been recognized so everyone gets a chance.


She never has in-class competitions or compares one student to another. “It works. When they get to the level of junior and senior company, they really do support each other completely,” Pack-Manning says. “It’s instilled in them.”


At this age, it’s also important for teachers to communicate to children that dancing is about more than just being the best. Goonan says, “Students should be encouraged to enjoy the artistic outlet and to appreciate the efforts of everyone in the class or on the team.”


Working with Older Students

The Nichols Dance Ensemble, directed by Elaine Gardner


While more advanced students might have outgrown the “star of the day” approach, teachers can still create a sense of equality in class. Evelyn Cisneros-Legate, a former star of San Francisco Ballet and now principal of Boston Ballet School in Marblehead, Massachusetts, aims to recognize each student whenever possible, whether with a smile or a correction. “I try to create a team feeling in the class by saying something like, ‘Look at your friend and watch what they are doing,’ or by pointing out how a student has a special gift that we can all appreciate,” she says.


Goonan adds that it can be helpful for adolescents—ages 12 to 22—to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their role models. He suggests picking a professional dancer everyone knows and discussing why she might be a good fit for some companies or roles and not others. “It’s not because they’re not good, but because everyone has different talents,” Goonan says. “This helps students see that it’s more important to parlay their strengths than to be someone who has no weaknesses.”


Older students are ready for a discussion about how subjective dance can be, especially with regard to level placement or casting. “It might be hard and it may hurt feelings,” Cisneros-Legate says, “but it’s a life lesson that’s going to have to be learned, and what a benefit it is to learn it in an environment that’s not hurtful.” DT


Hannah Maria Hayes is a freelance writer with an MA in dance education from New York University.


Photos from top: by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet School; by Jon Anderson, courtesy of Wayne State University

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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