Studio Owners
Photo courtesy of Sean Boutilier Academy of Dance

It wasn't the most glamorous vision of a successful business owner's life: For five years, Sean Boutilier lived above a dry cleaner in Toronto, splitting the rent with his girlfriend at the time. He had sold his home and was living minimally to give himself the cushion he needed to move his studio, Sean Boutilier Academy of Dance, from a rental space into a building of his own.

Today, Boutilier owns two Toronto studios with a combined footprint of 23,000 square feet. Not only has he seen a growth in space and enrollment (to nearly 1,900 dancers), he's also seen an increase in revenue—well into seven figures. "We are making millions in revenue. More than one, more than two, more than three…" he says, adding that the value of his business (his net assets) reaches eight figures.

But his stats aren't something he exactly advertises to his customers.

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Dance Teacher Tips
Photos by Amy Kelkenberg

Whether a dancer has too much or too little, turnout can be one of the most frustrating aspects of technique. Students often feel they must achieve 180-degree rotation to become successful in the field. In reality, the average person only has 45 degrees of external rotation in each leg, meaning their first position should be no greater than 90 degrees.

Because range of motion in the hip is ultimately determined by the joint's structure, it is impossible for dancers to increase their structural turnout. Often, though, students do not use what they have to the greatest potential. By maximizing their mobility they will find greater ease within movement, improve lines and, most important, prevent injuries caused by forcing the joints.

Deborah Vogel, co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine in New York City, says the best way to unlock external rotation is to balance out muscle strength and flexibility. “Dancers are working the turnout all the time. They're always engaged and focused so much on using it. The minute they learn how to release those muscles they bring everything into balance," she says. “That middle is where dancers last the longest."

Here, Vogel suggests exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles that activate turnout:

Sitting Stretch: For Stretching Turnout Muscles at the Back of the Pelvis

Sit on the edge of a chair with knees at a 90-degree angle and feet flat on the floor. Cross the right ankle onto the left knee. Lace your hands together and nestle them under the right knee, lightly pressing energy into your hands and toward the floor (though the knee should not actually move). Sit up straight—some may already feel tension here.

With a flat back, bring the belly button toward your legs. Continue gently pressing the right knee into your clasped hands.

Experiment with turning the upper body toward the knee or the foot to stretch different muscles.

Standing Stabilizer: For Developing the Hip Joint's Surrounding Muscles to Control Turnout

At the barre, stand in a natural first position. Bring the outside foot to coupé.

Keep the gesture leg turned out and rotate your hips toward the standing leg until it is in parallel. Return to the original position.

DON'T over-rotate and lose control of the turnout muscles as you move back to coupé.

Continue the exercise, keeping the hip extended long and focusing on pulling out of the joint. To increase difficulty, repeat away from the barre.

Finding Your Functional Turnout

A great myth is that the frog stretch measures turnout. "You want to test turnout when the hip is extended because the minute you flex the hip, you automatically have more range," says Deborah Vogel. The following exercise will help you determine not your degree of natural turnout, but what your muscles are able to hold.

Lie down on your side with shoulders, hips, knees and feet stacked. Legs should be bent at a 90-degree angle. Keeping the feet together, slowly lift the top knee, stopping before your top hip tips backward. Note the angle of the leg. This is the maximum degree of functional turnout. Your first position should not rotate beyond this angle.

To strengthen and maximize functional turnout, return your top leg to its original position and continue opening and closing the knee until you feel fatigue in the muscles at the back of the pelvis.

Tibial Torsion

Photo courtesy of Deborah Vogel

Dancers often push beyond their natural rotation to achieve the perfect line. But this excess pressure on the knee and ankles can harmfully rotate young dancers' bones. "Their tibia grows so that it starts to turnout [as pictured at right]. The bone itself has actually rotated differently in relationship with the femur," says Deborah Vogel. The best way to monitor students' turnout is by looking at their feet. If they're rolling in, gripping or lifting the arches, they are standing in a position unnatural to them.

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Dancer Health

The language of Mind Body Dancer is dynamic. "Action words stimulate change in your students," says yoga teacher TaraMarie Perri. "Try 'pour,' 'push' and 'experience' –not 'feel' or 'do or don't' Those words don't mean anything." Here, Perri and dancer Maggie Ronan use the active MBD language to demonstrate yoga poses used as a warm-up in many dance classes. While practicing, be sure to inhale and exhale in steady cycles.

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Dancer Health
Perri noticed after one or two classes how it completely changed the way she was dancing. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Guess what, dance teachers. Today is the third annual International Yoga Day. In honor of the event, a special free yoga and meditation session will be held at Castle Clinton in Battery Park, NYC, 5–8:30 pm. To register, click here. The first 500 participants get a free yoga mat!

For those of you not in the greater NYC area, take a look at how NYU professor TaraMarie Perri teaches yoga for dancers.

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Dance Teacher Tips
Love, performed in the finale concert, was choreographed by student Javia Richardson. Photo by Sam Polcer, courtesy of Young Dancemakers Company

The performance started like any other. Parents in the audience fiddled around with video cameras to make sure they wouldn't miss a moment of what was to come; dancers poked their heads out from behind the wings to see how many people were in the audience.

But this wasn't your average dance recital. The members of Young Dancemakers Company, a troupe of New York City public high school students, weren't just dancers. They had choreographed the work on display. The assignment: to create pieces personal to them. Subjects ranged from busy pedestrians in NYC to the relationship of a blind woman and her caretaker to someone lost in a never-ending cycle of drug abuse.

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Dance Teachers Trending
Jasperse observes a rehearsal at Baryshnikov Arts Center. Photo by Janelle Jones, courtesy of Sarah Lawrence College

John Jasperse has been a prominent player in many corners of the dance world for nearly 30 years. As a performer, he danced with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's Rosas. As a choreographer, he has presented his work at major venues across the globe with his company John Jasperse Projects. As an innovator, he co-founded Center for Performance Research, a rehearsal and performance space in Brooklyn. This fall, he adds one more role to his resumé: director of the dance program at his alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York.

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Dance Teacher Tips

Getting your dancers to find their rhythm in a group improvisation can be tough, but they’ll grow closer as a team.

Dance competitions call for meticulously polished routines, stunning costumes and bold performances. But the newest category hitting the competition circuit is just the opposite. It’s incredibly stripped down in presentation and movement and is centered around mess-making and risk-taking.

Once reserved for the classroom, improvisation is increasingly making its way to dance competition stages, for groups, duets and soloists. It offers students a chance to test their individual artistry and decision-making skills in a high-pressure environment. But though improv is rooted in spontaneity, it’s a skill that needs to be fine-tuned. Readying it for the stage, instead of using it solely as an exploration, is a unique practice.

The Rules

Generally, improvisation at competitions is open to soloists, duets and small groups of all ages. Time limits range from 45 seconds to 3 minutes. At some events, dancers are allowed to pick a dance style during registration; other competitions leave the category open to interpretation. Most competitions give dancers a 10-second preview of the music that has been selected for them right before they take the stage, and each entry dances to something different. After that, it’s in the dancers’ hands: Whatever they create onstage is what they’ll be judged on.

How It Will Benefit Your Dancers

Many competition dancers are very Type A—they’ve spent their training years perfecting their technique and learning how to execute choreography with exacting detail. Improvisation encourages free thinking, allows them to discover their own way of moving and forces them to get a little messy.

Putting that onstage heightens all of those ideas and adds bigger-picture elements. Instead of moving freely, students have to think about how their dancing is perceived by the judges and audience, and they have to shape the piece in the moment, while staying in tune with the dancers around them. “Group improv is all about listening—it’s always a conversation,” says Open Call judge Calen Kurka.

The challenge of improvisation onstage is different for each dancer. Shy personalities may be most timid; technicians may fall back on generic steps; outgoing students may try to overpower the group. “With improv, you really have to check your ego at the door,” says Christy Curtis of CC & Co. Dance Complex in Raleigh, North Carolina, whose dancers have been competing in the improv category for two years. “We had to talk to some dancers about making sure they were equally involved with everyone around them, feeling the people around them.” The biggest change Curtis sees in her dancers is that they learn to work better together and become closer as a team.

Knowing how to improvise in a high-pressure environment, in front of judges who are critiquing, is also essential to dancers who are auditioning for summer intensives, college programs and professional companies. And many choreographers use improv as a way to generate movement. “A lot of dance construction revolves around improvisation,” says NUVO judge Jason Parsons. “Choreographers want to see how the dancer uniquely puts themselves inside what’s being made.”

Putting improv on a stage requires students to create the piece in the moment while staying in line with the group.

From the Judges’ Point of View

The most successful improv, says Parsons, is one that makes him forget he’s actually watching an improvisation. Before dancers take the stage, he suggests circling up to talk about how the music makes them want to move, be it with big, sweeping limbs or punchy gestures. “A huge part of improv is connecting with the music,” says Kurka. “In the first couple seconds onstage, I want to see how they’re going to use the music to bring up artistic concepts.”

It’s also important that dancers use pure movement that’s individual to them, instead of strings of technical steps and tricks they’ve learned in class. “I want to see the dancer, not codified movement,” says Parsons. “I love seeing people move from their most internal and authentic place.”

If they’re going to add more technical elements, it’s important that they “fit into the conversation,” says Kurka. “It’s about recognizing that turns make an audience feel a certain way, maybe signifying freedom. Or that extending a leg can have tension.”

Susan Barr, who owns Above the Barre Dance & Gymnastics in Berea, Ohio, says she encourages her dancers to include “about 80 percent pure movement and only 20 percent technique.” Finally, there should be some kind of arc to the piece, which might include a build in movement, intensity or structure.

Though there’s no actual right or wrong when it comes to improv, the dancers certainly won’t create a successful product every single time they take the stage. That’s one of the most beautiful parts of the practice: It’s a heightened dancing experience that depends on trial and error. And the most gratifying part of that, says Barr, is watching students overcoming their fears, and, eventually, walking offstage and telling her they can’t wait to try it again. “When we first tried this, I was so nervous for the kids,” she says. “But when they came off with smiles on their faces, I knew it was the right thing.” DT

Kristin Schwab, a former dancer, is pursuing an MS at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. 

Are Your Dancers Ready?

Competition isn’t the time for dancers who have little improv experience to experiment. CC & Co.’s Christy Curtis reserves this category for her highest-level dancers, ages 14 and up. “You need dancers who are mature and creatively very open,” she says. Curtis doesn’t hold dedicated rehearsals, and instead works with her group once a week after class for 10 to 15 minutes to give them critiques.

Tips:

Improv for the Stage

  • Have a beginning “Do you want to start on the floor or standing?” asks Above the Barre’s Susan Barr. “They should always have a beginning in mind, and take a position.”
  • Think of what usually makes dances successful Encourage dancers to use the whole stage and vary the heights—on the ground to the space above their heads—and textures of their dancing.
  • Designate one dancer as the leader in group improvs “We always had one person who would pick a motif, maybe a gesture, that dancers could repeat,” says CC & Co.’s Christy Curtis. It doesn’t mean that they’re the star of the show or that they even have to stand at the front—they’re just helping guide the dance.
  • Set goals for the dance “It’s always good to come into the space with specific tasks,” says NUVO judge Jason Parsons. “Things fall short when everyone’s just moving for movement’s sake.” Maybe dancers have to include a section in slow motion, perform a series of movements in unison or have a moment where everyone is touching. Having a loose checklist helps them generate ideas in the moment.
  • Less is more “Not everybody has to be onstage the whole time,” says Curtis. “Sometimes you’re a part of the process by not dancing, or just being in the space and standing there.”

Thinkstock; courtesy of Open Call

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Dance Teacher Tips

MailChimp vs. Constant Contact

Monthly e-mail marketing is a must for a studio of any size to announce new classes, limited-time discounts and recital reminders. Two major platforms, MailChimp and Constant Contact, offer similar services with slightly different approaches.

Both have a clean drag-and-drop e-mail–building format, with options for HTML coding: MailChimp’s system is smooth for the marketing novice, while Constant Contact is more involved and sometimes finicky, but it allows for more customization. The systems’ newsletters are automatically refitted for mobile devices and easily shareable on social media. The companies also monitor traffic, so you can see who opened the e-mails at what time, as well as what links they clicked on, to help you decide how to best reach your potential and current customers.

We recommend MailChimp for small studio owners, freelance teachers and choreographers because of its pricing and sleek and simple system. If you have fewer than 2,000 total e-mail contacts, the service is free. Monthly fees apply if you wish to expand your contact list or add features like autoresponders (e-mails automatically sent on a person’s birthday, for instance, or after newsletter sign-up) and spam filter testing. A downside is that customer support is limited to an online form.

Constant Contact may be a better choice for large studios with a dancewear store or multiple locations because of its pricing tiers, bonus features (like survey and polling systems) and ability to manage many contacts. After a 60-day free trial, fees vary depending on your number of contacts and desired features (at its most basic, $15 per month for 500 contacts to $75 for 10,000). And its online and over-the-phone customer support trumps MailChimp.

Regardless of platform choice, if you run a nonprofit school, be sure to ask for their discounted rate.

 

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