Even before 19th century Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani first performed the feat of 32 consecutive fouettés, dancers have known that “spotting"—or whipping the head quickly around during a turn so that the eyes remain focused in the same location—is an essential part of multiple turns.
Spotting keeps a dancer from becoming dizzy during pirouettes, and it also gives turns a certain aesthetic sharpness. Dancers use spotting as a way to balance themselves and keep track of where the body is in space. Most dancers learn to spot when they first learn to execute pirouettes, but there are a few specific points that can improve even an advanced dancer's spotting technique. Here are some tips from the experts to help you teach better turns.
Anatomy and kinesiology are usually subjects reserved for university-level courses, but even if your kids aren't quite ready for a lecture about the relation between the trochanter and the anterior superior iliac spine, there are simple, practical lessons that can help them visualize the inner workings of their bodies and serve as a great introduction to movement concepts.
Helping students of any age experience anatomy and kinesiology concepts directly through exercises and moves they might use every day makes the information both immediately relevant and practical. They can begin to build an accurate vocabulary to describe human movement.
Segerstrom Center brings Disney to Costa Mesa, CA, schools. Fromtop: Kendra Moore of The Lion King visits Stanley Elementary; students of Eisenhower Elementary perform Disney’s Aladdin.
A whole new world opens up for a young elementary school kid performing the title role of Aladdin. It’s the first time he’s sung in front of his family, much less an audience. It’s the first time his school has put on a musical. The memory still brings tears to the eyes of musician and teaching artist Cynthia McGarity, who works with Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California.
Therein lies the power of a remarkable program created by Disney Theatrical Group, which partners nationwide with arts organizations in nine cities to bring the joy of being onstage to youngsters in Title I schools who might never have thought of performing in a musical in their lives.
“We had cast a boy as Aladdin who had this wonderfully rich voice—just like chocolate—but he was very, very shy. At first he wouldn’t even hold his head up to say a line audibly,” McGarity says.
“Watching him, with his shoulders back and his head held high belting that tune out was...” she pauses as her voice cracks. “His parents approached me after the show, and his father was weeping. He said to me, ‘I never knew that he could do that. I will make sure he has the opportunity to keep singing.’”
“I think we probably were not nearly aware of how much we would fall in love with this program,” says Talena Mara, Segerstrom Center’s VP of education. “We weren’t sure what we were getting into, and it was a big nut to crack for a small staff, but we found, after going through the first year, that this program has made an intense and remarkable change, not just in the kids and the faculty, but in the internal culture of each of the schools.”
Launched in 2009, Disney Musicals in Schools was developed by the Disney Theatrical Group—which produces and licenses Disney musicals—and Music Theatre International, which, among other services, works with schools and community groups on pocket (JR. and KIDS) versions of Broadway shows appropriate for younger audiences.
“It was born to fill a need we identified,” explains Lisa Mitchell, senior manager of education and outreach at Disney Theatrical Group. Over the years, as Disney licensed the abridged versions of its musicals for school-aged children to perform, she says, it became apparent that most requests came from suburban schools, and very few from urban and lower-income areas.
“Here we are in New York City, we have kids performing in Aladdin from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Long Island, and yet they weren’t doing these shows in their own schools,” she says. “But rather than just going in and staging a show for them, we wanted to plant the seed of an ongoing, sustainable program. Disney Musicals in Schools is deliberately designed to provide professional development and training to teachers so they can learn how to get a show up on its feet.”
In just seven years, Disney has fostered the program nationwide via local arts organizations in New York, Nashville, Las Vegas, Seattle, Costa Mesa, Newark, Cleveland, Lansing and the San Francisco Bay Area, and brought it to 138 schools with nearly 13,000 kids at the third- through fifth-grade levels participating.
Like Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, each local institution receives a two-year $100,000 grant to identify four or five underserved, urban elementary schools and match them with four or five pairs of musical theater professionals who will work with each school’s faculty over 17 weeks, training them in the art of putting on a show. The teaching-artist visits, CDs of the musical tracks, scripts, DVDs of examples and the license to perform a special half-hour elementary school KIDS version of popular shows, such as Aladdin, The Aristocats or The Lion King, are all part of the grant, and offered free to the schools.
Disney Musicals in Schools also provides a detailed teacher’s handbook that includes chapters on how to run an audition, how to rehearse the kids, ideas for costumes and staging notes. Organizations like Segerstrom select the schools from among applicants and tap into their connections to find the professional mentors, many of whom have Broadway national credits, in addition to a passion for education. The teachers and students provide the enthusiasm and energy.
“Learning the routines, getting kids engaged, how to cast, how the staging should look—our teaching artists taught us so much,” says Victoria McKenney, a first-grade teacher at Everett A. Rea Elementary in Orange County. “We had a 40-kid cast, and I was overwhelmed at first. It was my first year teaching and I thought, ‘How on earth am I going to do this?’ But we met twice a week and for another half-hour after each rehearsal with the teaching artists, and they were really inspirational. The kids loved it—nobody dropped out—and it’s really brought these kids extra opportunities to shine outside the classroom.”
This year, McKenney and her fellow faculty at Rea will take what they’ve learned and mount another Disney KIDS musical, The Lion King, but on their own. “I’m feeling more confident than ever, even though I had no experience before this,” she says. “We believe we can do it.”
In the second year, Disney Musicals in Schools continues to support schools with a free performance license with ShowKit materials and invites faculty back for a Musical Theater 201 workshop designed to build on skills they gained the previous year, explains Mitchell. “The end goal is that they keep doing this, and 90 percent of schools that begin the program continue a long tradition of doing a show,” she says.
“It is incredibly well-designed,” says Mara. “It’s really helped unify the staff and admin, and the kids and the teachers of these schools, and allowed them to feel proud and energized and engaged. The parents became very connected with the program as well, so it changed the community where the school was located. We did not anticipate that that would happen to the degree it did, so we were blown away by its impact.” DT
Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Photos by (from top) Doug Gifford, Nick Koon; both courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts
Trinity Academy of Irish Dance focuses on developing male dancers.
In the Irish dance world, as in the larger dance world, women tend to outnumber men. But with the Men of Trinity program, Trinity Academy of Irish Dance is encouraging boys to step into class and even more important, continue dancing into their teens.
With three-time World Irish Dance Champion Peter Dziak as inspiration (and assistant instructor), Men of Trinity offers boys from as young as 3 up to young adult a special twice-monthly class that reinforces their regular technique classes and fosters camaraderie both inside and outside the studio.
The four pillars of the program are bonding, competition, performance and teamwork, says Dziak, who followed his brother into dance classes at 4 years old and was highly influenced by male role models.
Trinity prides itself on creating an environment that welcomes male dancers, says Mark Howard, who founded Trinity Academy of Irish Dance in 1981. The organization has 15 locations in the Chicago area, serving roughly 1,000 students. Out of that, 80 boys (90 percent of total male enrollment) take part in the program at the school’s Elmhurst, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, locations. Howard’s wife Natalie was Dziak’s coach for most of his competition career and heads the new program. Dziak, now 17, also credits former Trinity student Joe Smith with mentoring and inspiring him to become a teacher. Smith will organize the program’s activities outside of the studio.
In the bimonthly boys-only classes, Dziak emphasizes the natural athleticism of Irish dance but keeps it playful. “I tell them if we dance hard, then we can play hard,” he says. “So we work hard at dancing for the majority of the time, then we get to play soccer or wall ball or tag football.”
Those games can teach concepts the guys can use in dance, whether it’s learning how to coordinate their bodies in space in soccer, building awareness of the position of other players in football or practicing the snap of a wrist in tennis. And while he encourages healthy competition, which naturally appeals to the youngsters, Dziak sees the class as promoting a sense of teamwork as well.
“Mark has taught me, through Irish dance, life skills that I continue to use now, and that’s what I want to teach,” says Dziak, who notes that the competitive phase of an Irish dancer’s career is often finished by the time they go to college. “These kids are building relationships, learning how to listen, to take in information and work with it and communicate, all these crucial skills that will help them throughout their lives.” DT
For more: trinityirishdance.com
Mary Ellen Hunt, a former dancer, now a teacher, writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Photos by Kim Rudden, courtesy of Trinity Academy of Irish Dance
Choreographers across the country started using mattresses in their own dances, after watching Kherington Payne and Stephen “tWitch” Boss in Mia Michaels’ bed routine on Season 4 of “So You Think You Can Dance.”
“Ideas always come from someplace else,” says Shely Pack-Manning, national president of Dance Masters of America and director of The Shely Pack Dancers in California. She recalls one particularly popular routine by Mia Michaels on “So You Think You Can Dance” that used a bed as a prop. “After the ‘mattress piece’ was introduced, I can’t tell you how many times I judged a competition where a mattress was dragged onto the floor,” she says. “A lot of them had a different premise and that’s fine. But what we’ve seen too many times nowadays is taking entire sections of choreography—four phrases of a 32-count, for instance—with the exact same patterns. It’s not mistakable.”
Protecting your work from being lifted is something many choreographers worry about. But what can you do to make—and keep—your work your own? We’ve compiled advice from both a professional and a legal perspective.
What to Watch For
You may be observing a group during competition or browsing around on YouTube, when you spot some moves that make you think, “Hey! That looks exactly like my dance!” But is it really?
There are ways to identify if someone has actually—by legal standards—copied your work. Julia Haye, an attorney in entertainment law and partner at Greenberg Glusker in Los Angeles, says the main question is how “substantially similar” a sequence of dance moves in one piece is to that in another dance. Social-dance steps and simple routines, she notes, are not copyrightable, and many dancemakers may be surprised to learn that music does not matter, only the composition and arrangement of movement.
“The technical moves themselves are like words for an author,” she says, and therefore are available for anyone to use. That means it would be tough to argue someone stole a jump or turn from you, because they are single moves. But, says Haye, “when you put a series of words together, they become paragraphs and therefore copyrightable. For example, everyone might be doing à la seconde turns into leaps, but are they then rolling out of that and into the same stylistic moves? It doesn’t even have to be exactly the same, it just has to be substantially similar for there to be copyright infringement.”
What Action Can You Take?
Especially in the age of social media, there are some simple ways to protect yourself from copycats. Haye observes that any work eligible for copyright protection is copyrighted once you “fix” it in a tangible way—meaning record it as a video or notate it. So it’s definitely a good idea to upload videos of your choreography to YouTube or Facebook. It establishes the date you created the work and may be used to prove you were the first to make the piece. Pack-Manning, who also cowrites plays and musicals with her husband, puts a copyright (©) symbol with her name and a date on her work as a deterrent to would-be copiers. “It lets them know it’s our original work, and we don’t want you to copy it,” she says. Haye confirms that the copyright symbol is optional (it isn’t required for copyright protection for works created after 1978), but “it is a way to put would-be infringers on notice of your rights, and that you intend to enforce them.”
You can go further and register a work with the U.S. Copyright Office, which costs $40 per piece and entitles you to certain types of damages and penalties if you choose to sue someone who has infringed on your copyright. In the end, it may not be worth the time and money to sue, but springing for official registration for particularly important routines can offer you peace of mind.
Trust the System
Whether or not you pursue legal action for potential copiers, there’s a comfort in knowing that officials keep an eye out for plagiarizing. “It affects judging, I can tell you that,” says Pack-Manning. “I look at these pieces for their own value—at technique, execution, costuming—but in the back of my mind, if I’ve seen that dance somewhere else, they’re not going to get a choreography score that’s very high.”
Additionally, there may be action you can take on site, if you spot other studios performing your work at a competition. At Dance Masters, choreographers who feel that their work has been copied can bring that to the attention of a grievance
committee. “Our advisory board will consider whether it was copied and if there should be a fine or penalty,” Pack-Manning says. “What usually happens in that situation is that particular number will not go on to championship, and it won’t be eligible for an overall top score.”
Learn to Let It Go
Though it’s essential to take precautions and to keep a sharp eye out for copiers, make sure concerns about choreography theft don’t interfere with creating and presenting your best work. “We’ve had people copy our ideas,” says teacher and choreographer Jennifer Jarnot, co-owner of the Artistic Fusion Dance Academy in Colorado and a judge for national dance competitions. “We don’t confront them because that’s not our nature, but it’s taken a long time to get to the point of saying, ‘Well, we inspired somebody, and we have to let it go.’ You can make yourself crazy becoming a detective.” She adds: “You have to be secure enough in your own work and know that you’re going to continue to create new things.” DT
Mary Ellen Hunt, a former dancer, now a teacher, writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Keep from Being a Copycat
If you’ve been inspired by another dance, ask yourself these five questions to guard against plagiarizing someone else’s work.
1. If you’re emulating a phrase of movement, how many of the same steps are you using? How long is the phrase?
2. How many similar movement phrases from the original appear in your piece?
3. Are the transitions from one step to another unique?
4. Do you use different formations?
5. When you look objectively at your piece, do you have the sense that you are copying it, or have you given it your own personal twist? —MEH
Source: Julia Haye, entertainment lawyer
Photo courtesy of FOX
The greatest difference between studio students and those in a K–12 setting is that students in the studio generally want to be there,” says Elisabeth Gosselin, who teaches at Harlem Success Academy in New York City. But, she notes, even studio dancers need a teacher with strong classroom-management skills and compelling incentives. For any good teacher, the key to running a smooth classroom is setting high expectations for behavior and performance, giving explicit and direct instructions and being consistent with consequences. Those goals can be a challenge in a private studio, where parents might have a different relationship with the instructors than they might with a teacher in a public school.
And yet, for kids, the studio and the classroom don’t need to be so different from each other. In fact, children can benefit from seeing strategies they’ve encountered at school repeated in the dance studio. Encouraging continuity from the academic day into the dance day can really stimulate students, says Baltimore public school teacher Judy Kurjan-Frank.
“Earlier this year a little first-grade boy told me that they were learning about ants in their classroom. They all seemed excited about that unit, so I bought some books about ants,” she says. “We read them together and made a list of all the movement words. We practiced doing all the movements, and then we made a dance and presented it to their classroom teacher. They loved their ‘Ant Dance’ because it was based on their ideas and interests.”
This and many other ideas, both practical and philosophical, can translate well from a K–12 dance class to any kind of setting. In that spirit, we asked classroom teachers to share their strategies.
1 The Power of Planning
Although some studio instructors teach from a set curriculum, many do not. Megan Doyle, the associate director of dance education at the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center in NYC, has taught in both studio and classroom settings, but it was in the K–12 environment that she first began keeping a notebook of her lesson plans and working out specific themes for her classes. “It was so important and helpful for me to break down what my plan was for each lesson,” she says. “Does the warm-up match the center work? How will this take the students to the next level?”
If she’s introducing jazz pirouettes, for instance, her warm-up will focus on the difference between parallel and turned-out positioning. Exercises across the floor might concentrate on spotting and alignment in a fourth-position preparation, and then the combination will include the pirouette.
Not only does the planning give you a record of your classes, it also helps you chart a student’s progress. “When you’re talking with parents in a studio setting, you often have to explain why a child might need to stay in Jazz I for another year,” Doyle says. “Having a record of what they’ve learned through the year gives a sense of a student’s progress and helps you verbalize that.”
2 Word Walls and Charts
On the subject of charts, Doyle also suggests creating “word wall” posters to help dancers pick up vocabulary, especially as they’re learning new steps. “They don’t have to be permanent,” she says. “You can use sticky paper and fix it to the wall. As they learn a new dance step during technique classes, you’d write it on the wall. In tap class, I might write down words like ‘stamp, shuffle, brush, shim sham.’ When they learn maxi ford, I’ll write ‘stamp, shuffle, leap, toe’ next to the step, so the students can look at and refer back to it.”
Doyle also uses the wall space to follow her dancers’ achievements. She puts up a chart with every student’s name and writes the names of steps across the top. For young kids in hip hop, for instance, she might track isolations (head, shoulders, ribs, hips), slide clap, crazy arms, kick-ball-change or rock step and give a child a star every time they learn a step. “It also helps the parents see what their children are doing whenever they visit the studio,” she adds.
3 Freeze Frame
Managing energetic kids in a classroom is often a matter of setting up simple but useful structures with the group. Judy Kurjan-Frank, who teaches in Edgewood Elementary School in Baltimore, likes to use a drum as part of her classroom-management toolkit. “They learn very early on that two beats on the drum means ‘Freeze!’” she says. “We play games where I try to trick them, so they have to always have one ear open for the sound.”
For instance, you might instruct that one drumbeat means students freeze and put their hands on their knees. Two drumbeats might mean to immediately sit on the spot. In the process, kids are learning to pay attention to auditory signals, as well as when it’s appropriate to move or not move. Once the idea is in place, drumbeats are a quick way to quiet a busy class, or hit the “pause button” on rambunctious students if you need to make an announcement, for instance, or help an injured student.
Instead of drums, you could use other noisemaking devices, such as a tambourine or hand claps. “Whatever you decide to use, whether it’s drum, claps, etc.,” she warns, “make sure that that specific phrase or pattern is only used for ‘freeze,’ otherwise it won’t be effective.”
4 Spatial Awareness
Kurjan-Frank helps kids develop awareness of others around them and how they’re moving in the room with a concept called Space Bubbles, which she learned from Jennie Miller at P.S. 3 in New York City. This is especially helpful in a larger group. “I explain to the kids that we have invisible bubbles all around our body and we are inside of the bubble all the time,” she says. “Our bubble travels with us around the room, and when we expand our body to take up more space, so does our bubble. When we make our body take up less space, so does our bubble.”
If the dancers bump into something, whether it’s the wall or each other, she sends them to the “bubble hospital,” a designated place in the room where they have to sit out for one turn while their bubble gets fixed. Be sure to let the students know that if they pop a bubble by accident, they are not in trouble, but they will need to be more careful next time. If a student pops his or her bubble on purpose or is obviously being careless, they’ll sit out for two or three turns.
“Mostly, though, the kids don’t want to have to sit out of the game, so they try to avoid popping bubbles,” says Kurjan-Frank. “This helps to create a safer space and dancers who are more aware of their bodies in space.”
5 Silent Signals
Creating an atmosphere of respect in the classroom is key to Melinda Waegerle, an assistant professor in dance education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In her classes, she uses the American Sign Language gesture for “respect” as a quick, silent method of communicating with the dancers. “I want the students to know they need to respect themselves as learners, to respect others, their teachers, that they need to respect ideas. Having someone make fun of ideas or the way you did something can be devastating,” she says.
Her students also learn to use other signs during class, to signal if they need to use the bathroom, for instance, so the interruptions to the flow of the lesson are minimized. “The students are savvy to that and pick up on it quickly,” she says.
6 Drawing Out Shy Dancers
“I was a shy little dancer myself,” says Waegerle, “so I often think about how to get the kids out of feeling pulled back.” She will sometimes play with the idea of range of motion to make dancers feel comfortable, giving them a “step” that starts with a very small movement. “I do it silly small,” she says, laughing. “A finger motion that moves into a hand, then the arm, then the torso. We make it super-silly, teeny-tiny stuff that becomes gigantic. It’s a fun thing for kids who are shy.”
The game sometimes evolves into a circle activity in which Waegerle keeps a beat going as each dancer contributes a small movement. “They have to do it eight times in a row,” she says. “I’ll go first, and then we move to the next person in the circle. You really have to think about ‘What can I do eight times in a row that everyone can do?’ From there we’ll do movements that we repeat four times, two times, one time.”
With the beat continuing on, everyone gets to be a leader as well as a follower, and there’s little time to get embarrassed or feel self-conscious.
7 Changing Places
Waegerle also notes that dancers have a tendency to head to the same places in the room from one class to the next. “I like to mix it up so no one can claim turf,” she says. “So I’ll call out ‘new spot,’ and while I play the drum, they have to find a new place in the room.”
Her students have to stay alert because they know that at any point in class she might ask them to change their location. “It breaks up the little cliques that happen,” she says. “For students who are uncomfortable or shy, if there are cliques, it makes them even more shy.”
8 Positive Narration
To keep the atmosphere upbeat, Gosselin uses positive narration, a simple strategy that turns the negativity of a correction into a positive encouragement. “Instead of telling kids what not to do, I emphasize telling them what to do,” she says. “After giving my instructions, I highlight the students who are following my directions exactly. I also correct the students who are off task after I have given them a chance to correct the behaviors through positive narration, framing it as a reminder.”
It’s a tip that works best with younger dancers, Gosselin says. “If the kids are at the barre, I might ask them to use their abdominals. So as they do their pliés, I’ll call out specific names—‘Tammy is engaging her abs,’ ‘Julie is lifting up.’”
This reinforcement also serves as a reminder to the entire class, giving them a chance to respond positively.
9 Special Tasks
One of the ways Kathleen Isaac addresses ownership of classroom etiquette and rules is to give special jobs to dancers in the class. She might assign entrance monitors to make sure students enter the room quietly; or shoe inspectors, who make certain the dancers’ shoes are neatly lined up; or back checkers to walk around the room with wands, reminding others to sit or stand up with tall dancer backs. A student might also be the class DJ, turning the music on or off and adjusting the volume. It can be a way to help a behaviorally difficult student to focus, but it can also encourage students to rise to a role of responsibility.
“This student-centered approach allows me to continue engaging students individually, in pairs, small groups and as a class,” says Isaac, who specializes in K–12 teaching practice as director of the Arnhold Graduate Dance Education Program at CUNY Hunter College.
10 Learning Styles
In any class, particularly large ones, you’re likely to have groups of dancers who learn in a certain way, whether they’re visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. Jeffrey Dobbs, who teaches at the Queens Valley School of the Arts in Flushing, NY, suggests observing students for a few classes to assess what kinds of learners they are, and then grouping together those who share similar styles.
“While I’m teaching, of course, I’ll talk and say the steps while I’m doing it, so they hear over and over again,” he says. “But then I’ll ask the groups to work on their own for 10 minutes, and during that time, I’ll go around to each group and work with them using the learning style that works best for them.”
“It takes a lot of patience, but it’s worth it,” he says. DT
Mary Ellen Hunt is a former dancer and dance teacher.
©Thinkstock; photo courtesy of 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center; photo by Roxie Waegerle, courtesy of Jesse Wharton Elementary; photo courtesy of Elisabeth Gosselin; photo courtesy of Kathleen Isaac; by Catherine Kramer, courtesy of Queens Valley School of the Arts
Dance now, or go to college? Knowing how short a dance career can be, it’s the question on many dancers’ minds as they weigh their desire to start working as soon as possible against the valuable assets of a college education.
Many colleges, however, are making it easier for students to get a head start in their careers. Whether through partnership programs with professional companies or flexible, independent studies, students are finding ways to get a leg up professionally while working on their degrees. Here, three dancers share how their alma maters helped them pursue the real-world opportunities that kick-started their careers.
Kelly Yankle, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music
Sarasota Ballet coryphée Kelly Yankle had hoped to join a company after high school. But when an injury prevented her from auditioning, she decided to pursue a BFA in dance from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. During her sophomore year, however, she auditioned for Cincinnati Ballet and was accepted into its trainee program. Luckily, she didn’t have to give up her studies.
CCM’s dance division allows its upper-level undergraduates to take on traineeships or apprenticeships with companies like Cincinnati Ballet, Ballet West, Louisville Ballet and BalletMet while simultaneously continuing their degree. Students generally aren’t permitted to do so until their junior or senior year so that they can finish academic requirements. CCM counts company work as an internship, which can fulfill credits in ballet, modern, pas de deux and performance; ballet masters generally submit evaluation letters and grade students on their work.
Yankle’s schedule was grueling. Typically, she would fit in academic classes before 9 am, then head to Cincinnati Ballet, where she’d be in company class and rehearsals until the evening—often rehearsing for school shows on her own during breaks. Afterward, she’d return to CCM for more classes. “It was a busy, busy time,” she says with a wry laugh. “To this day I’m still recovering.”
Dance Department chair Jiang Qi encourages students to carefully consider whether the experience will provide the same quality of training. “Here they might dance the lead in Giselle or Serenade, whereas in a company they would be in the background for a whole year,” he says. “Also, you might miss things like extra courses that could prepare you for later in your career—that extra anatomy class that might help you study physical therapy later.”
Still, for Yankle, the balancing act was worth the extra work. She was eventually promoted into the company, where she danced for the next five years. “I’m really grateful I [pursued my degree] the way I did. It shows you don’t have to choose.”
Nick Wagner, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Of course, not every campus location allows students to smoothly shuttle between professional jobs and academic classes. For Nick Wagner, a freelance dancer in New York City, the Mark Morris Dance Group’s annual residency at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offered a valuable networking experience.
U of I’s Mark Morris Shadow Program enables promising students to shadow company members while they’re in residence, allowing them to get a taste of life as an MMDG dancer. The program doesn’t offer credits for independent study, but it can be practical in other ways.
Wagner says that the experience—which included taking company class, watching rehearsals, attending performances for free and an invitation to MMDG’s summer intensive—not only gave him insight into the company’s way of working but also opened a door for him professionally. He applied to the program his sophomore year and attended the summer intensive in NYC on scholarship, staying in a company member’s apartment. Since the program entitles participating students to continue shadowing in subsequent years, he became a familiar face to the MMDG staff. In turn, he got to know the repertoire.
That familiarity came in handy a few years later, after Wagner graduated in 2009 and moved to NYC. In 2011, MMDG hired him as a supplemental dancer for its large-scale production of L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Afterward, he danced as an apprentice with the company through 2013 and continues to perform with MMDG as a supplemental dancer, including a tour to Madrid this summer.
“Having the ability to network before I graduated was really valuable,” says Wagner. “I still had to work my butt off, but I was in the right place at the right time, and it gave me that opportunity. The company knew me, and sometimes the hardest part in dance is just getting noticed.”
Natalie MacInnis, Pace Unversity
Even short-term professional experiences can be invaluable for college dancers. That was the case for Natalie MacInnis, who graduated from Pace University’s commercial dance program in May. Late last year, she received a call from Galen Hooks, a choreographer she had worked with the previous summer, offering her a two-week contract as an assistant choreographer on “The X Factor.”
MacInnis’ case wasn’t so unusual for Pace’s commercial dance program, which prides itself on helping students build a professional network and giving them flexibility to go after jobs and build their resumés. She consulted with program director Rhonda Miller to see if there was a way for her to go to Los Angeles and still complete her coursework. Miller allowed MacInnis to take her finals early and excused her from the last few classes of the semester.
“I helped run rehearsals, teach choreography, clean and set some numbers,” says MacInnis. Working with Hooks, she also assistant-choreographed Paulina Rubio’s guest shot on the show, and worked with lighting, sound and costume designers on the creative production side.
The experience of working on a major television show gave her budding resumé a huge boost. “It’s great to be able to get our faces out there and still have [the university] guide us as we’re doing it,” says MacInnis. “I think it’s important for us to take what they’re teaching us in the classroom and immediately apply that outside in the world.” DT
Mary Ellen Hunt is a dancer-turned-teacher who also writes for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Photos (from top): by Peter Mueller, courtesy of Kelly Yankle; courtesy of Natalie MacInnis
Malu Rivera-Peoples is taking her suburban California school to new levels with pre-professional ballet training.
The music can barely be heard from the foggy courtyard, where Malu Rivera-Peoples and Cristina Fargas-Newell (“Miss Tina” to the students) allow a visitor to observe through the windows of a spacious studio as 20 or so youngsters dutifully execute grands battements in Cuban ballet star Jorge Esquivel’s ballet class. “That’s much better,” says Rivera-Peoples, the school director, nodding toward a young girl who is stretching into a long arabesque line. “She’s improved a lot this summer. They all come back mid-August, because we start rehearsals right away, so they’re working hard to be in shape for the fall.”
Westlake School for the Performing Arts is the bustling home to nearly a thousand students who soak in a rich tapestry of classes that reflects the vibrant cultural backdrop of the surrounding neighborhood. Founded in 1991 by Rivera-Peoples and Karen Dycaico, Westlake has six studios housed in the Doelger Arts Center in the Westlake district of Daly City, just south of San Francisco. The quiet, well-manicured suburb is only a stone’s throw from the ocean in an area that is largely made up of families of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.
It’s a school that has taken honors at events like the Youth America Grand Prix, where it’s won the “Outstanding School” award four times, as well as at the International Dance Challenge, the American Dance Awards and the North American Dance Championships. This summer, the WSPA dancers garnered special attention at the New York City Dance Alliance Nationals, where 11-year-old Jasmine Cruz took home the National Mini Female Outstanding Dancer trophy.
A trim, compact woman in her mid-50s, Rivera-Peoples is given to speaking expressively with her hands, and her eyes sparkle with a warmth that belies her no-nonsense attitude. A native of the Philippines, she trained with Felicitas “Tita” Radaic, one of that country’s top dancers, and as a teenager she joined Ballet Philippines, while simultaneously running her own one-room studio in Manila. By the time she was in her early 20s, Rivera-Peoples was not only dancing professionally and teaching, but also working on her college degree. The stress, she says, led to burnout.
So in 1983, she quit dancing and joined her father and sister in the Bay Area where she and Dycaico, a former student, started a summer program with 35 students under the auspices of the Daly City Parks and Recreation Department. “We didn’t even have a phone—I forwarded the Parks and Recreation public phone next to the clubhouse to my home, so that when we weren’t there I could still receive the calls,” she says.
By 1994, the program had outgrown the facility, and the city offered her 14,000 square feet in a former primary school that she now leases. Her husband Paul, WSPA executive director, personally installed dance floors, mirrors and barres.
With 960 students, Westlake now employs a 22-member teaching staff in a range of genres, including ballet, tap, contemporary, hip hop, musical theater, voice training and Polynesian dance. Ballet classes, which have a total enrollment of 426, make up the bulk of the school’s offerings. WSPA supports four youth companies: a classical ballet-based dance company, a musical theater troupe, a hip-hop crew and a Polynesian company called Te Orama or “The Vision,” led by respected Tahitian Kumu Hula Anthony Waipa Manaois. Annual revenue is slightly more than $1 million.
Over two decades, three programs have evolved: A General School caters to 580 recreational students, who take class once or twice a week and perform only in a final recital; a more rigorous performance program, open by audition, is geared toward another 390 dancers who want to participate in more performances and competition; and the professional division, which is open by invitation only and designed for dancers pursuing a serious career in classical ballet.
Rivera-Peoples added the professional division in 2010 after a dancer won a Hope Award in the pre-competitive division of Youth America Grand Prix and was invited to the New York finals. WSPA had for years been competing at the YAGP regionals, with students acquitting themselves modestly, but the director realized that a schedule of once- or twice-a-week classes was not enough to prepare her student technically for what she would face in New York.
That year, Rivera-Peoples met Viktor Kabaniaev at YAGP. Kabaniaev, who had danced with the Eifman Ballet, was teaching and choreographing for Miko Fogarty, the dancer featured in the film First Position. Rivera-Peoples invited Kabaniaev to create a program for WSPA.
“She told me, ‘I want my students to be trained like yours,’” says Kabaniaev, who at the time was co-director of Diablo Ballet’s Apprentice Program in Walnut Creek, CA. He received his training at the famed Vaganova School in St. Petersburg. “Malu is a very strong woman and very straightforward. At one point, she said perhaps I should go a little easier on these students, but I said I have to do what I do, or you can fire me.”
In a classroom steamed up from the efforts of the students, Kabaniaev gives a grueling, somewhat unorthodox ballet class to a score of dancers ages 11 to 17. The level of discipline and focus in the room is impressive. The dancers have memorized the set combinations, moving quickly through the standard pliés and tendus, dégagés, battements and stretches in a sequence devised by Kabaniaev to develop strength with movement quality. His barre eliminates certain traditional staple steps that he has deemed as less useful to modern ballet training. “When I was in school,” he says, “we did all the time flic-flac. Why? I never used it on the stage.”
His barre takes the legs high in développés and grands ronds de jambe and penchées early in the class, then returns to smaller movements like frappés before going back to développés in a back-and-forth sequence that emphasizes both speed and flexibility. There is no talking among the students at all, and they barely stop for breath in between combinations for two and a half hours.
Rivera-Peoples acknowledges that while Kabaniaev’s class might seem somewhat unconventional to ballet purists—she herself was trained in the methodical Royal Academy of Dance curriculum—it accomplishes what she had hoped. “You can’t argue with the results,” she says, noting that the level of technical ability in her students has risen considerably.
“It’s not for everyone,” she says frankly. “These are kids who want more, who are willing to embrace the work. In the beginning I was trying to weed out those who didn’t have the turnout or the facility. But in reality, often it’s the dancers who don’t have those things who become professionals because persistent ones will work for it. And the ones with all the facility tend to just drop out. When auditioning now, we consider the work ethic of the child.”
After the class ends, 11-year-old Jasmine Cruz and 12-year-old Tristan Brosnan rehearse the pas de deux from The Flames of Paris. Kabaniaev has coached the diminutive Cruz for two years, cultivating an aplomb that many a professional dancer would envy. “Jasmine was always talented, but when she first came here she was not polished,” he says. “So I thought about what the most efficient way was for me to help this kid, and that was to make her extremely precise, work on the way she closes to fifth, how she takes a hand.”
Both children drew notice at the 2013 YAGP and New York City Dance Alliance this past summer. In addition to winning the National Mini Female Outstanding Dancer title, Cruz was awarded a scholarship to attend the American Ballet Theatre Young Dancer Summer Intensive.
“Jasmine was a little fireball,” says Kate Lydon, director of ABT’s Studio Company. Lydon taught Cruz in a class at NYCDA. “She had so much energy and ability beyond her years. She had a particular professionalism, seriousness and drive that came through, and she was incredibly passionate. More than her young age, what struck me most was that she had a love and a drive and seemed to soak up every word and opportunity to dance we offered her.”
Cruz and Brosnan hurdle the technical challenges in rehearsal with apparent ease, though both Kabaniaev and Rivera-Peoples correct details with a seriousness tempered by praise. Discipline and a commitment to hard work are values that she and Kabaniaev are keen to foster in all their students.
“These competitions can be very helpful,” says Rivera-Peoples. “They really set goals for them every year. But every time we compete, I tell the kids, you compete against yourself. It’s not about dancing better than the others, it’s about pushing yourself to a different level every time. We’re not into the plaques or the trophies. Of course, that’s nice, but even if you don’t get a placement, if you performed on that stage better than you did in the studio, you’ve already won. And when they don’t perform the way they should have, even if they win, we tell them, ‘It’s a good thing these judges recognized what you had done, but I didn’t think that was your best.’ They have to understand that, and who else will tell them the truth but us?”
After suffering a brain stem hemorrhage a few years back, Rivera-Peoples now teaches only two days a week. Even so, she stays on top of how all her students are doing and promotes an open-door policy with parents.
“If they have a concern about anything, parents can come in to talk,” she says. “I know not everyone likes talking with parents all the time, but I’m always open to parents working with us and letting us know if a child isn’t happy. I tell them I don’t know your child as well as you do—I only see her a few hours, but I would like to know her. Dancing and training is a very personal thing, they’re not just numbers in a class.”
“In the bigger picture as educators, we are building the whole person, not just teaching them dance,” she continues. “They carry that to adulthood. If they’re not in a company, they’ll be the supporters, the philanthropists, the audience. So we are building in them a love of the art.” DT
Mary Ellen Hunt is a dancer-turned-teacher who also writes for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Photos (from top): courtesy of Spotlight Competition; courtesy
of WSPA; Lem Abdon, courtesy of WSPA; courtesy of WSPA; Visual Arts Masters for YAGP, courtesy of WSPA