Since July is pretty much considered summer-intensive season all over the country, it would seem a little odd, maybe even a little disloyal, to write about something other than dance this month.

And not only because I dance. Dance studios provide something everyone wants: confidence. Underneath all the classes, costumes, and rehearsals, that's what a studio is, basically. A place to practice confidence.

Though for some of us, it's less of a place and more of a temple.


And I thought I knew what I wanted to say about dance before I sat down, it was only once I began that I could see who, and not what, lies at the heart of my story: Lisa.

Lisa always did know how to get me talking.

I remember the day Lisa found her way to my beginning adult class. After it was over, she looked at me and said, "You don't recognize me do you?"

I looked at her more closely, studied her eyes, and there she was: the Lisa I knew in college! I knew no one at our private girls' college in Boston then and Lisa felt like a safety net, a way to identify with the school and the city and with myself within both. But time passed and we lost track of each other. Neither of us bailed, nothing like that. But we, being young, accepted the truth of friendship for what it was, impermanent. We never told each other we were sorry, we just moved on. Some of us to Facebook comings and goings. Some of us privately. All of us eager to get to our futures pounding at the door.

"I figure I can talk about losing weight all I want, but maybe it's time to actually do something about it," Lisa said. "But I was afraid to come to your class. Because, well, look at me."

"You just need to get back in shape, it won't take long," I said.

"I don't know," she rolled her eyes. "You have the quintessential dancer body and poise. I hate you."

That's when I knew we'd be friends again.

My next thought was how no one had ever called me a quintessential anything before. And that I must be doing a pretty good job at hiding all of my quintessential imperfections and insecurities.

I did sneak a sidelong glance of her body, and something I hadn't seen in class came into focus, a dancer's body, rusty, yes, but visible beneath the Lycra. I imagined her concentration narrowing before executing, absolutely killing, a pirouette. I wanted to say as much. But I decided to wait a few classes, see if she stuck it out.

Wait! My insides protested. Why hold back? My mother was skimpy with compliments. If someone gave me one she'd say something like, "that's going to swell her head to the size of a watermelon."

But I know how one sincere compliment can do wonders for a student's self-confidence.

Lisa looked down at her legs and frowned. "I don't think wearing black hides the pounds as much as people think."

"Do you mind if I ask you something? Did you keep dancing after college?"

"How can you tell? I mean, by the looks of me now."

"I can see it, it's there."

She scooted in a little closer, "I took ballet for nine years before I became a veterinarian."

I pictured her in her a white scrubs top and matching pants, hair pulled back in a ponytail, stethoscope around her neck, a few pounds plumper than she liked in her thirties and then, over time, the pounds adding up because, after a ten hour work day, there is no time left to take class. I instantly feel sympathetic. I know that struggle. I remember those months, then years, of writing under media deadlines, as one of those stages of my life when I was trying to accomplish so much. I'd arrive at the studio dog-tired after nearly talking myself out of class. And I remembered how I had once fallen asleep in the dressing room.

The other students had gathered near me to watch. "Is she asleep?" said the one closest beside me. And I realized, yes, yes I am asleep! And it wasn't long after that that I quit writing journalism. I thought there must be something wrong with me if I wanted out of my mental space so badly I had to fall asleep to find peace, like a soldier in the trenches of war, and how my poet friend said, "well, of course, you want out of that world, you're an artist." And how, after that, I began to know and trust myself in a way I hadn't before. I learned about the need to take good care of my inner life. But I can honestly say now that it could have gone the other way. The exhausted side might have won out if my mantra hadn't been "energy begets energy." The first time I heard the saying was from my old friend Marcelle. She was talking herself into going for a bike ride after a long day of single-parenting and working as a masseuse. After that, I added on to the saying: "Energy begets energy, Mary Lou, it's all up to you."

"I knew it!" I said.

"But I've gained, like, a hundred pounds since then. It's going to be an upward battle," said Lisa.

"It's a battle you can win."

She stood up, stretched her arms over her head, and I noticed that she'd appeared taller to me than she really was. Maybe because she is one of those people who always make you feel like only your best, most sincere, self will do.

I thought how her work had become helping animals and mine helping people to dance, and how we both must have learned at a young age how much easier getting through life would be if we tried to make things better for others along the way.

She didn't say anything for a moment. I didn't either.

But we were both clearly, forwardly, openly there.

To Share With Students
Performing with Honji Wang at Jacob's Pillow; photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

Celebrated New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns has recently been exploring collaborative possibilities with dance artists outside ballet. Just this year she was guest artist with Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Company, and performed on Broadway in her husband Joshua Bergasse's choreography for I Married an Angel. This summer she appeared in a highly anticipated series of cross-genre collaborations at Jacob's Pillow, titled Beyond Ballet, with Honji Wang of the French hip-hop duo Company Wang Ramirez, postmodern dance artist Jodi Melnick, choreographer Christopher Williams and more. Here she speaks with DT about the effects of her explorations.

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As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

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It can happen so quickly. One moment a promising student is strong and pushing their way forward to success, and then suddenly they begin to evaporate before your eyes. Research has consistently shown that dancers are at least three times as likely to experience an eating disorder compared to the general population. So even if you are doing everything "right," you may still find yourself advocating for the wellness of a student battling disordered eating. By setting a proactive groundwork of support and confronting the issue head-on in the studio, you may have the power to change the movement of disordered eating in dance.

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Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

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Photo by Aidan Gibney, courtesy of Lanzisera

Walking into Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles at 11:30 am on any given Tuesday or Thursday, you're likely to find a large group of dancers flocking to take Nick Lanzisera's class. Millennium's staff says his contemporary class is so popular, he often fills their rooms with up to 80 students.

Lanzisera, whose professional credits include The Oscars, The Grammys, the MTV Video Music Awards, High School Musical 2 and 3, Fame, Footloose and more, got his teaching start as a substitute for one of his mentors, Erica Sobol, at Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio. Though he didn't expect to become an educator until later in his career, Lanzisera enjoyed the experience so much that he began to sub in regularly. One of those classes was attended by a manager at Millennium, who invited him to teach their new contemporary class, and he has maintained the same Tuesday/Thursday slot for nearly eight years.

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To Share With Students
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of SAYE

The Shawl-Anderson Youth Ensemble, a key component of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center's youth program in Berkeley, California, strives to develop the whole person, not just improve dance technique. And its caliber of performance has made SAYE visible and respected in the San Francisco Bay Area over the past 13 years.

As a pre-professional, audition-based, modern performance group for ages 14 to 18, SAYE has its dancers co-create at least six pieces with professional choreographers each year. These dances explore relevant topics for teens, like bullying, coming-of-age and claiming identity.

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Risa Steinberg (center); photo by Alexandra Fung, courtesy of In the Lights PR

In an adult ballet class, Kimberly Chandler Vaccaro noticed a woman working so hard that her shoulders were near her ears. "I was going to say something about her tension, but I didn't want her awareness to go there," says Vaccaro, who teaches at Princeton Ballet School. Instead, she told the dancer to remember that breathing muscles are low, below her sternum. "Then we talked about moving from the shoulder blades first, and how they're halfway down your back. She started this lovely sequential movement, and it eventually solved the problem."

Drawing attention to symptoms, such as tense shoulders, might create more issues for a dancer if the cause of the problem remains unaddressed. Simply saying "shoulders down" might compromise alignment as the dancer tries to show a longer neck or forgets to breathe, jeopardizing movement quality. Teachers can be strategic and communicate information in a way that doesn't aggravate the situation. "Dance will never be easy," says master teacher Risa Steinberg, "but it can be easier if you're not folding new problems on top of old ones."

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Site Network
Lindsay Martell at a class performance. Photo courtesy of Martell

More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:

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"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"

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Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.

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Any teacher who works with little ones knows that props can make class time run much more smoothly. That said, it's often difficult to find the right mix of tools that will both capture a child's attention and are manageable enough to carry around from one location to another—or pack up and store easily. Anything too big or too heavy is out, and some of the props you love to use with little ones may not be the most practical choice if you're a freelance teacher traveling to multiple studios throughout the week.

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Instagram
Paige Cunningham Caldarella. Photo by Philip Dembinski

It's the last class of the spring semester, and Paige Cunningham Caldarella isn't letting any of her advanced contemporary students off the hook. After leading them through a familiar Merce Cunningham–style warm-up, full of bounces, twists and curves, she's thrown a tricky five-count across-the-floor phrase and a surprisingly floor-heavy adagio at the dancers. Now, near the end of class, she is reviewing a lengthy center combination set to a Nelly Furtado song. The phrase has all the hallmarks of Cunningham—torso twists atop extended legs, unexpected timing, direction changes—which means it's a challenge to execute well.

After watching the dancers go through the phrase a couple of times, Caldarella takes a moment to troubleshoot a few sticky spots and give a quick pep talk before having them do it again. "I know it's fast," she tells them. "I know it's a lot of moves. And you're hanging in there! But stick with the task of articulating everything—try to hyper-explore that."

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Dance Teacher Tips
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Q: What tips do you have for creating end-of-year performances that teachers, students, parents and administrators will all be happy with?

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Savion Glover instructs students in rehearsal for NJPAC's revival of The Tap Dance Kid; photo by Yasmeen Fahmy, courtesy of NJPAC

Tony Award–winning tapper Savion Glover is giving back to his hometown community in Newark, New Jersey, by directing and choreographing New Jersey Performing Arts Center's revival of the Broadway hit that launched his career, The Tap Dance Kid.

September 13–15, you can see the group of young dancers Glover handpicked from throughout the New Jersey and New York areas, as they bring the 1983 story to life in a new and modern way. Here, Glover shares a bit about creating movement inspired by the show's original Tony Award–winning choreography by Danny Daniels, as well as what it's like to revisit the show that changed his life.

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