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Confessions From a Dance Teacher: My Students Taught Me the Power of "Thank You"

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Hardly anyone writes thank-you notes anymore. But sometimes it's just not OK to send a text, and there are two notes I've been meaning to mail the good old-fashioned way. I know most people say it doesn't matter anymore, but I don't think that's true. What's true is that it is easy to stop remembering what matters.

It's not like I believe there is nothing like the good old days, I don't. In too many ways they weren't. But each day I'm trying (vigorously!) to balance my embrace of change with the unwise choice of embracing too much of it, blindly. But I'm getting ahead of the story here. So let me back up.

I was 23 when I taught my first beginning adult dance class in a rickety room above Dollar's Garage on Water Street in Port Townsend, Washington. It was an effort to keep myself from moving too fast for beginning students, but I enjoyed the challenge. I chose music measured enough for students with less experience to enjoyably make their way through. Except, clearly, it was still too fast.


Two of my students, Leslie and Chen, (both in their mid-30s, possibly early 40s at the time), were the best sports in the world. And the worst...well, the only good thing you could say about their technique was that they tried. At recital time, I choreographed a simple sequence for them, cross walks in a circle, but who was I kidding? The steps are adorable for children to present, but it's a toss-up whether people would love adults for trying, or drop their heads in pity.

As recital drew nearer, Leslie and Chen's smiles tightened to mirror what they were feeling inside. When I asked if they'd like to run the ticket sales at the door instead of performing, I could tell they were as relieved as I was. "We're all best at something," said Leslie, with her arm around Chen's shoulders. They'd become friends outside of class, and it made me happy to feel like the catalyst for bringing them together. We all need friends for support.

One evening I heard Leslie say to Chen, "You say she's your friend, but when I hear you talk to her, you don't even sound like yourself." It was such an intimate thing to say, I remember turning my back to give them their privacy.

"What do you mean?" Chen said.

"Like when you said you thought Aaron (the only man in our class) was weird, just because she thinks so, when you don't even feel that way. You love Aaron."

"I don't like to make her mad," Chen said.

"So what if she does get mad, if it's how you really feel? At this age, you decide one of two things, to tell the truth the way you see it. Or tell hers."

I didn't know if Leslie was referring to Chen's mother, sister, daughter or friend, but I didn't need to know.

"I'm not like you. I don't need to be right all the time," Chen said.

The look that came over Leslie's face was suspended. It waited still and silent while the insult made its way though. And while I feared there might be words, Leslie's answer was a patient one. She did bring her face closer to Chen's, though, before saying, "No, but does that mean you need to be invisible?"

Chen walked away. A few seconds later, she turned back to say, "You coming?" But her voice was warm when she said it. I have a photo of them taken at recital. Chen's arms are clasped around Leslie's back. She is peeking out from under Leslie's right shoulder and they are both laughing. The look on their faces told me things about friendship I was just beginning to understand: that there is dependable honesty between friends—if we're lucky.

I suppose there are some conversations you never forget, and don't ever want to. Leslie and Chen prepared me for a lifetime of risky truth-telling, one of the most difficult demands of all on a friendship. In that sense, they turned out to be my teachers.

And what's lovely is that I finally get to thank them properly. Pen to paper. Next to nothing on my part, but, oh yes, it matters.

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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