Crossing Cultures

“Study abroad.” The phrase immediately conjures up visions of Parisian cafés, tropical jungles, Tuscan hills and the African bush, all of which many students would jump at the chance to see while receiving college credit. If you’re interested in providing your dancers with such opportunities, read on for advice on developing a dance-specific international program at your school—it might be easier than you think. 

Define Your Goals

First, ask yourself a few basic questions that will help you define clear parameters for the program. 

WHAT: Think of how students can examine and expand upon what they already know. A quality study-abroad program should fulfill course or elective requirements in a creative learning environment that is different from a university setting. 

WHO: Consider whether you want to serve only students from your dance program or those from other departments and schools as well. Keep in mind that study-abroad programs require a minimum number of participants to cover expenses, so accepting outside students could aid in getting your program green-lighted.

WHERE: It will be easier to set up a program in a location that you’re already familiar with through travel or research. Scott Putman, an associate professor of dance and choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University, was interested in establishing a program in Rome, Italy, due to his research, but a chance inquiry about studying at the Accademia dell’Arte guided him to Tuscany instead. Last summer, he took six students there to study dance technique, composition and performance for five weeks.

Elizabeth Gillaspy, assistant professor of ballet at Texas Christian University, was drawn to develop her program, a three-week physical theater study in the United Kingdom, by the chance to partner with TCU alum Sarie Mairs Slee, a faculty member at England’s Edge Hill University. The program launched last summer, with students spending two weeks at Edge Hill and one week at Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

WHEN: Once you settle on the location, determine the length and dates. Research your chosen site’s seasonal weather conditions and calendar of events beforehand to help tailor the program to your needs. Summer, for example, is festival season, so building a program around a dance festival will give you a date range and thematic anchor to work with. 

WHY: Articulate the reasons for developing your study. Create a mission statement, especially if you’ll be seeking grants to cover costs. 

Gillaspy designed her program with an eye toward helping students see firsthand how dance is defined in other countries. “It was a question of trying to find a way for students to really seek and experience something that they wouldn’t have a chance to locally, or maybe even nationally,” Gillaspy says. “We are hoping that this will be the beginning of looking at their own work differently and of crafting and connecting their own work culturally.” 

Get Support from Your School 

Once you’ve outlined your objectives, turn to your university for assistance. Most schools have an on-campus organization that can provide considerable support in putting together a study-abroad program. 

Many schools will also support faculty through internal grants when working on international projects. For example, Gillaspy and her colleague received a Curriculum Development grant from TCU to help cover travel costs for a site visit in 2006, two years before implementing their program. “That helped us do our legwork for developing the course,” she says. 

Establish Outside Partnerships

In addition to school support, be sure to create strong partnerships with organizations based in your destination city, preferably those committed to facilitating international education. When Putman reached out to the Accademia dell’Arte, a U.S.-based organization, it made figuring out the logistics much easier, since it already had a program model with housing. All he had to do was add a dance component.

Through TCU’s connection with Slee, Gillaspy was able to partner with Edge Hill, which provided housing and studio space for the first two weeks. “Having a partner in the place where you want to be makes a big difference. I think that was really key,” she says. 

Outline The Costs

The total cost for an international study program generally includes lodging, administrative fees (which go toward faculty expenses), insurance and special fares for excursions or performance tickets. Tuition will sometimes be added to the overall fee, if the course work is through your home institution. For a program like Putman’s, however, tuition was included in Accademia dell’Arte’s overall fee, making it each student’s responsibility to transfer earned credits to their university. Airfare and other travel expenses are paid for by the participants and not included in the package cost.

Remember that if students can’t afford to go, your program won’t take flight, no matter how great the purpose. Look into financial aid resources available through your school, as well as outside organizations. 

While study-abroad programs don’t come cheap, the experience and lessons learned are priceless. Your goal should be to develop a program that is safe, enjoyable and transformational—one that leaves a lasting impression on your students. Adrian Busby, a TCU modern dance major who attended Gillaspy’s UK program, sums it up best: “Six months after I went, it was still resonating. It’s an experience that’s never-ending even though I’m back, and I really appreciate that.” DT

Lea Marshall is producer/assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Dance and Choreography and co-founder of Ground Zero Dance in Richmond, VA.

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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