Curious Mind, Active Body

Lupe Serrano's secret to longevity

Who would ever guess that the impossibly agile and limber Lupe Serrano turned 80 in December? During her classes—she teaches advanced students of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, ABT company members and Metropolitan Opera House dancers—the petite, elegant Serrano demonstrates every combination, her eloquent limbs and pliant back painting a masterful portrait of classical technique. “She is astonishing,” says ABT principal Marcelo Gomes, who takes Serrano’s company class religiously. “Every time she does a perfect développé, I’ll think, ‘Can I even get my leg that high on a good day?’”

Serrano honed that still-impressive physique during her long and celebrated career as a dancer. Born in Chile, she joined the Mexico City Ballet at just 13. She went on to dance with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and, from 1953 to 1971, with ABT, where she earned a reputation for out-jumping and out-turning the company’s men. “Lupe is so well-known as a teacher that people forget she was one of our biggest stars,” says Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director. “She was the public face of ABT for two decades. She set the notion that expression comes out of technique.”

Serrano began teaching about 40 years ago, soon after she retired from the stage. “When I first stopped performing and started teaching, I thought it was so fantastic to have all of these bodies to work with instead of just my own,” she says. “Trying to put myself into another body, and to understand how it functions as opposed to how mine functions—it is so enlightening.”

McKenzie likens Serrano to an engineer. “She is always constructing exercises that will confront the big problems—the placement and turnout and port de bras issues—in a new way,” he says. “She knows you can get to the moon; you just have to figure out the way there.”

Thanks to her curious mind, Serrano’s teaching style is continually evolving. One of her favorite things to do is “talk shop,” as she calls it, with teachers of all ages. “I think it’s dangerous to go for too long without outside input,” she says. “To have the different opinions from the different teachers, and hear how they arrive at a correction of turnout or get a student to pull up, is very interesting to me.”

She also regularly attends dance performances and is an enthusiastic consumer of pop dance culture. “Everything that dances, I watch!” Serrano says, adding that she especially loves “So You Think You Can Dance.” “There is incredible versatility in those dancers,” she says. “I admire the tumbling—what an addition. If you can maintain a clean ballet vocabulary and do the gymnastics, it’s just fantastic.” Her interest in the current dance scene ultimately benefits her students. “I have to be aware of what they will be faced with,” she says. “The choreographers evolve with the trends of the times.”

Not that Serrano’s class incorporates any tumbling. “I teach classical ballet,” she says firmly. Instead, she emphasizes versatility within the ballet vocabulary, with combinations that take dancers out of their comfort zones. “Normally they do a step one way, but I say, ‘Would you feel good doing it with another head, another épaulement, a different rhythm, a different preparation?’ And if they can do that, then they can pick up other styles more quickly.”

Until she was 64, when she had hip-replacement surgery, Serrano was demonstrating every class exercise full-out. (McKenzie remembers mentioning to Serrano, on her 60th birthday, that he always wanted to be able to do an entrechat six when he was 60; she promptly stood up and did one.) Now she can no longer perform the fantastic jumps she was once famous for, but she’s figured out ways to compensate with her upper body. “It takes more thought now—you have to do the mental work if you can’t do the physical—but I want my students not to realize that I can’t do the step,” she says. “They will tell me, ‘Oh, you do so much in class!’ And I’ll say, ‘Really? I’m glad you think so.’” She laughs mischievously.

McKenzie admires that ability of Serrano’s to find the fun in everything. “She has a devilishly good time figuring out how to get around the obstacles of teaching well,” he says. “And she’s like that in life, too. There’s always a twinkle in her eye.”

Is that the secret to her eternal youthfulness? “I haven’t seen that anything so far is keeping me young!” Serrano says, laughing again. “But I like to be active, and I like to be useful. So long as I have something to pass on, I hope I have the energy to keep doing it.”


Photo by Rachel Papo

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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