Dance Class? Whatever!

College prep. Clubs. Sports. Boys. High school students face a lot of pressure—and dance classes are often only a small part of their hectic schedules. So how can you keep your teenage students from dropping out of dance entirely? DT spoke with several teachers about the innovative ways they keep their busy teenage dancers in class.

Make It Social

“High school is when either sports or boyfriends begin to lure kids away from the studio,” says Hedy Perna, owner of Perna Dance Center in Hazlet, New Jersey. But the stronger your school’s social network, the easier it will be to keep recreational students interested year after year. Perna found that offering ballroom and hip-hop classes increased the number of boys enrolled at the school, which helped her keep her female students. “The girls have a social life here. It might drive me crazy, but they are not isolated,” she says. “We try to keep the energy level high and create an atmosphere that they won’t want to miss.” She also hosts social activities such as an annual awards party, known as the event of the season, which the kids liken to the Academy Awards.

Offer More Time Onstage

Non-competition or recital opportunities are a great way to keep teens engaged: These performances are fun for recreational students, and they offer much-needed experience for serious pre-professional dancers. How can you get your students extra time onstage? Becoming involved in your community can help you land gigs. “As soon as you reach out, the offers start coming,” says Kim DelGrosso, owner of Center Stage Performing Arts Studios in Orem, Utah. DelGrosso’s willingness to make connections with area theater directors recently got 20 of her teens cast in a production of the musical Smokey Joe’s Café. “When I saw the local theater company was doing Smokey Joe’s, I literally walked up to the director and said, ‘I have a group of 20 of the best dancers in the state,’” she says. “They needed dancers, and my dancers needed to perform. It was a win-win situation.”

Learn how to market your students—and how to help them market themselves. “In the end it really is a sale. It comes down to business,” DelGrosso says. She advertises her dancers’ availability for community productions, and she teaches her seniors how to speak to the media, how to identify what kind of jobs they’re right for, and how to write a resumé. Even recreational dancers can translate these valuable skills into the non-dance job market.

Give Them a Little Credit

Earning academic credit for dance classes appeals to both casual and serious dancers. “Every high school has internships. Students are working with high-tech companies, hospitals, greenhouses,” says DelGrosso. “They should be recognized for their work in the arts, too.” Though state and federal laws prohibit students from receiving physical education credits outside of school, DelGrosso’s students have been earning high school internship credits for the last 10 years. Each school has different requirements, but generally the first step is for the student or parent to request that credit be given for dancing outside of school hours. Then, the studio owner or representative should follow up with the counselor. “Explain how many hours each student puts into dance and show that it is a viable business,” DelGrosso says. “If the dancers can get credit for it, that’s an incentive for both teenagers and parents.”

Strategic Scheduling

Ultimately, it’s impossible to avoid every one of your teenage students’ scheduling conflicts. But establishing scheduling rules from the get-go will help you stay structured and maintain order. Begin by keeping in close communication with parents so that you always know your dancers’ other activities, as well as their homework loads. Next, insist that you are told about scheduling conflicts during registration. “My competition team knows that I will work around other things, but I need to hear about those conflicts by registration time,” says Becky Seamster, owner of Becky Seamster Dance Studio in Kokomo, Indiana. “If they don’t turn their schedule in to me at registration and I plan something on a day that they have something else, then I get priority.” Stephanie Jarvis, owner of Relevétions Dance Centre in Dudley, Massachusetts, also recommends that teachers hold registration early. “If registration is in August, then I actually have enough time to figure out the whole schedule,” she says.

Setting up a contingency plan for unforeseen conflicts is also helpful. “My students know that we will work with them, but they need to work with us, too,” says Perna. “If there’s a single conflict on a day they’re scheduled for class, they do a makeup class. If they are involved in a longer-term commitment such as a school play for two weeks, we find them an appropriate class where they’ll be a ‘guest’ for that time. Of course, they’re responsible for all work missed in their own class.”

Seamster assigns an understudy to every student whom she deems at risk for missing a performance or competition. “I always have an alternate for kids who are involved in a lot of things, because I know there’s always a chance at the last minute that something will get changed,” she says.

In the end, you can’t force anyone to do something they don’t want to do. Sometimes the best option is to let a student go. But be supportive, and leave the door open for them to return. “I had one student who danced for years, and then she got into high school and she wanted to see what cheerleading was all about,” says Sheri Masiello of To the Pointe of Performing Arts in Cranston and North Providence, Rhode Island. “A year later she came back. She said, ‘I should never have left. I’m so happy you weren’t mad at me.’ If I hadn’t allowed her to go on that journey, she wouldn’t have realized how much she loves dancing.” DT

Sara Jarrett is a writer based in New York City.

photo courtesy of Sheri Masiello

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.

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.