Dance Immersion

A small high school in the Bronx offers students a complete dance curriculum.

Before the school day begins, Lisa Clark is already hard at work with students.

At 7:45 am on a Wednesday, Lisa Clark’s classroom is flooded with sunlight and filled with nearly 20 freshmen. The students—all of whom are at Clark’s optional “zero period” open rehearsal—are practicing a piece about a pack of lionesses hunting a phoenix. Leaping and running in a large circle around her, the students concentrate on perfecting their arm placement and pointing their toes as they spring forward, trying to avoid colliding with one another. “I love it when you figure it out for yourself!” Clark cheers.

Clark’s classroom is the sole dance studio at the High School for Violin and Dance (HSVD), one of four small public schools on the South Bronx Morris campus. The school was founded in 2002, after the Morris HS campus was divided into smaller schools in an effort to improve lagging graduation rates. HSVD was created to provide students with a more intimate learning environment that allows for individualized attention, and to expose minority and low-income Bronx students to the performing arts. (Each of the four small schools has a unique focus, such as developing leadership skills or enhancing cultural awareness.) All HSVD freshmen take violin and dance—the two passions of the school’s founders—and, by the end of their first year, are selected by the performing arts teachers to major in one or both, based on interest and skill level.

Clark, the dance program’s head and only full-time teacher, has long been involved with arts education, including work with the New York State Alliance for Arts Education and the Bronx Council on the Arts. She has taught students from various backgrounds, but HSVD provided a new challenge: Students who wish to attend HSVD submit an application (though they don’t have to audition) and most students who enter the school have no formal experience in dance or music. “I am in a community of kids who love hip hop,” Clark says. “I knew they could dance, but I thought they needed to be exposed to a broader, more classical platform as well.” Over the four years she has taught at HSVD, she has developed a rigorous program that both provides technical training and instills a love of dance.

In addition to a regular academic course load, freshmen take an hour each of violin and dance four or five days a week. Clark teaches freshmen ballet to provide the groundwork that will help them learn other styles. The students begin at the barre, learning the traditional progression from pliés through battements. By the end of the first month, she says students start to understand the way the steps work together. She then begins talking about placement, balance, timing and vocabulary, and she supplements their physical practice with in-class lessons about dance history, nutrition and stretching.

By sophomore year, roughly half of the school’s 259 students have become dance majors and begin a more structured curriculum of lyrical and Graham, Dunham and Horton techniques. With the fundamentals of ballet and modern under their belts, juniors move on to jazz and hip hop, and seniors learn tap, clogging, African and Irish step dancing.

Though Clark’s curriculum provides a classical framework, she also emphasizes creativity, particularly with her freshman classes. “I allow them to come in and do their own choreographing because I want to saturate them with dance,” she says. “They can just create. I’m not worried about if their feet are pointed or if their backs are straight.” It is this aspect of Clark’s approach that comes across most clearly in her studio. She allows her students to be silly at times, encourages them to have fun and lets them contribute choreography ideas. By giving the students the freedom to express themselves and take ownership of their classroom experience, she has developed a strong connection with the young dancers.

Assistant Principal Franklin Sim notes the influence this relationship has on the students’ academic success. “Students need someone they connect to in the school, some purpose to drive them to want to be here,” he says. “The arts department provides those opportunities for a lot of our students.” Before the Morris campus was divided into smaller schools, the graduation rate was 25 percent. Today, Sim says that over 80 percent of HSVD students graduate.

Clark’s zero period gives her students extra time to rehearse. She also schedules informal monthly performances for each class and, twice a month, takes her students to see dance performances around the city—everything from New York City Ballet’s Swan Lake to the Trisha Brown Dance Company. “The more they are exposed to dance,” Clark says, “the more they are going to understand that it is bigger than the classroom.”

Her efforts have paid off. Despite their relatively late introduction to dance, Clark’s students have received scholarships from Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center, the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and Young Dancemakers, and some have gone on to college dance programs. And although Clark always has an eye out for her students’ futures, posting audition opportunities in her hallway, holding mock auditions and working before and after school to fine-tune their technique, she ultimately measures her success by the students’ deep connection with dance. “They can’t stop,” she says. “They’re moving through the hallway dancing. They tell me they’ve been dancing all weekend and thinking about choreography, and they say, “Miss Clark, I practiced and I got it.’” DT

 

Abby Margulies is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.

Photo by Abby Margulies

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

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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