Dance Teacher Awards

The Dance Teacher Awards Brought Us Together and Gave Us Hope

Who knew that a virtual awards ceremony could bring our community together in such a powerful way?

Last night, we celebrated the annual Dance Teacher Awards, held virtually for the first time. Though it was different from what we're used to, this new setting inspired us to get creative in celebrating our six extraordinary honorees. In fact, one of the most enlivening parts of the event was one that could only happen in a Zoom room: Watching as countless tributes, stories and congratulations poured in on the chat throughout the event. Seeing firsthand the impact our awardees have had on so many lives reminded us why we chose to honor them.

If you missed the Awards (or just want to relive them), you're in luck—they are now available to watch on-demand. We rounded up some of the highlights:

Deborah Damast inspired us to keep pushing forward.

A television screen depicting Deborah Damast accepting her award on Zoom. She gestures in excitement

As presenter and Dance Teacher senior editor Courtney Escoyne put it, the dance educators of tomorrow are indeed in good hands with Deborah Damast.

Damast, who directs the dance education master's degree program at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, gave us a sampling of the inspiration she doles out to her pedagogy students (and her young students—Damast still teaches creative movement, too) on the regular.

"Don't let the overwhelming nature of these times paralyze you into inaction," she told us. "Find the light, take on the challenge and steer your ship. We are dancers, flexible in mindset and strong in design. Bring your mentors and your ancestors with you for support. And be the history that you want your students to read about. Because history is made right now."

Bo and Stephanie Spassoff celebrated the beauty of our art form.

A screenshot of Bo and Stephanie Spassoff's acceptance speech, filmed in their home

It's one thing to know that The Rock School has a long list of distinguished alumni. It's another thing to hear those alums talk about their experience growing up in the school, and how its directors, Bo and Stephanie Spassoff, shaped their lives.

Several such artists joined us by video last night, including New York City Ballet's Taylor Stanley and Russell Janzen, Ballet West's Kaeli Ware, Boston Ballet's Derek Dunn and Charlotte Ballet's Sarah Lapointe. Many of them spoke about how the Spassoffs imbued in them a deep love for the art form.

"This is just the most beautiful art form and we've so enjoyed our whole marriage in it," said Stephanie. "You give and then you get in return, just incredible joy and satisfaction. And when you dance to give to audiences and to uplift them, there's nothing better than that."

Kim Black reminded us that everyone deserves the chance to dance.

A screenshot of Kim Black accepting her award with a class of students behind her

When Kim Black got married, she had 78 flower girls, all her students. So when it came time for another milestone—accepting her Dance Teacher Award—she wanted to once again have her students beside her.

Black accepted the award from her Burlington, North Carolina, studio, surrounded by her (socially distanced) students, many of whom adorably dressed up for the occasion.

Throughout Black's speech, she kept coming back to the word "chance," acknowledging the mentors who gave her chances to teach, and how she strives to create opportunities for others today. Everyone deserves to dance, regardless of their abilities, Black said. (Black walks this talk through her integrative dance program, A Time to Shine.) "Keep giving people chances," she urged us.

Patricia Dye showed us what community really looks like.

A screenshot of Patricia Dye, who is wearing a bright yellow dress, accepting her award from her home

Hearing Patricia Dye accept her award was like getting a lesson in dance history. That's because the beloved high school dance teacher and Teachers College, Columbia University doctoral student is constantly naming the ancestors, mentors and teachers who paved the way for her—from her early teachers in St. Croix to her upbringing in Brooklyn (where she still teaches today) to legends like Pearl Primus, Katherine Dunham and Chuck Davis.

Dye has paved the way for countless students herself. The Latin origin of "educate," she told us, is "to lead out of." She said, "As a dance educator, I've been leading my students out of where they presently are to where they want to be."

With her typical humility, Dye emphasized that it's taken a village to get her to where she is. "I've learned that my community, my tree of life, is my anchor," she said. "I teach what I've learned and experienced. We teach our youth to document our stories for the yet-to-be-born."

MOVE|NYC| gave us hope for the future.

A still from A Prayer for Black Life. Kelsey Lewis wears all black and dances in the grass under a bridge

For the first time ever, all the proceeds from this year's Dance Teacher Awards went to an organization whose mission is close to our hearts: MOVE|NYC|.

MOVE|NYC| co-founders Nigel Campbell and Chanel DaSilva (you may remember them from our May/June cover!) joined us to talk about how they're working to create a more equitable and diverse dance field, and to foster tomorrow's dance leaders. Then came one of my favorite moments of the event: MOVE|NYC| student Kelsey Lewis performed a gorgeous and haunting solo (that she learned on a basketball court this summer!) entitled A Prayer for Black Life, choreographed by Campbell. It's clear that Lewis has a bright future ahead of her, and we're thrilled to be able to support her training with the Dance Teacher Scholarship funded by the proceeds from last night's event.

Dance Teacher celebrated one of our own.

A tv screen shows Karen Hildebrand smiling as she accepts her award

Karen Hildebrand, who passed the baton to me as Dance Teacher's editor in chief earlier this year, has been advocating tirelessly for dance education for the entirety of her 11-year tenure. So we decided to surprise her with her own well-deserved Dance Teacher Award. (Okay, we told her about it the week prior, but she was still pretty surprised.)

We brought together current and former Dance Teacher writers, editors, cover stars, advisory board members and more to tell Hildebrand about how she's impacted our lives, and to send her well wishes for her next chapter.

Wendy Whelan honored the many teachers who shaped her.

A blurry screenshot of Wendy Whelan smiling on the Zoom screen

Who would have guessed that during her training, Wendy Whelan felt like she was "dog paddling through her ballet classes, trying to catch up"?

Accepting her Dance Teacher Award of Distinction, the former New York City Ballet principal and current associate artistic director told us about how at age 9, when she decided to get serious about ballet, she suddenly found herself "guessing her way through class, never knowing which body part to pull up or in, wondering what exactly the difference between the two was." Once, she said, a teacher even asked a more advanced student to take her to the side and show her what a pas de bourée was. "I had no idea," she said.

Whelan was not deterred. "I became a very good follower back then, and frustration became second nature to me," she said. "But that's often what happens. You get hooked on the process and the puzzles and the growth, and you never want to stop learning. And you never want to lose that feeling of eternally being in bloom. Either that, or you decide a career in ballet is maybe not for you." I think I speak for the entire dance community when I say: Thank goodness the latter was not the case with Whelan.

She then spoke about the many teachers who influenced her over the years, and whose lessons she now draws on as a teacher herself. Though they varied dramatically in approach—sometimes even with contradictory methods, she said—"between them all existed a meeting point of truth, and a deep understanding of integrity and excellence."

Whelan continued to call upon the wisdom of her teachers in her mini-class and Q&A, where she told us about the images she loves to use in class, the technique tricks she's learned throughout her career and how her new gardening hobby has inspired her teaching.

We're already looking for nominations for next year. 

Believe it or not, nominations for the 2021 Dance Teacher Awards are already open! We're excited to hear about the extraordinary educators who you'd like to see receive an award next year.

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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