Teaching Tips

6 Ways You Can Support Your Black Students Right Now

Anastasia Johnson with her Dance Place students. Photo by Jonathan Hsu, courtesy of Dance Place

If you've responded this week to the recent murders of Black people by taking part in Blackout Tuesday and/or including a Black Lives Matter statement of solidarity, you may think that your role as a dance teacher or studio owner in this traumatic time is complete. But your Black students need your vocal, committed support, now, more than ever.

They may be feeling a host of emotions right now—traumatized, scared, drained—and as their dance teacher, you can offer them a special source of strength and support.

Here's a short list of ways you can support your Black students right now.


Check in 

Regardless of how often you currently meet with your students, or whether you're meeting via a virtual space or in-person, take the time to check in with them. "There's nothing wrong with asking, 'Hey guys, how're you doing?'" says Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, who teaches at Towson University and the Baltimore School for the Arts in Maryland. "And not just with Black students—with everybody. Say: 'How is everybody? There's a lot of stuff going on, a lot of protests. Is anybody feeling any kind of way that you would like to share or talk out?' Give them that opportunity—an open space to talk."

Be prepared for a long conversation. "Don't expect to dance," says Fisher-Harrell. "You have to feel it out and organically bring it out. That's the only way we're going to get to the heart of it, to talk it up, bring it up."

Don't be deterred by your students' youth, either, says Anastasia Johnson, teaching artist and afterschool club manager at Dance Place in Washington, DC. "Regardless of their age, I know that they feel what's going on," she says. "I felt it when I was a kid, and sadly it becomes your norm. But it's up to dance teachers to try and break down norms from the beginning. Make sure your Black students are seen, that they're heard, that they're acknowledged."

But be sensitive to what your younger students need in these check-ins—they may also want a healthy complement of movement, says Fisher-Harrell. "It depends on the age level," she says. "Sometimes they don't need to talk—they need to move their bodies. And then I'll say, 'OK, let's dance this out.'"

Practice communication 

Checking in with your students during particularly turbulent times is a given, but practicing regular communication should be, too.

"In the university setting, my students are used to it," says Fisher-Harrell. "They're like, 'Yeah, I have something to say,' which is a beautiful thing, that they feel empowered to share. My high school kids, though, are at a place in their training where they're hesitant to ask questions." By continually talking with her high-schoolers about their feelings and reactions to current events, Fisher-Harrell has been able to cultivate an open line of communication. "Once we started the practice of it, then they were like, "Mrs. Linda, let's go,'" she says. "They're more free to express themselves. If you make it something that happens regularly, no matter the age group, they will feel compelled to speak."

As your students' dance teacher, you occupy a special place in their lives, as a mentor, a role model and hopefully a confidant. "We have a special connection to our kids," says Johnson."The more you practice communicating with and getting to know other people—connecting with them on a deeper level—the more you'll start to practice outside the classroom, too."

Create an *actual* safe space 

"If you're not providing a safe space, there's something wrong," says Fisher-Harrell. "Maybe this can be one of those ah-ha moments for you, to realize that your studio is not a safe space where your kids can outwardly express themselves and not feel othered."

Cultivate a safe space by relying, in part, on your instincts. "You can feel tension when you walk into a room—you can feel when something's not right," says Fisher-Harrell. Reading the room and then taking the time to acknowledge why your students feel uncomfortable will, over time, reassure them that your studio is a place where they are protected and their opinions and identity are respected.

Don't let "safety" translate only to your students' physical well-being. "Many people have in their mission statements that they're creating a safe environment, but are you really?" asks Johnson. "I don't mean having a first aid kit in your studio. Are your students emotionally safe? Can they go to you as a leader and say, 'Can you help me?' I mean that kind of safety."

Self-reflect 

"This is a time for studio owners and teachers to reevaluate the way they run their classrooms and the way they interact with their students," says Johnson. "Is this the most attention you've given to your Black students, because of what's going on, or do you already give that attention, generally?"

Take the time to honestly answer hard questions for yourself. "What are your personal practices in your pedagogy? What are some things that you don't even know show bias, that you do?" asks Fisher-Harrell. "It takes a lot of deep thought. Are you seeing your students of color? Do you treat your Black students the same way as everyone else?"

Don't be afraid to be transparent about your self-reflection, either. "A great statement for a school to put out is to say, 'We're going to reflect on our practices to ensure equality and equity within our student body," says Fisher-Harrell. "That's a beautiful thing, if an institution can say, 'We're going to go back and reflect.'"

Fisher-Harrell is a black woman with her hair in a low ponytail. She adjusts a student's alignment

Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell

Photo by Kanji Takeno, Courtesy of Fisher-Harrell

Speak out against racism

Hiding behind thoughts like, "It's not my place"; "I'm only a dance teacher"; or "I don't want to bring politics into the studio" is detrimental to all of your students, but especially to your Black students. To not speak out against racism is to perpetuate it. "That's a disservice to your kids, your organization, and yourself, honestly," says Johnson. "If you don't want to deal with getting rid of racism, then you're saying, 'I'm OK with it.' And that's unacceptable."

Put aside any discomfort you may have and remember that you are a role model. "Your leadership role for this generation is to help them grow and be better," says Johnson. "Having uncomfortable conversations is necessary. Hiding—for you to say that you don't think it's your place or that you're uncomfortable—will just let everything continue on and on and on."

Implement changes 

Consider offering other styles of dance at your studio besides ballet, lyrical and jazz. What about hip hop, or another form derived from the African diaspora? "Just because you're not an expert in hip hop doesn't mean you can't get someone to come in and teach hip hop," says Johnson. "And there are so many other cultural dance forms that you can offer." Be conscious about not implicitly or explicitly suggesting to your students that hip hop and other forms are somehow less important than ballet.

Make sure your students know they may wear shoes and tights in bronze or brown—not just pink. Help them locate where to make these purchases, too. Offer your dancers visuals that reflect a diverse community. Posters, photos, books and shared videos should include bodies of all races—and shapes, sizes, genders and abilities.

Most importantly, don't let the changes you make be temporary, or just an automatic response to events of the past two weeks. "Shifts in programming, shifts in leadership—it should all be a shift way beyond right now," says Johnson.

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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