Teachers Trending

What These 5 Pros Learned From Teaching Virtually During COVID-19

Tiler Peck teaching her Turn Out With Tiler class. Photo courtesy Peck

In March, most professional dancers suddenly lost the vast majority of their work. Left with lots of newfound free time—and, in many cases, a hole in their budgets—many took to Instagram, Zoom and other platforms to share their knowledge with summer intensive students, adult beginners, preschoolers and everyone in between.

For some, it was a chance to continue flexing teaching muscles they'd been developing over years. But for others, it was an unusual first-time teaching experience.

Dance Teacher talked to five pros about what it was like to go from dancing full-time to teaching virtually—and what they learned along the way.

Tiler Peck, New York City Ballet

Teaching has always been in NYCB principal Tiler Peck's blood—her mother put her to work at her dance studio when she was just 12.

But with her full NYCB schedule and her many guesting gigs and entrepreneurial projects, Peck typically doesn't have time to fit teaching into her professional life.

When the pandemic hit, though, Peck realized that she'd need to take class six days a week to stay in shape while quarantining in California. Since she was giving herself class anyway, it just made sense to start an Instagram Live series. "I also feel that exercise and movement are so important to our mental and physical well-being, so I wanted to help people feel connected in such a scary time, and motivate others to move," she says. Turn Out With Tiler was born, and soon Peck found herself teaching nearly every day on her Instagram, often bringing in guest stars like Josh Groban and Debbie Allen, in addition to giving private lessons and classes with CLI Studios, New York City Dance Alliance and more.

Thousands of people from dozens of countries tuned in to Turn Out With Tiler, and, suddenly, the starry dancer known for her clever musicality and sprightly footwork was becoming known on the internet as "Ms. Tiler."

"I get so many messages calling me 'Ms. Tiler,'" she says. "I feel like now most people know me as a teacher and not as a dancer, which is so funny to me because I'm definitely a dancer first. I'm happy that maybe it'll bring a new audience to watch NYCB."

Though Turn Out With Tiler is now just twice weekly, Peck says she wants to find a way to continue teaching, even once in-person performances begin again. "I would feel like if I just stopped it completely, so many of the people who have been so loyal and so touched by these classes would be left in the dust," she says.

Leslie Andrea Williams, Martha Graham Dance Company

Though Leslie Andrea Williams has been a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company for five years, she never felt comfortable teaching Graham because of the hyper-specificity of the technique.

But teaching virtually for the Graham summer intensive and to raise money for the company's GoFundMe gave Williams a teaching crash-course that she says will pay off in her dancing.

"The Graham technique is so specific, and going back to basics is always a great thing to do," she says. "You're thinking more anatomically, more simply about executing the technique. It's so easy to go into survival mode with Graham, but you don't necessarily have to do that. When you have the tools, you can actually do less, so that's something I'll incorporate into my performing."

Williams, who did hours of prep for each of her classes, also learned just how exhausting teaching—especially Graham—can be.

"I remember posting on my Instagram like, 'Hey, I'll be teaching for these dates,' and [master Graham teacher] Miki Orihara was like, 'That's a lot of classes!,'" says Williams. "I didn't realize how much it was until I was in it—I bow down to all the teachers who teach multiple Graham classes a day in person!"

Alexandra Hutchinson, Dance Theatre of Harlem

Before the pandemic, Dance Theatre of Harlem company member Alexandra Hutchinson had taught a few classes as part of her curriculum at Indiana University, as well as during DTH tours.

But in March, her teaching career exploded: Hutchinson found herself teaching for DTH, Brown Girls Do Ballet, Dance Dynamics, ARC Dance, City Dance and more, for students ages 4 to 18.

To boost her confidence, Hutchinson channeled her own favorite teachers—Robert Garland at DTH, Kee Juan Han at the Washington School of Ballet, Michael Vernon at IU. "All of my experiences come into this pot, and I choose what I want to share," she says.

Teaching so many students who looked like her was exciting for Hutchinson, who didn't have the same experience growing up. It also gave her a sense of her responsibility as a teacher. "You don't know who is going to actually make it," she says. "It could be the girl who is more shy in the back. So making sure you give everyone your attention, and making sure everything I say I really mean, because you never know what's going to stick with people, and what will influence them and motivate them."

Hutchinson feels a responsibility to be the best dancer she can be for her students, too. "In case they see me dance, I don't want them to be like, 'Hey, I thought she was good at this!'" she says with a laugh. "I want to dance like they're watching me, and apply my own corrections that I've been giving in class. I told them they have to do it, so I should probably do it, too."

Frances Samson, Limón Dance Company

Limón technique is known for being highly locomotive. So when the pandemic arrived, Limón company member Frances Samson was skeptical that it was even possible to teach it virtually.

But when Samson was encouraged to teach on the Limón Dance Foundation's Instagram page, she dove into research and preparation to ensure she could give a class she was proud of. "I was taking every virtual Limón class, taking notes of how they were managing this new platform, taking video tutorials," she says. "I videoed myself four times before I went online, I had discussions with former company members, and got feedback from my parents."

For Samson, who had only been teaching for around a year, this preparatory time gave her an opportunity to anticipate the needs of her students (whose identities were largely a mystery to her, being on Instagram). "I didn't know who my audience was, so I had to think of the corrections and feedback prior to class," she says. "I had to use different sources of inspiration and imagery because what resonates with certain people may not resonate with others."

Teaching virtually gave Samson new confidence as a teacher—and a desire to dive further into teaching once she can be in the studio again. "There's so many challenges you face online that you don't face in person," she says. "I'm excited to get back to the studio with that newfound knowledge and be inspired by the energy of the room. I don't think I realized how much we absorb from just being in the room with each other."

Luciana Paris, American Ballet Theatre

Over the years, ABT soloist Luciana Paris has developed a reputation for being an unofficial coach within the company.

"Sometimes, when I know the person isn't going to take it badly, I will go and be like, 'Try this!'" she says. "And most of the time, it will work!"

In recent years, Paris' keen eye has translated into success as an occasional teacher at summer intensives and as a private coach. But this past spring, with performances canceled for both herself and her freelance-dancer husband, Jonatan Luján, Paris found herself teaching more than ever, taking on a host of virtual coaching clients from her friend Amanda Cobb, a former ABT dancer and a faculty member at ABT William J. Gillespie School.

Soon, after seeing how the pandemic was negatively impacting so many students' training, an idea was born: This summer, Paris, Luján and Cobb launched Dance Compañía, a virtual intensive featuring star faculty like Isabella Boylston, Sascha Radetsky and James Whiteside.

For Paris, teaching virtually during the pandemic has taught her to be a better communicator—whether talking about technique or just life. "When you are not in the studio, you have to try so much harder," she says. "And also just to bring them hope, and to remind them that this is something that is going to pass. I always tell my students that we are so lucky that we can do what we love in these difficult times, even if it's in the kitchen. And as soon as I say that, they g 'Yeah…she's right…'"

And though Dance Compañía may have been a product of the pandemic, Paris plans for it to last far beyond—hopefully as an in-person intensive sooner rather than later.

Higher Ed
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As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?

The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Ford Foundation; Christian Peacock; Nathan James, Courtesy Gibson; David Gonsier, courtesy Marshall; Bill Zemanek, courtesy King; Josefina Santos, courtesy Brown; Jayme Thornton; Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

Since 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards have celebrated the living legends of our field—from Martha Graham to Misty Copeland to Alvin Ailey to Gene Kelly.

This year is no different. But for the first time ever, the Dance Magazine Awards will be presented virtually—which is good news for aspiring dancers (and their teachers!) everywhere. (Plus, there's a special student rate of $25.)

The Dance Magazine Awards aren't just a celebration of the people who shape the dance field—they're a unique educational opportunity and a chance for dancers to see their idols up close.

Here's why your dancers (and you!) should tune in:

They'll see dance history in the making.

Carlos Acosta. Debbie Allen. Camille A. Brown. Laurieann Gibson. Alonzo King.

If you haven't already taught your students about these esteemed awardees, odds are you'll be adding them to your curriculum before long.

Not only will your students get to hear from each of them at a pivotal moment in their careers (and Dance Magazine Awards acceptance speeches are famously chock-full of inspiration), they'll also hear from presenters like William Forsythe and Theresa Ruth Howard.

This year, all the Dance Magazine Awards are going to Black artists, as a step towards repairing the history of honoring primarily white artists.

And meet tomorrow's dance legends.

Dance Magazine's Harkness Promise Awards, this year going to Kyle Marshall and Marjani Forté-Saunders, offer funding, rehearsal space and mentorship to innovative young choreographers in their first decade of presenting work—a powerful reminder to your students that major success in the dance world doesn't happen overnight.

They'll get a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes.

Solely teaching your students how to be a great dancer doesn't give them the full picture. A complete dance education produces artists who are savvy about what happens behind the scenes, too.

In 2018, Dance Media launched the Chairman's Award to honor those behind-the-scenes leaders who keep our field moving. Each year's recipient is chosen by our CEO, Frederic M. Seegal. This year's award goes to Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, who is using philanthropy to make the performing arts—and the world at large—more just.

And, of course, see dozens of great dance works.

Where else could your students see selections from Alonzo King's contemporary ballet classics next to Camille A. Brown's boundary-pushing dance theater works? Or see both Carlos Acosta and Laurieann Gibson in action in the same evening? Excerpts from the awardees' works will show your students what it is exactly that makes these artists so special.

So gather your class (virtually!) and join us next Monday, December 7, at 6 pm. To receive the special student rate, please email dmawards@dancemedia.com.

See you there!

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