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Dean College Grad Alicia Burghardt Never Dreamed She'd Dance and Choreograph in the NBA

Photo by Brian Babineau, courtesy Burghardt

When Alicia Burghardt entered Dean College in Massachusetts as a freshman dance major, it hadn't occurred to her that the Boston Celtics had a dance team. A competition kid with aspirations for Broadway, Burghardt never imagined herself as an NBA dancer. But by the time she was finishing her senior year, she'd not only joined the Celtics Dancers, she was choreographing a number for a major playoff game. And after finishing her rookie year, surrounded on that TD Garden parquet floor by uproarious fans, she couldn't help but stay for another. "It's unbelievable performing for Boston fans," she says. "They're so loyal to their team. It could be third quarter, down 20 points, and they're still cheering."


On what first brought her to audition "There were three girls in my program who were Celtics Dancers. They had such positive things to say, I couldn't help but want to join them. I started following the team on social media, and I fell in love with the idea of becoming a Celtics Dancer by watching their Instagram videos. My junior year I felt like I was finally in a place where I was ready to audition, and, thankfully, made the team on my first try."

About the three-day audition process "The first cut includes an across-the-floor, where they look to see our technique and our look. Those who are left are taught a hip-hop routine to audition for the judges. The judges deliberate, then announce the final 40 dancers who will move on to the next round. On day two, there's a group interview with the coach [Marina Ortega]; we learn a technical jazz routine and are provided music to choreograph solos to. The rest of the day is spent preparing what we've worked on up until that point. Day three is open to the public, and families come to watch as we audition these three combos for the judges. When we finish, they deliberate for roughly 30 minutes, then return to announce the 18 girls who have made the team for the following year."

On choreographing for an arena full of die-hard sports fans "Marina had heard that I'd been doing quite a bit of choreography at Dean [College], and asked me to set a piece for a playoff game. She sent me a hip-hop remix to a song called 'Big Bank' and I started creating movement to it. Once I had something to work with, I brought it to her, and she helped me improve it by adding level changes and ripples. She taught me that choreographing for the stage is very different from choreographing for an arena, and I needed to learn to make everything big and exaggerated so that the people way up high could see it. It was a great learning experience for me."

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"Music is magical," says Black. "It just transforms kids." Photo courtesy of Black

After 31 years of teaching, Kim Black has mastered how to reach young dancers. Between a studio and private school, she teaches 34 classes per week in Burlington, North Carolina: That's 238 kids from ages 2 to 6 years old. "You have to make them fall in love with dance," says Black. The music, she says, cues this engagement.

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Dancers certainly don't need anyone to tell them how physical their profession is. But now, we have the data to prove it.

Researchers at InsuranceProviders.com analyzed data from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), a national organization developed through support from the U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration, to determine the 20 most physically demanding jobs in the country. They analyzed the level of strength, stamina, flexibility and coordination required for a host of jobs, and each category was assigned

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Q: How do you approach gender when teaching in 2020? When I was training, male dancers were encouraged to make their movement masculine, while female dancers were encouraged to keep their movement feminine. Today, gender has become much more fluid, and the line between masculine and feminine performance has blurred. How does that impact the way we should be teaching?

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Going upside down can be scary. It's spatially bewildering, and young students who have spent their lives upright often lack the strength required to feel confident putting their weight on their hands. But, don't fret! There are safe and pleasant ways to build the muscle and the might for dynamite inversions.

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I love this level. I see it as the true origin of a student's dance journey. Intermediate students have bought in, caught the fever, chosen to move beyond inquiry about dance to investment in dance. They are yearning to advance past their beginner training and label.

As teachers, we begin to set more stringent expectations for them to commit to class, take ownership of their learning, and comprehend more terminology and skills. Yet, they are still a bit disheveled in their movement and engagement. They still sometimes forget their dance pants and confuse upstage with downstage. Some of them are still, well, terrified.

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2019's movies featured some truly fantastic dancing, thanks to the hard work of many talented choreographers. But you won't see any of those brilliant artists recognized at the Academy Awards. And we're (still) not OK with that.

So we're taking matters into our own jazz hands.

On February 7—just before the Oscars ceremony—we'll present a Dance Spirit award for the best movie choreography of 2019. With your help, we've narrowed the field to seven choreographers, artists whose moves electrified some of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year.

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Kathryn Alter (left). Photo by Alexis Ziemski

In every class Kathryn Alter teaches, two things are immediately evident: how thoughtfully she chooses her words, and how much glee she gets from dancing the movement and style of modern choreographer José Limón. At the 2019 Limón summer workshop at Kent State University, Alter demonstrated a turning triplet with her arms fully outstretched, a smile stretching easily across her face. "It should be as if…" She paused to think of the perfect analogy that would help the dancers find the necessary circularity of the movement. "As if you live in a doughnut!" she finished, grinning broadly. The dancers gathered around her laughed—her smile and love for something as foundational as a triplet was contagious.

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Melanie George (right). Photo by Grace Corapi, courtesy of George

Teachers from coast to coast are pushing students to move outside the constraints of popular music. There is a consensus that the earlier you introduce varied musical forms, the more adept and adaptable a dancer's musicality will be.

New York–based jazz scholar and teacher Melanie George notices that many students' relationships to music can be reductive: They may think exclusively about lyrics or accents. But jazz, for example, is about swinging: an embodied comprehension of instrumentation that only comes with musical acuity. "Students are ready for this specificity, even if we aren't giving it to them," she says. When her students understand that there is a technique to listening, it becomes less about going forward, and more about going deeper into the sound and into their bodies.

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Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in a scene from An American in Paris. Courtesy Fathom Events.

If you loved Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris on Broadway, you can now see the 1951 Oscar-winning movie it's based on in all its Technicolor glory. Fathom Events will present MGM's An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly and French ballerina Leslie Caron, and with music by George and Ira Gershwin, in select theaters nationwide January 19 and 22.

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Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of PNB School

Naomi Glass, teacher at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, knows firsthand the advantages and challenges of hypermobility. As a young dancer, she was told to keep her hyperextended knees in a straight position far from her full range of motion. "It felt too bent to me," she says. "But once I was able to access my inner thighs and rotators, I found strength and stability and could still use the line that I wanted."

Hypermobility occurs when joints exceed the normal range of motion. Dancers can have hypermobility in specific joints, like their knees, or they can have generalized laxity throughout their bodies (which is often measured using the Beighton system—see below). While this condition may enable students to create beautiful aesthetic lines, it can also increase risk for injury. Help dancers gain the strength they need to stay healthy while making the most of their hypermobility.

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Photo by Rachel Papo

Alicia Graf Mack's journey to become director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division—the youngest person to hold the position, and the first woman of color—was anything but a straight line. Yes, she's danced with prestigious companies: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But Mack also has a BA in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis; she pursued both degrees during breaks in her performing career, taken to recover from injuries and autoimmune disease flare-ups.

As an undergrad, she briefly interned at JPMorgan Chase in marketing and philanthropic giving, and she later made arts administration central to her graduate work, assuming that she'd eventually take an administrative role with a dance organization.

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Morrissey (left). Photo courtesy of Interlochen Center for the Arts

When Joseph Morrissey first took the helm of the dance division at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a boarding high school in Interlochen, Michigan, he found a fully established pre-professional program with space to grow. And his vision was big, with plans to stage the kind of ambitious repertory he'd experienced during his dance career. But the realities quickly set in. During his first year in 2015, the department was denied by the George Balanchine Trust to license any Balanchine ballets—the dancers were not quite ready.

This early disappointment didn't derail Morrissey. In just four years, he has not only raised Interlochen's training standards, he's staged ambitious full-length ballets and been granted the rights to works by Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille and, yes, Balanchine. Guest artists regularly visit, and he's initiated major plans to expand the dance department building. Morrissey is only 37, but it should come as no surprise that he's done so much so fast—his entire life's journey has prepared him to be an artistic leader.

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