Teachers Trending

How This Teacher and Broadway Performer Helped Students Rediscover Their "Lost Love" of Dance Online

JayPlayImagery, courtesy Broadway Dance Center

As a performing artist, I have lost two gigs due to the pandemic. Both would have started just weeks after New York City's shutdown. The first was the leading role in one of my favorite musicals, playing opposite my significant other, and the second was an iconic featured role in a workshop for an upcoming Broadway show.

Dancing, acting, singing—they are not just a part of me, they are me. Because of the pandemic, however, my role as an artist is in question. Broadway is officially shut down until at least 2021, and regional theaters are struggling to stay afloat financially.

Lucky for me, I've always had a second passion, something that keeps me both inspired between gigs and grounded while in performances.

The daughter of a dance studio owner, I've taught dance since I was 14. I've always loved it. The problem solving, the planning, the excitement on my students' faces when they finally understand how to do a tour jeté—I enjoy teaching as much as I do performing, especially my adult basic ballet class at Broadway Dance Center.

Deanna Doyle, wearing a microphone and a light blue tank top, demonstrates second position arms in an empty classroom

JayPlayImagery, courtesy Broadway Dance Center

On March 12, I didn't realize that in-person classes would be put to a halt for months. I didn't realize that my huge studio of dancers would be replaced by Zoom, or that artists would soon be rolling up rugs and moving tables to create their own makeshift studios. Roaming dogs would become a staple, as would the occasional cameos from roommates or family members. Wi-Fi problems would temporarily kick people out of class, sending everyone's boxes to a different position on the grid. Holding my foot up to the screen would become the norm, as would tilting my laptop up and down to give better views of my shoulders or knees or hips.

Teaching from home was something I'd coveted in the past, envious of my voice teachers who could avoid the subway and spend more time with their puppy and cook dried chickpeas on the stove while at work. But dance is a horse of a different color. I was one of those weirdos who installed a ballet barre in my apartment years before COVID-19, so I didn't have to creatively search for a stepladder or kitchen counter or oven door. (I did, however, have to reconfigure lamps and a desk and a few armloads of distracting knickknacks for a tidier background, as well as rig an unwieldy tower of wicker baskets atop my repositioned coffee table to become the podium for my Mac.)

Deanna Doyle stands behind a barre and demonstrates passe

JayPlayImagery, courtesy Broadway Dance Center

As early as June, BDC began filming some of its Zoom classes from the actual studios in midtown Manhattan, investing in large screens, lighting and cameras. I jumped at the chance to teach in the studio; I wanted to do anything to feel "normal" again.

But normal it is not. On teaching days, I arrive at BDC and get my temperature checked. I have quick and brief encounters with a staff member (maybe two, on a busy day)—six feet apart, of course. With the devastating exceptions of a wedding cancellation and a cat passing away, there is little news to discuss, other than what seems to be the impending doom of civilization. But, eager to have some bit of normalcy in our lives, we all have a smile on. At least I think we do. It's hard to tell because we're wearing masks.

My spirits are lifted higher when class starts, and I wave at what has become a group of recognizable bodies and backgrounds—Samantha H., disciplined in her pink tights and leotard, her feet blocked by a bed; Filip M., holding the bannister of his backyard deck, the top of his head usually cut off; and Otis Y., who has shown me more backgrounds and rooms than I can remember, but whose ankles and black canvas ballet shoes I'd now know anywhere.

These are just a sample of the die-hards, people I've never taught in person but who have become my new cluster of dancers.

Then there's another cluster of people who take class with their video screens off—blank squares I try to ignore but can't help but wonder about. Are they picking this up like everyone else? Are they struggling? Are they just sipping wine on their porch, watching us dance, like a new docuseries on Netflix?

After class I come back to my apartment. "It's so hard," I think. "I can't hear them pant after petit allégro. I can't smell their sweat." (The latter of which is arguably a good problem to have, but at this point, aren't we all craving things that were once less than optimal?)

My students have always told me that they attend my classes because I explain things so clearly and cheer them on with enthusiasm. I now wonder if I'm achieving any of this. Maybe it is all getting lost in space, somewhere between my end of the studio and the speakers and cables and cameras and microphones that connect me to their end of the world, wherever that may be.

Deanna Doyle, seen from the side, stands behind a ballet barre and demonstrates passe

JayPlayImagery, courtesy Broadway Dance Center

Am I helping them? Do they understand what I'm saying? Can they see my feet? These are the questions that keep me up at night. In fact, two weeks ago, these thoughts kept me up for so long that I almost flung my legs out of bed, threw on my legwarmers and started the walk to BDC right then and there at 2 am for my 4 pm class. Instead, I lulled myself to sleep, praying that I was helping them. That they did see my feet. That I still had a place in this world. It was the next day, after I got home from teaching and slumped into my chair, that I opened an email from Karole C., who had just taken my class.

I was so excited to have an interaction with one of my students outside of the small square on my screen that I nearly scooted my table out of the way to do a pirouette. Karole C. was no longer a woman who rond de jambed in her kitchen for an hour and then disappeared into thin air until the following week. She was now a woman who, according to her email, was a living, breathing human in Sacramento, California. She introduced herself and thanked me for all that she was learning. She explained that, nearing her 70th birthday, she had certain limitations and wondered if it was alright to continue taking my class, despite her inability to do everything.

She explained that the pandemic had led her to this new world of Zoom dance classes, a world that had breathed new life into hers. After 40 years away from dance, she—thanks to Zoom—had returned to the barre (or rather, the kitchen island).

Taking dance class again is like finding a lost love, she wrote. Maybe better! I cried when I read this. I've since learned that I have students taking my class from all over. From Sweden, Italy and Greece, they stay up at odd hours to roll up their rugs and dance with me.

Perhaps other teachers wonder the same things I wonder. Am I helping? Do they understand what I'm saying? Can they see my feet? Yes. I believe the answer is yes. If there is just one Karole C. out there whose world has changed in the slightest, who's found her lost love, then isn't that what dances classes are for?

I pray that theaters come back after the shutdown is over, that Broadway will come back with even more zest, and that its artists, like me, will have a home again. I pray that all the dance studios out there stay alive. I pray that the arts survive, and that we hold a space in our lives—and, more importantly, in our souls—for art.

After all, we are all artists, whether we know it or not. Some of us are lucky to have found our inner artist early in life; some of us spend a lifetime searching. And some, like Karole C., just needed the stillness of a pandemic to be reacquainted with her inner artist. Like a lost love. Maybe better.

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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Higher Ed
Getty Images

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.

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