Dance Teacher Awards

Dance Teacher Award Honoree Deborah Damast Is Shaping the Next Generation of Dance Educators

Cherylynn Tsushima, courtesy 92Y

Missed the 2020 Dance Teacher Awards? Watch them on-demand here.

As director of the dance education master's degree program at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, Deborah Damast is responsible for shaping the next generation of dance teachers. To do that to the best of her ability, she stays curious—and busy. On top of her full-time job in higher ed, she's currently working part-time toward her doctorate in dance education at Columbia University's Teachers College.

But perhaps even more telling about her passion for the field is that she still finds time to teach creative movement three mornings a week at Manhattan's Little Red School House and to direct a summer workshop at The Yard on Martha's Vineyard. "Teaching young children keeps me relevant," Damast says. "Kids change. Pedagogy changes. When I'm teaching educators, I want to have real stories to tell."

Deborah Damast adjusts a student's arm position, as five other adult students look on

Chianan Yen, courtesy NYU Steinhardt

Her boundless energy is one of her hallmarks, along with a unique ability to bring people together. "Deborah wants to know what's going on in every classroom," says her NYU colleague Patricia Cohen. "She wants to understand and work with what we all—students and faculty—are bringing to the table. She listens, and then she acts. She's a visionary."

Damast's childhood training was primarily in classical ballet. Then, at SUNY Purchase in Purchase, New York, she was immersed in modern dance and discovered a passion for choreography. After graduating, she moved to New York City, where she performed for independent choreographers and presented her own work.

She also launched her teaching career, starting with open-level modern for adults at Peridance. "One day, one of the kids' teachers was out, so they sent me into a class of 3-year-olds," she says. "I didn't know what to do! It was humbling and eye-opening." She began observing her fellow teachers, taking copious notes. Soon, she was regularly subbing for the children's program faculty. "Before I knew it, I was teaching all over the city: Peridance, the 92nd Street Y, daycares, shelters, a VA hospital," she says. "I worked with people of all ages. The more I taught, the more I saw the through lines—the artistry, culture and connections to the world that are there whether you're 4 or 64 years old."

Deborah Damast and three students dance outdoors

Joseph Bukenya, courtesy Damast

When she was invited to take a teacher-training course through the 92nd Street Y's Dance Education Laboratory, "I became excited by the philosophy of the work," Damast says. "That course gave me a language to talk about what I was doing, and it prompted me to get my master's in dance education at NYU."

Upon graduation in 2002, she joined the NYU Steinhardt faculty as a "super-adjunct," teaching as well as directing performances and the Kaleidoscope Dancers, a service-learning course that partners with public schools. In 2010, she became full-time faculty, and in 2018, she took over as program director. Now, in addition to her administrative duties, Damast teaches six courses a year, including Teaching Creative Movement. She also heads up a January study-abroad course in Uganda, now in its 15th year, which pairs NYU students with Ugandan dance educators to collaborate on lesson plans and teach local children.

Looking forward, Damast hopes to diversify the curriculum within her program, adding more culturally relevant pedagogy. "We have to make sure that everybody has access to discover the joy of dancing," she says. Because she's active in teacher training for the NYC Department of Education, she's uniquely positioned to lead the way: "What's happening in higher ed informs public schools. What's happening in public schools informs advocacy and public policy. In the public sector, we can provide professional development for private sector teachers. It's about creating avenues for dialogue and opportunity. That's the mission."

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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