Dance Teachers Trending

DT's Award of Distinction Goes to Nigel Lythgoe for His Vision of Dance on TV

Lythgoe at home in L.A. Photo by Rose Eichenbaum

Nigel Lythgoe makes it clear that he is not a dance teacher. The one time he was invited as a student to teach little kids, he scared the hell out of them. He was impersonating a jack-in-the-box, and when the kids approached, he jumped up and shrieked. "Three of the little girls ran off," says Lythgoe. "Two of them peed themselves, and I was never allowed to go near little kids or teach them again. That was my one experience as a dance teacher. And now they're giving me an award!"

But Lythgoe has done as much as anyone to draw America's consciousness to the art of dance. And that is, in a very pervasive, influential way, teaching.

From his early beginnings on English television as a dancer, choreographer, director and, eventually, producer, Lythgoe had the vision to see that dance could be loved by the masses. As a choreographer for more than 500 television shows, he worked with a range of stars, from Gene Kelly to Chita Rivera, and gave the Muppets their original dance moves. With the popular competition television show "American Idol," he hit his stride as an executive producer in the early aughts. His work as co-creator, as executive producer for, and as a very recognizable television judge on "So You Think You Can Dance" gave kids a new goal: "Gotta dance!"

Lythgoe has also funneled his passion into charity work. Idol Gives Back raised more than $170 million for underprivileged children in Africa and America. With producer Adam Shankman, he created Dizzy Feet, now called American Dance Movement, to foster dance education in underserved communities. Over a decade, the foundation has granted more than $1.1 million to 77 community programs in 32 states.

A heart attack survivor, Lythgoe sought a partnership between the American Heart Association and American Dance Movement. The program, called Kids Heart Challenge, provides dance-inspired movement content that can be integrated into classrooms across the country and helps educate students about healthy life choices.

Michelle Obama inspired Lythgoe to initiate a National Dance Day in the U.S. to combat childhood obesity. On Lythgoe's urging, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced a National Dance Day resolution in 2010 to foster students' fitness through dance education. It is now celebrated in September.

Lythgoe, who radiates charisma, empathy, braininess and sly humor, shares some wisdom about his dynamic career.

Lythgoe at home in L.A. Photo by Rose Eichenbaum

Which dance teachers inspired you?

There were three sisters who taught me to dance: Hilda, Ruth and Annette Bromley. They were very good at making me feel like I had a career in that direction. Hilda in particular was a very strong woman and insisted that we didn't do classes with the girls until much later.

I was very lucky because so many boys nowadays only get to do classes with girls, and [the technique] is a totally different teaching method.

How did the door open for you as a choreographer and producer?

I became a choreographer at 21 when I was with a group of dancers from BBC television called The Young Generation. It took a lot of courage as a cheeky dancer in those days to become the boss. That was the toughest move of my life. Everything after that just seemed to flow, to be frank. Because a lot of producer/directors weren't happy with directing dance, I went from choreographer to becoming a director of dance. BBC sent me on a director's course, where I learned all about cameras, lenses and everything else. We'd dance with props like frying pans, and that led to choreographing a lot of comedy shows. That's how I became the choreographer of the Muppet series, which in the 1970s were all made at ATV in England.

You've advocated for dance teaching in the U.S. to have a national standard. What would that look like?

I think America should come up with its own [standard for certification], especially with the influx of street kids who want to be fully trained as well. America is worthy of it. We don't just need Russian, Italian or British methods. I think the first thing you need to do really is figure out the rules for hip hop. It's deeply rooted in American society and is now being sort of—it sounds awful—sanitized. It's loosening up on its original heavily influenced African roots.

What advice Do you have for dancers who want to pursue choreographing, directing and producing?

Just keep plugging away at it. If you've got the right ideas, you'll be given the opportunity. It's similar to dancing: You need the luck of those doors to open, then you need the talent to go through them, and you make it work. The fright of going through those doors is, I think, what puts people off. With every job, learn as much as you can. Whoever you're working for—there's a reason they're successful. Figure out what it is and employ it. Producing dance on television isn't going to happen very often. We're at a very strong moment on American television with the "World of Dance," "Dancing with the Stars" and "SYTYCD." I don't see too many other dance shows coming out unless they're reality shows behind the scenes: dating with dancing, that style. Not everybody who produces a dance show has been a dancer.

What impresses you most about "SYTYCD" dancers?

Every year, I say to the press the standard of dancers is great this year, and I'm not lying. We've just been through the first audition process [for Season 14] and there are kids doing triple tours and 14 pirouettes. I never saw Nureyev doing triple tours. Street kids who do things with ridiculous bravery without any thought are now learning that they need to incorporate more formal training. The formally trained kids are now looking at what the street kids do and thinking, "I want to be able to do that, too." The sooner we start integrating black dancers into ballet companies, as well, we're going to see some of the most amazing athletic moves.

You're known for judging dancers very directly.

All I can say with that is with "American Idol," before "SYTYCD," tone-deaf kids would come on and sing because their parents told them they were good singers but in actual fact they were tone deaf. Simon Cowell would say to them, "You're never going to be a singer. Go home and sue your singing teacher for taking your money." When they come back next year, they're still tone deaf. With a dancer it's totally different. You can say, "You're not ripe yet. Go away and get yourself stronger." I've seen it so many years now—they come back much stronger and better. You can only say what you see, which is, "You need to work on these areas," and at the end of the day the performance is judged by the person who is watching it. With my program, if you don't entertain your audience, you're not going to get the votes, which is why we never say it's "America's best dancer." It's "America's favorite dancer."

What has surprised you about "SYTYCD"?

I don't know if I'm willing to talk about it! [Laughs.] No, it's fascinating how brilliant the dancing is. I can't wait to see that being introduced into companies now. People would actually get off their backsides to see this at a time when we are losing our audiences, particularly in ballet.

Why did you start Dizzy Feet, now called American Dance Movement?

Adam Shankman and myself were judging "SYTYCD" on the road. We came across a number of kids from underserved communities. We'd say, "Do you take dance class?" And they'd say, "No, I can't afford it." So we started the Dizzy Feet Foundation, based on a program I made in the UK in the early '80s. The foundation grants scholarships to incredible dancers who haven't the wherewithal to continue their training. We also visited organizations in underserved communities that needed help financially. In New Orleans, years after Hurricane Katrina, dance schools were held in churches because their original places were rotting, some still underwater. We brought 200 pairs of tap shoes. It was a great pleasure seeing the kids' faces crying for the tap shoes. I had to leave shortly after because it sounded like a herd of elephants.

How did you decide to extend the foundation's reach to students with disabilities?

I went to a school in New York, where I watched a dance class for autistic kids. They were sitting in a circle. The teacher hadn't put on the music yet, and some were looking at the ceiling. Some were almost hitting their heads. Then as soon as the music came on, they sat up straight and did a little dance routine, turned-in thighs, rolling arms and shoulders, a bit like the old hand jive. At the end, they linked hands and formed archways around the circle.

One of the mothers said she learned her daughter's dance routine. She said, "If I go near her, she screams and hits her head and tries to run away and hide. We do this routine together, and I can touch my daughter." Tears were welling up in her eyes. I also went to see a Down Syndrome class and realized how much joy and benefit dance can bring to those worlds.

What do you think about the state of dance today in the U.S.?

There are fabulous companies, but it's the hardest thing in the world to keep one together nowadays. It needs investment, and my cautionary word is the arts are being underserved by the government. Relying on the public to supply all the funding is wrong. Somehow we've taken the arts out of everything. The arts just make for better human beings. But this is what I caution: The minute "SYTYCD," "World of Dance" and "Dancing with the Stars" come to an end, I don't want to lose dance out of the mainstream. That would be disastrous again for dance. In the UK and America, dance [for boys] has been stigmatized. But I'm watching that change. Dads come up to me and say, "I wanted my son to be a footballer, but he's determined to be a dancer. I'm very proud of him now."

Would young Nigel Lythgoe be surprised by the current Nigel?

I always wanted to be a star, singing and dancing on the West End stage. I did that by the time I was 19 in a small part. I always thought I would go on to become a major West End player. But I never dreamt of the director/producer/executive director side of it at all. I had no idea that I would end up here in America or what I would achieve here. Young Nigel had stars in his eyes but never, ever thought he would end up here.

Dance News
Getty Images

Dancers are resilient by nature. As our community responds to COVID-19, that spirit is being tested. Dance Teacher acknowledges the tremendous challenges you face for your teaching practice and for your schools as you bring your offerings online, and the resulting financial impact on your businesses.

Perhaps we can take hope from the knowledge of how we've managed adversity in the past. I'm thinking of the dance community in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I'm thinking of 9/11 and how that changed the world. I'm thinking of the courageous Jarrah Myles who kept her students safe when the Paradise wildfire destroyed their homes. I'm thinking of Jana Monson who rebuilt her studio after a devastating fire. I'm thinking of Gina Gibney who stepped in to save space for dance in New York City when the beloved Dance New Amsterdam closed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of the Academy for the Performing Arts

“Keeping agile" has taken on a whole new meaning for every studio owner and dance instructor since the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shuttered studio doors for safety's sake in March. Now is the time to show parents how you bring normalcy and positivity to their children's lives so you can retain tuition revenue until your doors reopen for business as usual.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Misty Lown delivers a seminar in Austin. Photo courtesy of More Than Just Great Dancing

Business leader Misty Lown convened (remotely) more than 700 dance studio owners to create an action plan in response to COVID-19 studio closures. ICYMI, here are the takeaways:

  • Studios can deliver value to customers with online content.
  • Owners can preserve enrollment with caring communication.
  • The federal stimulus package is a strong short-term safety net.
Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Photo by Jason Hill, courtesy of Disenhof

When dancer Katherine Disenhof found out her company, NW Dance Project, would be shutting down indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic (on Friday the 13th, no less), she immediately went in search of ways to stay connected and in shape.

At that point, a few virtual class opportunities had emerged, so Disenhof decided to aggregate them on an Instagram account called Dancing Alone Together.

She launched the account that Monday, and by mid-week she'd also created a website. Now, just a few weeks later, Dancing Alone Together has 22K followers—and virtual classes are more than just a growing trend, but a phenomenon that has reshaped the dance world at an unprecedented speed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by Kyle Froman
Update March 31, 2020: This article was first published in Dance Teacher, February 2009.

One of today's leading ballet masters, German-born Wilhelm Burmann exerts a magnetic attraction on the professional students he teaches five days a week at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “Taking Willie's class" has become a tradition for many top dancers of both New York–based companies and those simply passing through town.

Standing ramrod straight at age 69, Burmann embodies the authority and skills he acquired during an extensive global career. He was a corps member of the Pennsylvania Ballet and New York City Ballet, a Frankfurt Ballet principal dancer, Stuttgart and Geneva company principal and ballet master, and ballet master for The Washington Ballet and Le Ballet du Nord, among others. After he retired from dancing in 1977, Burmann took up guest teaching and is still in great demand at prestigious American and European companies and schools: This year he will teach in Florence and Milan, Italy.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo courtesy of Courtesy Ahearn

Elizabeth Ahearn never imagined that she'd teach her first online ballet class in her kitchen. Adding to the surreality of the situation: Rather than give her corrections, her student, the director of distance learning at Goucher College, had tips for Ahearn: Turn the volume up, and move a little to the left.

Ahearn, chair of the dance department at Goucher, is among thousands of dance professors learning to teach online in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The internet may be exploding with resources for virtual classes, from top dancers teaching barre to free warm-ups courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Foundation, but in academia, teachers face many restraints. Copyright laws, federal privacy regulations, varying tech platforms and grading rubrics all make teaching dance online a challenge.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Talia Bailes leads a Ballet & Books class. Lindsay France, Courtesy Ballet & Books.

Talia Bailes never imagined that her ballet training and her interest in early learning would collide. But Bailes, a senior studying global and public health sciences at Cornell University, now runs a successful non-profit called Ballet & Books, which combines dancing with the important but sometimes laborious activity of learning to read. And she has a trip to South America to thank.

In 2015, before starting at Cornell, Bailes took a gap year and headed to Ecuador with the organization Global Citizen Year to teach English to more than 750 students. But Bailes, who grew up training at a dance school outside Cincinnati, Ohio, also spent time teaching them ballet and learning their indigenous dances. "The culture in Ecuador was much more rooted in dance and music rather than literacy," she recalls. Bailes was struck by the difference in education and the way that children were able to develop and grow socially through dance. "It left me thinking, what if dance could be truly integrated into the way that we approach education?"

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Choreographer Molly Heller with musician Michael Wall. Photo by Duhaime Movement Project

Love electronic music? Calming notes of a piano? Smooth, rich trumpet? Want music in clear meters of 3, or in 7? This week is the ideal time to check out musician Michael Wall's abundant website I myself have enjoyed getting to experience his music over the past five years—whether to use in a teen class, older-movers class or for my own MFA thesis choreography.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

On Wednesday, March 18, I was supposed to return to Juilliard and teach Pilates after a two-week spring break. Instead, I rolled a mat onto my bedroom floor, logged in to Zoom and was greeted by a gallery of 50 small-screen images of young ambitious dancers, trying to make the best of a strange situation. As I began class, I applied our new catchphrase: "Please mute yourself," then asked students to use various hand gestures to let me know how they are coping and how much space they have for movement. I asked dancers to write one or two things they wanted to address in the sidebar, and then we began to move.

This is our new normal. In the midst of grave Covid-19 concerns, dance professors across the country faced university closures and requirements to relocate their courses to the virtual sphere. Online education poses very specific and substantial challenges to dance faculty, but they are finding ways to persist by learning new methods of communication, discovering untapped pedagogical tools, expanding their professional networks, developing helpful new resources and unearthing old ones.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Getty Images

As Broadway goes dark and performances are canceled across the country, the financial repercussions of a global pandemic have gone from hypothetical to very real. This is especially true in the dance community, where many institutions are nonprofits or small businesses operating on thin margins, and performers rely on gigs that are being canceled. It's a scary and uncertain time.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Courtesy of Wroth

The effects of COVID-19 on college dancers might have been devastating. Performances were canceled, seniors trying to savor every last moment together were left without a graduation ceremony, students were encouraged to go home, and at each moment, a question has sounded: How can a student learn how to become a better performer when they are not allowed to perform?

Here at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, the ballet department rallied quickly and adapted its programming, choosing to see this hiatus as an opportunity to encourage reflection and self-improvement.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: We always seem to lose the most students after our recitals. How do I prevent post-show fallout?

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox