Teaching Tips

How to Physically—and Emotionally—Ease Your Students Back Into the Studio

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After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

Start With a Conversation

In addition to any sort of COVID-19 screening you're doing with students upon entry, be sure to also assess their overall physical well-being. "From kids taking Zoom classes in their kitchens to those whose parents transformed their basement into a full-on dance studio, everyone's experiences will be different and you need to be prepared," says Marissa Schaeffer, a physical therapist and strength conditioning specialist for The Ailey School.

Set up a system with an email questionnaire or hold individual check-in conversations with dancers and their parents to establish an open yet private and judgment-free line of communication. Inquire about things like how much physical activity students have done since March, if they've developed any injuries, and how their bodies have been feeling generally. (In the rare case that you have a student who has recovered from and tested negative for COVID-19, be sure to check in about any lingering health issues.) Schaeffer also points out that students with asthma might be at greater risk for an asthma attack while dancing in a face mask, so keep an extra-close eye on those students.

Focus on Reconditioning

While students will likely be itching to jump back into normal dance class, the reality is that many of them were less active than usual throughout the summer and are physically deconditioned.

"Now is the time for teachers to pull back the reins," says Schaeffer, "and make class meaningful without dancing the entire time."

Instead, for the first month back, take the information gleaned from the initial screening questions and tailor a class that focuses on reconditioning your dancers. This could include an extended warm-up with additional stretching, an extra sequence of core strength-building or incorporating cross-training, like yoga or Pilates.

"Going slow out the gate," says Schaeffer, "is a win–win, decreasing risk for injury while increasing dancers' strength, flexibility and mobility."

Implement Emotional Check-Ins

It's important to acknowledge with students that this has been a wild, traumatic year. But a long therapy session usually isn't necessary.

"Let students know 'I'm here and I'm open to talking about emotions," says Rachelle Theise, a licensed clinical psychologist in Westport, Connecticut, and clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone's Child Study Center. Simply inquiring about how your students are feeling will let dancers know that you're available if they need extra support. If a student does seem to be withdrawn, stressed or overanxious, let the student's parent know.

Parental anxiety is also to be expected. "If a parent approaches a teacher showing concern about their child's progress or what they've lost technically," says Theise, "it's important that teachers not join in on the criticism." Try to calm the parent's worries with the reassurance that their kids will soon be back on track.

Avoid High-Impact Movement and Jumps

Schaeffer advises that the last portion of the class, typically reserved for leaps and high-impact work, would be better served to reacclimate dancers to the impact of jumping.

For the first few weeks, replace across-the-floor exercises with center combinations that build strength and control. Schaeffer suggests single-leg relevés—both élevés and forced-arch relevés—or single-leg squats that target the lower extremities. From there, practice deconstructing jumping. "Do a fast plié to relevé in the center with a slow lowering so dancers can work on controlling the movement," says Schaeffer.

After two weeks, add jumping off of two legs (sautés in first, second and fifth). The following week, add two-feet-to-one-foot exercises (sissonne assemblés), and slowly add high-impact jumping from one foot to one-foot sequences.

Focus on the Positive

It's safe to assume that the pandemic has been a stressful time for many of your dancers. Their emotions, just like their physical bodies, need extra TLC right now.

"Kids have been emotionally impacted by what's been going on with COVID-19," says Theise. "They will have more anxiety about being out in the world and might be anxious about being back in the studio."

Even more than usual, focus on creating a warm, uplifting environment. Give students positive reinforcement just for showing up to help prevent feelings of inadequacy or shame.

Emphasize to your students that questions about how frequently they did or did not practice over the past six months or what their bodies are capable of are strictly to gauge their physical health, not pass judgment on what they've lost during the pandemic.

"We don't want kids to be functioning from a deficit place," says Theise. "We want to meet kids where they're at now and not to feel that they're at a disadvantage or that they've not done enough to keep up."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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