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Confessions From a Dance Teacher: Is It Wrong to Encourage Boys to Take Dance Class?

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Last week, with afternoon sunlight coming into the studio, I arrived in Port Angeles, Washington, to teach a choreography class.


It's been a long drive from Seattle. I'm eager to stretch, but I'm so taken by what happens next that it literally stops me in my tracks. A little boy, roughly 4-years-old, watches his sister's ballet class as intently as someone viewing their own version of joy. He copies every move the girls make. I know his excitement, his readiness, as well as I know my own. Why does it so often seem like it's the youngest person in the room who is teaching us the most?

His mother, slouched in a chair, is lost in her phone. So, I tell the boy that I hope he takes class one day. This prompts a sudden lift of his mom's chin and a glance with a great deal of concern clinging to its edges. But I say what I am thinking anyway, "Boys make wonderful ballet dancers!"

"Not in Port Angeles," she says, sitting up straight, as if ballet isn't something her son, or any real man, should get too close to. I might have guessed that she would not agree with me.

The boy looked at me, at his mother, back at me. He jammed his fist into the palm of his hand. It was like watching a leaf wilt on the vine. The whole interaction was pushing against my resolve.

As unsettling as it was at the time, I've grown used to arriving in studios where I can feel as if every move I make is not just visible to the parents but spotlighted, which can make me feel a little self-conscious, as well as the students. It's why I don't allow parents to watch my workshops. It's one benefit of being a master teacher: I can set my own rules. And though feelings can run a little high as parents realize they have to leave, I have yet to find one director who doesn't support my request.

I know—and knew then—that I had to say something more to the boy. It wasn't an overwhelming feeling, more like a ripple in a larger pool of realizations, something that wanted to be expressed and would be. But I could not have predicted what was about to come out of my mouth."You are a natural-born dancer!"

The boy smiled happily, if tentatively, stopping for a quick look at his mom who seemed a little stunned for a moment.

The truth is that all children are natural-born dancers. It's only later that we learn to suppress the desire to move to the music in the air. But I had a teacher once who said that there is so much more to teach about dance than technique. I decided that I would become one of those teachers.

Still, I know what it means to simply accept what I am called upon to do—teach a well-paced class—and I do this, with little want of anything in return but smiles. But I suppose what happened that day is that the belief that only girls should take ballet leaned a little too far in to its unfairness, until a huge part of me screamed, "Don't say that! Dancing is for everyone!"

I would not have put it like this, of course, but I had a deep sense that this bias would help shape this little boy's future. He would be loved and well-cared-for, but who would he become inside?

There is a magic inherent in a dance studio, in being surrounded by people who look like they've found what makes them feel most alive. I think this is what the boy wanted for himself, to move enjoyably through space. But I suspect he will have to learn to do it in other ways, most likely on the ballfield.

And I cannot know if playing ball will make him as happy as dancing seemed to make him. Anymore that I can know why his mother was so offended by it.

But if I let myself remember what must have been happening in this little boy's mind to make him look so happy, I suspect I found his mother's response asked of me something that I found impossible to give: silence.

News
Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.


His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.


"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone

Zoom classes have created a host of challenges to overcome, but this new way of learning has also had some surprising perks. Students and educators are becoming more adaptable. Creativity is blossoming even amid space constraints. Dancers have been able to broaden their horizons without ever leaving home.

In short, in a year filled with setbacks, there is still a lot to celebrate. Dance Teacher spoke to four teachers about the virtual victories they've seen thus far and how they hope to keep the momentum going back in the classroom.

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News
Betty Jones in The Moor's Pavane, shot for Dance Magazine's "Dancers You Should Know" series in 1955. Zachary Freyman, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

An anchor of the Humphrey-Limón legacy for more than 70 years, Betty Jones died at her home in Honolulu on November 17, 2020. She remained active well into her 90s, most recently leading a New York workshop with her husband and partner, Fritz Ludin, in October 2019.

Betty May Jones was born on June 11, 1926 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to the Albany, New York, area, where she began taking dance classes. Just after she turned 15 in 1941, she began serious ballet study at Jacob's Pillow, which was under the direction of Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova for the season. Over the next three summers as a scholarship student, Jones expanded her range and became an integral part of Jacob's Pillow. Among her duties was working in the kitchen, where her speedy efficiency earned her the nickname of "Lightning."

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