News

Figure Skater Nathan Chen Has a Secret Weapon Toward Olympic Gold: His Ballet Training

Nathan Chen performing at the 2018 U.S. Championships. Photo courtesy of U.S. Figure Skating

Soon after Nathan Chen began taking class at Ballet West Academy in Salt Lake City at around 8 years old, his natural ability was obvious. Especially to former director of the academy, Peter Christie, who taught Chen (even on the ice several times), and Jeff Rogers, who also taught Chen while he was in the young men's program at the academy. Considering Chen's unique potential and figure-skating goals, Christie and Rogers knew Chen obliged some special treatment. However, as teachers, they wanted to give Chen the same ballet education as every other student at the academy.

Christie and Rogers shared with DT how training Chen required finding a delicate balance with their instruction.


Dance Teacher: How did Nathan find Ballet West Academy?

Peter Christie: When Nathan first started taking classes, he'd already been skating, but his mom Hetty realized that dance needed to be ingrained in his training—to get him to a place where the ballet and the dancing would benefit his future and set him apart as a skater. When you're watching skaters, you can tell when they haven't had any dance training, particularly ballet. A lot of times you'll have skating programs that will incorporate dance training in them, but it's supplemental. Dance is an after-the-fact. "You've been skating for awhile, but you now need some dance classes to make your arms look better." We all know as dance teachers the repetition and starting from an early age is what makes it become second nature and ingrained in the muscle memory. Nathan's mom understood that.

Chen with Peter Christie, right, and former skating coach Evgeniya Chernyshova. Christie is now the Director of Outreach and Education at the Ballet West Academy. Photo courtesy of BW

DT: What was Nathan's training schedule like?

Jeff Rogers: He took a lot of ballet classes. He was not just taking two classes a week.

PC: In terms of class schedule, he was like any other advanced student. He would be at the skating rink at 5 or 6 in the morning, go to school then come to the ballet school for several hours of classes, sometimes followed by rehearsals with the company. With his skating, he had very long days.

DT: Did Nathan have to unlearn any skating habits when he started taking ballet?

JR: To the best of my knowledge, skating training doesn't want you to turn out.

Chen performing in Ballet West's 2011 production of "Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Luke Isley, courtesy of BW

DT: How have you seen his ballet training benefit his skating?

PC: Nathan approaches his performance differently on the ice compared to other skaters, whose focus is the next technical element. As dancers, when we're doing a variation or performing onstage, you don't do a trick and walk to a spot, then do another trick. Your phrasing and the in-between steps are just as important as the tricks—the artistry of connecting the steps. Nathan has watched and absorbed professional ballet dancers doing this in class and from backstage, filing it away for future purposes.

JR: You watch him skate, and he just moves and presents himself differently from other skaters.

PC: So much of ice skating is solitary, so another benefit of ballet is the group-class setting, which is a different way of learning. You can focus on your training, but still be with other people. That socialization contributed to Nathan's training and success. Through the years, he's developed close and natural friendships at Ballet West, which he still maintains.

JR: In our young men's program, it's a group of men feeding off of each other. The competition within the group of dancers was strong and good.

DT: As dance teachers, did you approach Nathan's training differently from other students?

PC: We approached his training as a ballet dancer. One difference with skaters is they tend to train on one side. All of your routines and jumps, etc., tend to reemphasize that one side, where with professional ballet training you do everything on both sides. You tour to the right, you tour to the left. Nathan really kicked in that mode of balancing the body and muscles with his ballet training.

JR: Because he is so balanced, he's staved off injury, for the most part. Periodically after class, Nathan and I will talk about the correct hip placement or posture from class. He's a dancer while he's out there skating, and that's what makes him so unique. But we never made accommodations in class. We never said: "Oh, because you're a skater, you don't have to do this." When he was in ballet class, he was 100 percent a ballet dancer. His ability to compartmentalize was the quality that made him good at both.

DT: Has Nathan's presence changed how you teach?

PC: When Nathan came to Ballet West, we saw that this was a potential for us to reinstate the dance and figure-skating connection. Typically, with our students we try to enforce the potential of a ballet career. But with Nathan, although he probably could have a ballet career with his dedication and talent, we understood that we'd have to make accommodations with respect to timing and accessibility. We understood that skating was his primary goal, and establishing curricula that complimented his skating training. But with all the recent exposure and people seeing how dance benefits skating, we get phone calls from skaters all the time seeking dance instruction.

DT: What advice would you give dance teachers coaching or teaching figure skaters?

PC: You have to be meticulous of how you put your class together.

JR: It took a lot of homework, on my part, to understand the parallels between skating and ballet. I started watching hours of skating videos, which led me to videos that emphasized, primarily by the Russians, the combination of incorporating ballet with gymnastic and figure-skating training. What really separated Russian athletes from American athletes was the refinement in the transition movements. So, you have to do your homework. The responsibility of the dance teacher is important.

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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