Teaching Tips

Find Out How Jessie James Has Established Herself as an Indispensable Guest Teacher

Jessie James (photo by Alex Esch (courtesy of James)

Over the past six years, Jessie James has established herself as an indispensable guest artist to competition studios across the country, thanks to her lively personality and character-filled choreography. She got her start by setting pieces as a resident teacher at Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, Utah, then moved on to Larkin Dance Studio in Maplewood, Minnesota, and Woodbury Dance Center in Woodbury, Minnesota. Her choreography has since been seen by studio owners around the country as her pieces have won local and national competitions. It didn't take long before dance studios from coast to coast were contacting her to set choreography and teach master classes. Now she works with roughly 15 studios yearly and is hoping to grow her practice even more in the future.


Because James only has a short time to work with each studio, she has created a formula for conducting efficient and meaningful workshops. "I generally begin each of my choreography trips with a master class," James says. "I like to see the dancers before I work, so I can get an idea of what their skills are. Studios tend to like this, because the money they earn from the class spreads the cost of my travel among all of their dancers rather than just the kids who are having a piece set on them. Once we start working on a number, I workshop a chorus with them, and then I begin setting the rest of the number. That way each student has something to practice, and they never get cold when I'm not working with them."

As a guest teacher and choreographer in the digital age, James is committed to growing her practice authentically rather than shaping her work around what will play well on social media. "We can get caught up in social media and try to get people to see our work," says James, whose professional credits include Justin Giles' company SoulEscape, "America's Got Talent" and the Donny & Marie show in Vegas and on Broadway. "My advice to anyone who is trying to choreograph and teach is to keep your head down, hustle and do work you believe in. Don't focus on what other choreographers are doing online. Hold your integrity, and studio owners will see that and want to hire you."

TEACHERS' TOOLS:

​HOW SHE FINDS MUSIC:

James Teaching Choreography

Photo by Alex Esch (courtesy of James)

"Throughout the year, I have a Spotify playlist that I'm constantly adding to with Shazam. If I can listen to one of the songs and have an entire concept come to life in my mind, I know I've found the right one."

GO-TO TEACHING ATTIRE:

James Teaching Choreography

Photo by Alex Esch (courtesy of James)

"You can always find me in a pair of black Lululemon align pants, or sweatpants made of Rulu fabric. I love American Apparel baggy tees and light throw-over crew-neck sweatshirts. When I've been on my feet all day and need added support, I throw on my Nikes with plantar fasciitis inserts to help with arch support."

FAVORITE ENERGY-BOOSTER FOOD:

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"Protein bars, almonds and fruit. "When it's a real long night of teaching, a Diet Coke doesn't hurt, either."

RECOMMENDED READING:

"Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert. "She talks about living a creative life, and I felt like she was speaking directly to me."

ITEMS SHE NEVER LEAVES HOME WITHOUT:

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"Lip balm, my phone and doTERRA Deep Blue Rub—especially when I'm teaching."


Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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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.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

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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