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Find Out What Tools Saleemah E. Knight Uses in Her Classroom

Saleema E. Knight, with USC Kaufman students (Photo by Carolyn DiLorento, courtesy of USC Kaufman)

Right from the start, dance professor Saleemah E. Knight gets her students—a mix of dance majors and nonmajors at University of Southern California Glorya Kaufman School of Dance—working up a sweat. "I really think about the whole body moving," she says. "I think the warm-up should be a dance." Her 30-minute warm-up is jam-packed with full-bodied exercises that take dancers from standing to the floor and back up again, exploring positions of the pelvis, finding parallel and the articulation of the spine. To work their brains, Knight uses Matt Mattox jazz technique exercises. "They help with finding shapes and changing the way that you're using your brain to map information. A lot of the Matt Mattox work is very juxtapositional," she says.


From Knight's early days studying ballet and Gus Giordano technique to the Horton, Graham, Dunham, Luigi and Fosse techniques she encountered as a professional dancer, everything finds a way into her class curriculum. "My style requires a dancer to have a strong sense of shape, design and architecture in the body, yet also a sense of groove," she says. "We don't ignore rhythm, musicality and groundedness—getting down in your legs like you would in a hip-hop class."

Improvisation is a key component of Knight's class. She'll have her students listen to the polyrhythms in the live accompaniment as a launching point for their explorations. "Jazz really is steeped in improvisation," she says. "I tell my dancers that improvisation is making real-time negotiations with the music. It's an intellectual skill."

Teaching Tools

LEOTARD SHE LOVES: Motionwear Mesh Keyhole-Back Tank Leotard

FAVORITE FOOTWEAR: Capezio-E Series Jazz Slip-on shoe. "I also still love a good lace-up jazz boot. I know it's old school, but the ankle support and wrap around the foot is solid for execution."

TO STAY IN SHAPE: "Dance, of course, but I also enjoy yoga during my off season. Like dance, it's a holistic practice that engages the mind, body and spirit."

RECOMMENDED VIEWING: The BBC documentary The King Who Invented Ballet, the PBS documentary Blacks and Vaudeville and the National Visionary Leadership Project's interviews with Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell

FAVORITE QUICK SNACK: Luna Bars or almonds and berries mixed with yogurt

Teacher Voices
Getty Images

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Much of this setup is the result of my attempts to recreate the most important aspects of an in-person dance studio: I have a barre, a floor and as much space as I can reasonably give myself within a small apartment. I do not, however, have a mirror, and neither do most of my students.

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Allie Burke, courtesy Lo Cascio

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Courtesy Lovely Leaps

After the birth of her daughter in 2018, engineer Lisa McCabe had reservations about returning to the workforce full-time. And while she wanted to stay home with the new baby, she wasn't ready to stop contributing financially to her family (after all, she'd had a successful career designing cables for government drones). So, when she got a call that September from an area preschool to lead its dance program, she saw an opportunity.

The invitation to teach wasn't completely out of the blue. McCabe had grown up dancing in Southern California and had a great reputation from serving as her church's dance teacher and team coach the previous three years (stopping only to take a break as a new mother). She agreed to teach ballet and jazz at the preschool on Fridays and from there created an age-appropriate class based on her own training in the Cecchetti and RAD methods. It was a success: In three months, class enrollment went from six to 24 students, and just one year later, McCabe's blossoming Lovely Leaps brand had contracts with eight preschools and three additional teachers.

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