“Teenagers have something to say,” insists New York City dance teacher Alice Teirstein, “and they can say it through dance.”
As the creator of the dance program at the progressive Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx and founding artistic director of the Young Dancemakers Company for inner-city youths, Teirstein has been helping teens from all walks of life express themselves for more than 30 years. She embraces the constant change and self-discovery that are central to this age group. “I want them to discover their own inner voice,” she explains, “to find personal expression through dance, to feel proud of their bodies at a time when their bodies are changing, and to be proud of their uniqueness at a time when they are more comfortable conforming to peer pressure.”


Teirstein’s own dance education began in her hometown of Baltimore when she was 8. By the time she was a teenager, she was teaching neighborhood children in her basement. Though she’d initially dreamed of becoming a ballerina, her studies in other dance forms at Adelphi College and Jacob’s Pillow in the 1940s prompted her to imagine a more expansive career.

While at Adelphi, Teirstein taught in the children’s program under the direction of children’s theater pioneer Grace Stanistreet, whom she considers one of her most important influences as an educator. She was hired to teach at Adelphi after graduation, and continued her own training by studying with Hanya Holm and Charles Weidman. Over the next two decades, she directed several dance companies, choreographed numerous works and taught at a variety of studios and schools in the NYC region, from East Harlem to Westchester.

Discovery and growth are central to Teirstein’s life and teaching. A firm believer in the importance of lifelong learning, especially for a teacher, she went back to school at age 40 to earn a master’s degree at Teachers College of Columbia University. Now in her 70s, she continues to take dance class on a regular basis. She also performs, most recently in collaboration with Stuart Hodes and Gus Solomons jr, and is currently creating a new work with William Catanzaro, a percussionist,composer and YDC’s music director.

“Whatever I am doing—performing onstage, taking class or attending dance concerts—I am translating information for my students and actively creating,” she says. “I sometimes feel like a vessel, taking in and pouring out.”

Fusing Mind, Body and Soul

Shortly after receiving her MA, Teirstein was hired by the high school division of The Ethical Culture Fieldston School for a part-time position beginning in 1976. Dance had just been moved out of physical education into the arts division, and with the support of Fieldston’s arts-oriented community, she steadily built up the program into a full dance curriculum. In addition, she created the Fieldston Dance Company, which performs and tours original choreography and repertory works by guest choreographers.

By her own description, Teirstein doesn’t teach choreography per se, but “splashes” her students with images and nurtures what comes out. She encourages them to distill the influences all around them and create from a personal viewpoint. “I demand originality. I will
not accept imitation,” she insists. “The mystery of art is starting with nothing and making something happen.”

Rather than an end in itself, technique is considered a tool to support the creative process. In fact, Teirstein often begins a class by having her students make a dance phrase on the spot, before they get down to technique. She believes that all students can benefit from “engagement in an artform that fuses mind, body and soul.”

Since her program is within a college preparatory school, her aim at Fieldston is to build arts lovers and advocates, not necessarily professional dancers. Even so, several students have gone on to dance teaching and performing careers, including Jessica Gaynor and Stefanie Nelson, both of whom direct their own companies.

A Company Is Born

In 1995, Teirstein’s friend, Arthur Richenthal, attended one of the Fieldston dance concerts. He was so impressed that afterward he asked, “What are you planning next, and how can I help?” Teirstein told him she would like to run a new program, something like what she was doing at Fieldston, but for inner-city youths. He immediately wrote her a check. This was the beginning of Young Dancemakers Company, a free five-week intensive summer
program for NYC public high school students to create and perform their own choreography. The program is now funded by additional foundations, and Gaynor, Teirstein’s former student, is assistant director.

To participate, students must first get a recommendation from their high school teachers and then submit to an audition process that includes performing a dance study of their own creation and an interview. Each year, Teirstein selects 16 members, some with years of dance training and some who are new to the artform. She looks for teens who would like to explore their expressive capabilities, show potential for artistic growth and indicate a certain seriousness of purpose and motivation.

She explains that students often begin to discover their creative potential during the audition itself. “It can be a powerful experience for teenagers when someone is interested in what they have to say through movement,” she notes. “And perhaps it’s also revealing to teens when they discover that they have something to say that’s worth listening to.”

Working in the studio, Teirstein and the dancers explore space, time and energy—“the toolbox exercises.” After four or five days, she asks them to
submit written proposals for the choreography they would like to create. They then devise improvisations for the group based on their ideas, and Teirstein videotapes the results. This enables the dancers to get “sparked” with movement ideas and to choose casts for their pieces, which Teirstein limits to a maximum of 12.

As the students work on their own choreography, they also learn technique and repertory from a guest artist. In 2007, Troy Powell from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater staged excerpts from Ailey’s Escapades; in 2008, Mary Lisa Burns of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company staged excerpts from Cunningham’s Field Dances.

Also during these first weeks, as part of the program’s Dance NY project, funded by the Kornfield Foundation, the dancers attend numerous concerts and company rehearsals, which afford them glimpses of what they will soon be doing. Four weeks into the program, they must be ready to perform both their own works and the repertory piece, with six or seven performances at various locations around the city and sometimes a tour to such places as Jacob’s Pillow or The Yard at Martha’s Vineyard.

Evelyn Chen, a member of YDC in the summer of 2007, gushed about her experiences. “All the performing was exhilarating,” she recalls. “People take class all the time, but when you are a teenager and are performing, it puts you on a whole different level. It made me feel like I was a cool dancer, and made me want to dance more. It’s that adrenaline rush!”

Teirstein’s favorite moments are “being there when her students discover themselves in the artform,” as Chen did. She believes it is vital to resist giving ready-made answers to teen dancers. There are no formulas; each student is different. Convinced there is an artist within everyone, she will continue to help teens unlock their creative potential, using dance as her key. DT

Elizabeth McPherson, PhD, is a freelance writer and an associate professor in dance education at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ.

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo via Claudia Dean World on YouTube

Most parents start off pretty clueless when it comes to doing their dancer's hair. If you don't want your students coming in with elastic-wrapped bird's nests on their heads, you may want to give them some guidance. But who has time to teach each individual parent how to do their child's hair? Not you! So, we have a solution: YouTube hair tutorials.

These three classical hairdo vids are exactly what your dancers need to look fabulous and ready to work every time they step in your studio.


Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Via @madisongoodman_ on Instagram

Nationals season is behind us, but we just aren't quite over it yet. We've been thinking a lot about the freakishly talented winners of these competitions, and want to know a bit more about the people who got them to where they are. So, we asked three current national title holders to tell us the most powerful piece of advice their dance teacher ever gave them. What they have to say will melt your heart.

Way to go, dance teachers! Your'e doing amazing things for the rising generation!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

Dance teachers are just as apt to fall into the trap of perfectionism and self-criticism as the students they teach. The high-pressure environment that is the dance world today makes it difficult to endure while keeping a healthy perspective on who we truly are.

To help you quiet your inner critic, and by extension set an example of self-love for your students, we caught up with sports psychologist Caroline Silby. Here she shares strategies for managing what she calls "neurotic perfectionism." "Self-attacking puts teachers and athletes in a constant state of stress, often making them rigid, inflexible and ultimately fueling high anxiety rather than high levels of performance," Silby says. "Perfectionistic teachers, dancers and athletes can learn to set emotional boundaries. They can use doubt, frustration and worry about missing expectations as cues to take actions that align with what they do when teaching/performing well and feeling in-control. Being relentless about applying a solution-oriented approach can help the perfectionist move through intense emotional states more efficiently."

Check out those strategies below!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox