Studio Owners

Former San Diego Charger Girl Nicole Lucia Leads a Tour of Her Dance Facility

Photo by Jim Carmody

Nicole Lucia leans against her desk in Danceology, the 14,000-square-foot performing arts campus she owns north of San Diego, and stretches her arms. She pulls the sleeves of her stylish athletic shirt down over her hands. Her neon-orange nail polish perfectly matches a tank top that peeks out at her hips. Over her head, a monitor displays a closed-circuit video of dance rooms, and behind her is a poster-size image of a glamorous cheerleader.

“Yes, that's me as a Charger Girl, right out of Academy of Our Lady of Peace," she says with a smile. “And now I'm in charge of all this," gesturing to indicate the studio that she founded in 2002. She raises her voice to be heard over the rumbling sound of dancing feet and looks up to the ceiling. “It's noisy like this all the time. It's a happy sound—glad we have solid floors."

Lucia often talks about the floors in her two-story space, and with good reason. She has invested between $15,000 and $20,000 in equipment for each of the seven dance rooms that comprise Danceology: sprung flooring covered with marley or wood, mirrors, viewing glass and state-of-the-art sound and video systems.

During the tour, we pass two maintenance men. “They wash the glass and floors every day," Lucia says. “We keep this place spotless. Tap dancing is hard on floors. We have those done in regular rotation, that's about $1,500 every year or two. Gouging is worst near the stairs where little dancers stand."

The Danceology logo is large in the lobby. Receptionists sign people in and out. Some dancers arrive after school every day and stay until 9 pm. Those who dance on the competition team train 25 to 30 hours a week and rehearse or travel to competitions on weekends.

Lucia employs 26 instructors, four program directors, an operations manager and six administrative people. Photo by Jim Carmody.

Hallways painted purple are lined with photographs of master teachers and star students. Each image is wrapped on a frame like a painting. The tiny-tot areas have painted murals and one-way mirrored glass. There are shelves for bags and books, desks and Wi-Fi, multiple restrooms and a shower.

Students and parents can watch closed-circuit dance action on flat-screen TVs in the Snack Barre lounge. Parents help serve food and drinks from a simple kitchen, but Lucia says all other operations are done by paid staff.

After Lucia outgrew her first 2,000-square-foot studio, she partnered with her mother, Jeanne Lucia, to build a modern campus in a plain industrial park. “It was an empty warehouse," she says, “which was terrifying and exciting at the same time. We wanted spacious dance rooms and modern common areas. We were in a new area full of growing families. Fourteen years later I teach some of the same dancers who were in my first tiny-tot class.

“We've had some tough years. We finished our build-out in 2008 as the economy dived. The toll was devastating in 2010 because families were scaling back.

“We recovered. It's invaluable to have a strong program for ages 3 to 8 because they train and develop through the years. Balancing the budget isn't easy. We operate on a tight margin, but I'm committed to paying my staff and giving clients value. I want this to be open and affordable to everyone."

"We have some tough years. We finished our build-out in 2008 as the economy dived. The toll was devastating." Photo by Jim Carmody.

TEAM EFFORT

Lucia says she was always athletic, and she danced growing up. She auditioned for the San Diego Chargers cheerleaders on a whim and stayed for three seasons.

“I worked up to captain and was chosen to be the Charger rep at the Pro Bowl," she says. “I learned leadership skills and how to interact with many types of people. I am grateful."

Now she has a team of 26 instructors on staff. She also has four program directors, one operations manager and six administrative employees. A color-coded schedule shows classes: all levels of ballet, tap, technique, jazz/lyrical, acrobatics, contemporary, hip hop, stretch turns and leaps, legs and feet. There is also an adaptive dance program for dancers with special needs, ages 4 to 8. It introduces ballet, tap and creative movement and offers performance opportunities.

“Total enrollment is 800, and about 180 students are in competition," she says. “Annual revenue is about $1.2 million. We have many programs to support that enrollment: a holiday show, a full Nutcracker and a showcase for every dancer in June. We have more than 100 classes per week, not including rehearsals or private lessons. Multiple times a year, I fly in guests for master classes and workshops."

ALWAYS PROFESSIONAL

It's a balance of “discipline and nurture, and some fun," Lucia says, as groups of students hop out of her way in a corridor. During a dance demonstration, she divides students into groups. The waiting group scrambles to the side and hugs the wall to make more room.

Natural light shines through big windows on the second floor, and Lucia takes a seat on a black leather sofa near a line of desks that she calls the homework area. We can hear muffled sounds from a class down the hall. Three mothers waiting outside a studio comfort a young girl who has a broken toe and needs help taping it.

Coaching dancers is Lucia's passion. To get results, she uses discipline tempered with inspiration. “I am not interested in being their friend," she says. “There is time to laugh, but there are boundaries. Kids listen and do as I say because they understand what is expected of them. Expectations are set and never change."

“We are a professional team, not volunteers," says Lucia. “We coach minds and teach bodies. We support dance competition, and we prepare young people for success on a stage and in life, the wins and losses. There's discipline and team bonding, and we help with scholarships and college. There are many opportunities, and we work as a team to find the right chemistry for a college education or other direction."

Photo by Jim Carmody

Emma York, 13, trains in multiple styles at Danceology six days a week. Wearing a sky-blue leotard and winning smile, she takes a break to talk about competition and TV appearances. She attended the Joffrey Ballet School Summer Intensive in San Francisco on scholarship and performed on “Dancing with the Stars." “You can find us on YouTube," York says of her duet with dance partner Joey German. “We danced the younger roles of Julianne and Derek Hough. I hope to attend Juilliard."

Sophia Lucia, Nicole Lucia's young cousin, also trained here. She has danced on television and holds the Guinness World Record for 55 consecutive pirouettes.

Competing in a sport is expensive, and Lucia says it's the same for dance. Classes, conventions, hotels, flights, costumes and entry fees add up.

“We know it's tough to participate at that level," Lucia says. “That's why we offer a program for dancers who want a smaller commitment. It's less rigorous and more feasible for families. We welcome any dancer, beginner or advanced. Anyone can take a technique class for $20. We're inclusive."

“In 14 years I've used skills from working with the NFL and smart professional teachers, and my family," Lucia says. “I don't ask people to work for free. I try to hire the best and provide a nurturing environment here."

She pulls out drawers filled with pink ballet shoes, tap shoes and clothes. “This is our lost-and-found," she says, laughing. “I could open a store. Some kids come back for them, but most are left here. Kids who do the trial week can use these shoes if they need to. Shoes are expensive."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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