From Summer Program to Serious Contender

Courtesy of Spotlight Competition

The music can barely be heard from the foggy courtyard, where Malu Rivera-Peoples and Cristina Fargas-Newell (“Miss Tina" to the students) allow a visitor to observe through the windows of a spacious studio as 20 or so youngsters dutifully execute grands battements in Cuban ballet star Jorge Esquivel's ballet class. “That's much better," says Rivera-Peoples, the school director, nodding toward a young girl who is stretching into a long arabesque line. “She's improved a lot this summer. They all come back mid-August, because we start rehearsals right away, so they're working hard to be in shape for the fall."


Westlake School for the Performing Arts is the bustling home to nearly a thousand students who soak in a rich tapestry of classes that reflects the vibrant cultural backdrop of the surrounding neighborhood. Founded in 1991 by Rivera-Peoples and Karen Dycaico, Westlake has six studios housed in the Doelger Arts Center in the Westlake district of Daly City, just south of San Francisco. The quiet, well-manicured suburb is only a stone's throw from the ocean in an area that is largely made up of families of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.

It's a school that has taken honors at events like the Youth America Grand Prix, where it's won the “Outstanding School" award four times, as well as at the International Dance Challenge, the American Dance Awards and the North American Dance Championships. This summer, the WSPA dancers garnered special attention at the New York City Dance Alliance Nationals, where 11-year-old Jasmine Cruz took home the National Mini Female Outstanding Dancer trophy.


A trim, compact woman in her mid-50s, Rivera-Peoples is given to speaking expressively with her hands, and her eyes sparkle with a warmth that belies her no-nonsense attitude. A native of the Philippines, she trained with Felicitas “Tita" Radaic, one of that country's top dancers, and as a teenager she joined Ballet Philippines, while simultaneously running her own one-room studio in Manila. By the time she was in her early 20s, Rivera-Peoples was not only dancing professionally and teaching, but also working on her college degree. The stress, she says, led to burnout.


So in 1983, she quit dancing and joined her father and sister in the Bay Area where she and Dycaico, a former student, started a summer program with 35 students under the auspices of the Daly City Parks and Recreation Department. “We didn't even have a phone—I forwarded the Parks and Recreation public phone next to the clubhouse to my home, so that when we weren't there I could still receive the calls," she says.

Westlake School for the Performing Arts' curriculum reflects the Asian and Pacific Islander cultural heritage of its neighborhood.

Courtesy of WSPA


By 1994, the program had outgrown the facility, and the city offered her 14,000 square feet in a former primary school that she now leases. Her husband Paul, WSPA executive director, personally installed dance floors, mirrors and barres.

With 960 students, Westlake now employs a 22-member teaching staff in a range of genres, including ballet, tap, contemporary, hip hop, musical theater, voice training and Polynesian dance. Ballet classes, which have a total enrollment of 426, make up the bulk of the school's offerings. WSPA supports four youth companies: a classical ballet-based dance company, a musical theater troupe, a hip-hop crew and a Polynesian company called Te Orama or “The Vision," led by respected Tahitian Kumu Hula Anthony Waipa Manaois. Annual revenue is slightly more than $1 million.

Over two decades, three programs have evolved: A General School caters to 580 recreational students, who take class once or twice a week and perform only in a final recital; a more rigorous performance program, open by audition, is geared toward another 390 dancers who want to participate in more performances and competition; and the professional division, which is open by invitation only and designed for dancers pursuing a serious career in classical ballet.

Rivera-Peoples added the professional division in 2010 after a dancer won a Hope Award in the pre-competitive division of Youth America Grand Prix and was invited to the New York finals. WSPA had for years been competing at the YAGP regionals, with students acquitting themselves modestly, but the director realized that a schedule of once- or twice-a-week classes was not enough to prepare her student technically for what she would face in New York.

That year, Rivera-Peoples met Viktor Kabaniaev at YAGP. Kabaniaev, who had danced with the Eifman Ballet, was teaching and choreographing for Miko Fogarty, the dancer featured in the film First Position. Rivera-Peoples invited Kabaniaev to create a program for WSPA.

“She told me, 'I want my students to be trained like yours,'" says Kabaniaev, who at the time was co-director of Diablo Ballet's Apprentice Program in Walnut Creek, CA. He received his training at the famed Vaganova School in St. Petersburg. “Malu is a very strong woman and very straightforward. At one point, she said perhaps I should go a little easier on these students, but I said I have to do what I do, or you can fire me."

In a classroom steamed up from the efforts of the students, Kabaniaev gives a grueling, somewhat unorthodox ballet class to a score of dancers ages 11 to 17. The level of discipline and focus in the room is impressive. The dancers have memorized the set combinations, moving quickly through the standard pliés and tendus, dégagés, battements and stretches in a sequence devised by Kabaniaev to develop strength with movement quality. His barre eliminates certain traditional staple steps that he has deemed as less useful to modern ballet training. “When I was in school," he says, “we did all the time flic-flac. Why? I never used it on the stage."

R.A.D.-trained, Rivera-Peoples studied in the Philippines under Felicitas "Tita" Radaic. Photo courtesy of WSPA

His barre takes the legs high in développés and grands ronds de jambe and penchées early in the class, then returns to smaller movements like frappés before going back to développés in a back-and-forth sequence that emphasizes both speed and flexibility. There is no talking among the students at all, and they barely stop for breath in between combinations for two and a half hours.

Rivera-Peoples acknowledges that while Kabaniaev's class might seem somewhat unconventional to ballet purists—she herself was trained in the methodical Royal Academy of Dance curriculum—it accomplishes what she had hoped. “You can't argue with the results," she says, noting that the level of technical ability in her students has risen considerably.

“It's not for everyone," she says frankly. “These are kids who want more, who are willing to embrace the work. In the beginning I was trying to weed out those who didn't have the turnout or the facility. But in reality, often it's the dancers who don't have those things who become professionals because persistent ones will work for it. And the ones with all the facility tend to just drop out. When auditioning now, we consider the work ethic of the child."

After the class ends, 11-year-old Jasmine Cruz and 12-year-old Tristan Brosnan rehearse the pas de deux from The Flames of Paris. Kabaniaev has coached the diminutive Cruz for two years, cultivating an aplomb that many a professional dancer would envy. “Jasmine was always talented, but when she first came here she was not polished," he says. “So I thought about what the most efficient way was for me to help this kid, and that was to make her extremely precise, work on the way she closes to fifth, how she takes a hand."

Both children drew notice at the 2013 YAGP and New York City Dance Alliance this past summer. In addition to winning the National Mini Female Outstanding Dancer title, Cruz was awarded a scholarship to attend the American Ballet Theatre Young Dancer Summer Intensive.

“Jasmine was a little fireball," says Kate Lydon, director of ABT's Studio Company. Lydon taught Cruz in a class at NYCDA. “She had so much energy and ability beyond her years. She had a particular professionalism, seriousness and drive that came through, and she was incredibly passionate. More than her young age, what struck me most was that she had a love and a drive and seemed to soak up every word and opportunity to dance we offered her."

Cruz and Brosnan hurdle the technical challenges in rehearsal with apparent ease, though both Kabaniaev and Rivera-Peoples correct details with a seriousness tempered by praise. Discipline and a commitment to hard work are values that she and Kabaniaev are keen to foster in all their students.

“These competitions can be very helpful," says Rivera-Peoples. “They really set goals for them every year. But every time we compete, I tell the kids, you compete against yourself. It's not about dancing better than the others, it's about pushing yourself to a different level every time. We're not into the plaques or the trophies. Of course, that's nice, but even if you don't get a placement, if you performed on that stage better than you did in the studio, you've already won. And when they don't perform the way they should have, even if they win, we tell them, 'It's a good thing these judges recognized what you had done, but I didn't think that was your best.' They have to understand that, and who else will tell them the truth but us?"

After suffering a brain stem hemorrhage a few years back, Rivera-Peoples now teaches only two days a week. Even so, she stays on top of how all her students are doing and promotes an open-door policy with parents.

Kabaniaev helped the talented Jasmine Cruz develop polish. Photo by Visual Arts Masters for YAGP, courtesy of WSPA

“If they have a concern about anything, parents can come in to talk," she says. “I know not everyone likes talking with parents all the time, but I'm always open to parents working with us and letting us know if a child isn't happy. I tell them I don't know your child as well as you do—I only see her a few hours, but I would like to know her. Dancing and training is a very personal thing, they're not just numbers in a class."

“In the bigger picture as educators, we are building the whole person, not just teaching them dance," she continues. “They carry that to adulthood. If they're not in a company, they'll be the supporters, the philanthropists, the audience. So we are building in them a love of the art."

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.


Finally compelled to speak up, Griffith led a virtual seminar in June for the entire dance community entitled "Racism and the Dance World." Over a thousand people viewed her presentation, which was inspired in part by the mentorship of longtime family friend Dr. Joy DeGruy, an expert on institutionalized racism. Floored but encouraged by such a large turnout, Griffith quickly prepared a follow-up seminar, which also had a positive response.

"Teachers kept reaching out to me and saying, How do I talk to my students about this? They don't care about anything but steps," she says.

In response, Griffith designed a six-week professional-development program—Roots, Rhythm, Race & Dance, or R3 Dance—for teachers of any style seeking ways to introduce age-appropriate concepts about race and dance history to their students. The history of the art form, she points out, is the context in which we all teach and perform every day.

Griffith laughs, with eyes closed and fingers snapping to the side, as she demonstrates in front of a class of adults. A toddler is at her side, also in tap shoes

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"The white hip-hop teacher asking why Black people are trolling them on Instagram happens against the same backdrop as Tamir Rice holding a pellet gun and not surviving a confrontation with police," she says. "We try to see them as separate things, but they're really not."

R3 Dance isn't the first program Griffith, a 43-year-old mother of two, created for teachers. Since 2018, she has run the Facebook group "Dance Studios on Tap!," a space for sharing struggles and successes in the classroom, teaching tips and ideas on growing studio tap programs.

She has also offered a 10-week, online teacher training program, "Tap Teachers' Lounge," since 2018. Through lecture-demonstrations, discussions, dance classes and workshop sessions, Griffith helps studio instructors increase student enrollment, engagement and success in their tap programs.

"I had started to feel what so many professionals know from experience," she says. "There are huge gaps in people's training, and teachers don't get the benefit of individualized, process-oriented feedback about their pedagogy, especially when it comes to tap dance."

Griffith knew she could help fill in many of those gaps. She also suspected her resumé would appeal to a variety of tap teachers: Some might be impressed by her teaching credits at Pace University and Broadway Dance Center, while others would notice her experience with the Rockettes and Cirque du Soleil, or her connections to tap artists such as Chloe Arnold and Dormeshia.

Griffith also knew that many tap teachers are the sole tap instructors at their studios and have few opportunities to attend tap festivals or master classes. With her programs, they can learn exclusively online, without having to travel, while still teaching their weekly classes.

A key feature of the teacher training program is that participants submit video of exercises they've been working on and get feedback from Griffith. They're expected to implement that feedback and report back on their progress the following week. For Griffith, that accountability is a cornerstone of her pedagogy.

"Teaching is a practice—you have to put it on its feet, you have to do it," she says. "I want to give teachers the tools they need for their practice, and then talk about how that practice informs their preparation in the future, just like how you would teach anything else."

Griffith walks across the front of a studio, clapping her hands, as a large class of teen students practice a tap combination

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

Griffith takes a similar approach for R3 Dance, which last year included 180 participants from around the world working in public schools, private studios, universities and other settings, teaching both tap and social dance. Teachers might bring an anti-racist statement they're drafting for their studio, for example, or a lesson plan or proposed changes to a college syllabus.

Griffith also gives teachers the knowledge to confidently structure and lead conversations about race in the dance industry. Participants typically come with a range of comfort levels in discussing race, says Griffith, some just beginning to comprehend race as a factor in dance. Others have read books and watched documentaries but don't know how to translate what they've learned into lessons. Some worry that starting difficult conversations with colleagues or students will get them fired or reprimanded.

But Griffith says she's been encouraged by the ways in which participants have reflected on everything from their costuming and choreography to their social media presence and hiring practices as a result of the program.

"It's been really inspiring to see more teachers taking this part of history with the gravity that it deserves—not in a way that makes them cry, but that makes them get to work," she says.

For instance, Maygan Wurzer, founder and director of All That Dance in Seattle, Washington, found her studio's diversity and inclusion program enhanced after attending R3 Dance with two of her colleagues. This includes a living document where all 19 instructors share materials that they're using to diversify their curriculum, such as lessons on tap and modern dancers of color, and asking teen students to research the history of race in various dance genres and present their findings.

These changes address a common problem that Griffith notices: Teachers give lessons on certain styles, steps or artists without providing sufficient historical context. For example, it's important to know who Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers were, but it's equally vital to understand how racism contributed to the former having a more prominent place in the annals of dance history.

Griffith stands next to a large screen with a powerpoint presentation showing the name "Bill Bojangles Robinson" with some photos. She holds a microphone and speaks to a large group of students who sit on the ground

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"Topics like privilege and cultural appropriation need the same kind of thought and vision as teaching technique," she explains. "You have to layer those conversations, just like you wouldn't teach fouetté turns to a level-one student."

For educators who have finished one or both of her programs, Griffith is scheduling regular meetings to discuss further implementation strategies and lead additional workshopping sessions.

"As educators, we're excavators who bring out what we can in our students," she says. "But sometimes our tools get dull, and we need to keep sharpening them."

Ultimately, Griffith says that this work has been empowering not just for her students but also for her.

"Dance teachers are completely fine with being uncomfortable and taking feedback," she says. "I found an energy to do this work because there are so many people who are willing to do it with me."

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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