Gesel Mason has serious chutzpah. Eighteen years ago, fresh off a performance career with the Dance Exchange and eager to focus on her own work, she decided to ask some high-profile African-American choreographers—Bebe Miller, Andrea Woods Valdés, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Donald McKayle, David Roussève—if they'd set solos on her. "It was one of those moments where you don't realize what you're asking," she says. "Before I got too in my head, too 'Why-would-I-even-dare-to-ask-these-people?', I just...did." In looking back, she's surprised they all said yes.

That was the beginning of No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers, an evolving collection of solos meant to show the resilience and diversity of black contemporary performance. "The work very clearly shows that, actually, the boundary of the term 'blackness' doesn't really exist. It's wide and risk-taking and sophisticated," says MK Abadoo, a friend and colleague who has performed with Mason.

Since 2001, Mason—while also creating her own work, directing a company and holding teaching positions at many universities—has steadily amassed 11 solos, embedding herself in these choreographers' processes. Now, No Boundaries is evolving once more. Mason is archiving videos of the solos and extensive interviews with their respective choreographers via an online platform that will go live this spring, as part of her new (as of fall 2018) position at The University of Texas at Austin.


"Mr. McKayle, by the way..."

Though she admits to some initial naïveté when asking choreographers if they'd work with her, Mason was strategic about who she asked. She mostly approached people "who I'd had some sort of interaction with," she says, whether that was through her time performing with Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange in Maryland or via one of Mason's own projects. Some interactions were calculated—what she jokingly calls "soft stalking." "I totally did that with Jawole," she says, as an example. Mason went to an audition for Urban Bush Women and spoke to Zollar afterward about the solo project. "With Mr. McKayle," she says, "I saw that he was going to be at the American Dance Festival, so I signed up for the professionals' workshop and took his class. And then I went up to him and said, 'Mr. McKayle, by the way...'"

Mason with Mecca Madyun and Erinn Liebhard in Rennie Harris' "You Are Why!"James Forsberg

Mason conducted extensive interviews with each choreographer who set work on her. "I was asking, 'How is it that they make the work that they make? Why? What's their dance lineage? Who are they as people?'" she says. "Because that was something folks didn't necessarily know—what you don't get to see onstage. It's a window into their lives."

Mason also made a concerted effort to choose black choreographers who represented a wide spectrum. "I started with women choreographers," she says, "and then wanted to get back to male choreographers. I had some young choreographers, and then I wanted to get some people who had some connection to Alvin Ailey's time period—that was Donald McKayle, later on Dianne McIntyre—since I was interested in a generational spread."

"I don't know if I can pull this off."

Learning each solo was an intensive process. Mason would travel to the choreographer and spend between five days and a week, four to six hours a day, committing the movement to memory. "The biggest thing was not ever assuming that I 'had' it," she says. "You have to really remember the nuances and the detail and take the notes and watch the video." But it was often time spent outside the studio that she considered the most meaningful. "What was cool was that, for example, Dianne McIntyre drove me around Cleveland," says Mason. "I'd go out to dinner with these folks and wish I had the camera with me—all of the other stuff I saw that's part of a choreographer's life and making dances was so exciting."

Each solo presented its own challenges. Sometimes they were physical; often, they were emotional. "Each had its thing, where I was like, 'I don't know if I can pull this off,'" Mason says. "David Roussève was so specific; he was choreographing my pupils. With Dianne, there were things I couldn't get, to the extent that she said, 'Let's scrap that and start over.' For Bebe [Miller], my center of gravity was not in the same place as hers. Andrea Woods—she's 5'9" or something and has a super-long Achilles. I don't have that. Reggie Wilson's piece was 20 minutes—that's the longest solo of all. It was about surviving sexual assault. I had to go through these different states."

With Bebe Miller. "My center of gravity was not in the same place as hers," says Mason.Jess Cavender

And then there was the emotional toll of performing the work. Over the 14-year performance term of No Boundaries, Mason performed various combinations of the work at venues like Dance Place in DC (2004, 2006 and 2015), Joyce SoHo in New York (2007), Links Hall in Chicago (2008) and the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia (2009). Yet it wasn't until her friend (and University of Florida dean of the College of Arts) Onye Ozuzu asked how she was handling it that Mason even gave that aspect a thought. "She was like, 'Who do you have backstage helping you with the emotional labor?'" says Mason. "I said, 'um...'" Eventually, she recruited Abadoo for this role and adapted her backstage regimen accordingly. "I had my foam roller," says Mason. "My walnuts, my oatmeal. MK asked, 'What kind of music do you like to listen to? What are your favorite scents?' She'd have lavender and vanilla backstage. We'd do meditation practices together." That approach particularly came in handy when Mason learned Donald McKayle had passed away 30 minutes before she performed his solo, Saturday's Child. "That was a huge shock," she says. But she was able to access an even deeper level of investment in the piece and the project at large. "I felt like, 'This is the reason that I'm doing this,'" says Mason. "What a great way to celebrate his life—by performing his work."

"I started to imagine what the No Boundaries archive could be."

In April 2018, Mason performed seven of the solos at the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn—for the last time, she vowed. "The idea was to capture these solos with a multicamera shoot, to get the best footage," she says. That performance footage comprises an important part of her No Boundaries online archive, a project that UT Austin offered considerable support for—which played a big part in her decision to move from Colorado to Texas. "They have really established archives and libraries here at UT Austin," she says. "I started to imagine what the No Boundaries archive could be, other ways that this work could live on."

At UT Austin, Mason works with a growing team, including archivists and African-American historians, who are helping her transition from what's been primarily a physical performance archive to a digital one. "Sometimes, we forget that dance is of the moment. When we think about anthropology, dance is the reflection of a culture. I'm curious how these solos translate, how they point to something larger."

Jess Cavender

Now that the project has evolved, there are new questions for Mason to address. "I'm not handing a box of material over to somebody," she says. "I'm the one doing the shaping—the one who's giving the audience what they're going to see. What's going to tell the story?" There's also been the experience of seeing her body change over the last 15 years. "I'm not 15 years younger," says Mason. "What does it mean to be a physical repository that's degrading? How do you then keep the essence or story alive when these things are literally slipping through your fingers?"

"I still recognize how important it was, the live performance," she says, noting how rare it would be to see seven African-American choreographers featured in the same program. She's hopeful the archive will spark inquiry and study for generations to come. "Maybe it'll be a repository for African-American work—a go-to place," she says. Right now, she and her team are still figuring out what the user experience of the archive will be. "We're thinking about having a little icon that's me, where you click and watch how I learned a piece," she says. "Or you can have your own journey: I have hours and hours of interviews with Rennie Harris. I'll show you five minutes, but you could also go in and watch unedited footage of him talking."

The archive isn't the only reason she chose UT Austin. She's also helping to shape the university's new master's program in dance and social justice. "I was like, 'That has my name on it,'" she says. "It was exciting, coming in on the ground floor of something new." She also developed a legacy class in relation to the No Boundaries archive. "What does it mean to be archiving this material? Who gets to tell that story? How is gender embedded in the archiving system? Who has access to the material?" she asks. "As artists and storytellers, the body is an archive. You're performing the archive, embodying the archive, becoming a dancing legacy."

The Conversation
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When it comes to running a thriving dance studio, Cindy Clough knows what she's talking about. As executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner for more than four decades, she's all too aware of the unique challenges the job presents, from teaching to scheduling to managing employees and clients.

Here, Clough shares her best advice for new studio owners, and the answers to some common questions that come up when you're getting started.

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Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. The list goes on—and you have to decide not only what type of presence you'll have on each platform, but also whether you and your faculty will network with students and family members. How can you set boundaries for yourself and your faculty on social media?

The easiest option may be to prohibit these interactions entirely. At the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, staff and faculty may not "friend" or otherwise connect with current students or those under the age of 18 on social media, explains Gordon Wright, Harid's executive vice president and director.

At the Dance Zone in Henderson, Nevada, the handbook states that social media should be handled "in a professional manner." Owner Jami Artiga encourages students and faculty to share photos and tag the studio, but prefers not to "friend" kids from her personal account. "Of course, my son dances at the studio, and we have teachers with kids who go here, so sometimes the line gets blurry," she says.

Robin Dawn Ryan of the Robin Dawn Academy in Cape Coral, FL, also has a few students on her Facebook friend list, "but I don't put a lot about my personal life on the site," she says. She uses the platform more to keep track of what dancers and their parents are posting about the studio. "If they put up something they shouldn't," she says, whether that's a bullying post or an unflattering image, "I'll ask them to take it down."

Ryan tends to keep her social-media shout-outs generic: "So proud of this year's graduates!" and "Our dancers looked beautiful at prom!" That way, she can show support without spending hours online or worrying about missing any one student's achievement.

Dancer Health
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When ballet star David Hallberg sought out the medical team at The Australian Ballet to help him recover from his ankle surgeries, one of the things rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly had him learn was to jump from his hips. By doing so, he learned to put less stress on his lower legs and feet and access the powerhouse group of muscles surrounding the hips, most commonly referred to as the glutes. While many parts of his rehab were particular to him, understanding how to properly engage the glutes is something many professional and pre-professional dancers can stand to gain from.

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Studio Owners
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Many a studio owner might agree that the idea of maternity leave is laughable. "So many people say, 'I was back after two weeks—we had a competition,'" says Meagan Ziebarth, a former owner who sold her studio two years ago. "If that works for you, and you feel great, wonderful. But I feel passionately that having a baby is one of the most transformational life events, and you don't need to put that kind of pressure on yourself and accept that that's the norm."

So how can you take the maternity leave you want and make sure your studio doesn't run itself into the ground? We asked three who did it for their best advice—including what they wish they'd done differently.

Be OK With Crazy

Suzana Stankovic and Natalia.

Suzana Stankovic
Wild Heart Performing Arts Studio
Astoria, New York
Enrollment: 500 (drop-in)
2 years in business

Suzana Stankovic signed the lease on her New York studio a mere 10 days before she gave birth to her first child. The space she'd been renting hourly for private and group lessons unexpectedly became available for a lease takeover, and, despite the timing, it felt like the right decision. "I said, 'This is happening for a reason,'" she says.

For the first two months after her baby was born, Stankovic recovered (she'd had a C-section). She held a soft opening in mid-November (2 1/2 months postdelivery) for existing students and officially opened her studio—with a drop-in class format—to the public the following January (4 months postdelivery).

  • Figure out your childcare. "It's the most important thing. You've got to figure that out, whether that means visiting daycare centers and finding one you're comfortable with or involving your entire family," she says. Stankovic's parents are retired and live near her, luckily, so they became her nannies. "That's the major reason I was able to do this," she says.
  • Expect to feel different after giving birth. "When I had my baby, and it came time to leave her and go to work, it was very, very difficult," says Stankovic. "I wasn't prepared for that. I was texting my mother constantly: 'Is she OK? Did she have her milk? Is she colicky?' It was hard to be fully present, initially. Be prepared for the effects of sleep deprivation and not eating well and the postpartum blues."
  • Have a support system in place. That's how Stankovic got through the roughest times, postbirth. "Have a friend or your husband or partner," she says. "And know that the very difficult times are temporary. They do abate. And if they don't, there are resources. There's help out there."
  • Be OK with crazy. "I would plan my lesson and do my combos in the shower," she says. "On my way to the studio, I'd finish up my grand allégro in my head. I'd send e-mails in the middle of changing her diaper—I'd write two sentences, change the diaper, write two more, then hit send." The result of so much multitasking? "I realized, 'Wow, I can do so much more than I thought I could,'" says Stankovic. "I'm ready for anything."
Dance Teacher Tips
International performer Joy Womack balances flexibility and strength to maintain her turnout. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

Turnout is one of the defining characteristics of classical ballet and the foundation of your technique, but the deceptively simple concept of external rotation can be hard to execute. For those born with hip joints that don't naturally make a tight fifth position, it's tempting to take shortcuts in the quest for more rotation, but you'll end up with weaker technique and a higher risk of injury. We asked top teachers and physical therapists to break down the meaning of turnout and offer safe ways to maximize your range.

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Photo via @sparklethetinychi on Instagram

In our not-so-humble opinion, dancers and dogs should rule the world. So, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to hear that we are positively obsessed with all things that are dog and dance at the same time. Namely, puppies dressed up in tutus. OMG—so cute!

We couldn't keep our knowledge of this perfect combination of dreaminess to ourselves. So we decided to share with you some tutu-wearing dogs from Instagram that we will never get over.

You're welcome!

Get ready to experience a level of cuteness that is almost too much to handle, ladies and gentlemen!

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FreeVerse photography, courtesy of Quenga

As a hula instructor at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Hawaii native Kaina Quenga is committed to sharing the traditional dances and culture of Polynesia with the people of the Big Apple. Through training with famed kuma hula (master teacher) Johnny Lum Ho of Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua, Quenga developed a respect for and understanding of the artform that has carried her through the nearly 20 years of her professional career.

In spite of her success as a teacher at 92nd Street Y (she also teaches at Concourse House Day Care in the Bronx and Spoke the Hub Dancing in Brooklyn, and offers free classes in various parks around NYC during the spring and summer), Quenga never anticipated becoming an educator. "I really just lucked into it—I'm not a kuma hula," she says. One can only become an official hula master teacher when their own kuma hula bequeaths knowledge to them through a formal ceremonial ritual after years of training. "But when I came to New York, everyone kept asking me if I would teach classes. There was a need for it. So I started teaching the basics."

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Q: I'm an older dancer/teacher and have some pain under my heel bone and Achilles tendon. I feel it most in the mornings and when I'm walking down stairs. Would wearing teacher shoes with heels help me?

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Carol Channing in the original 1964 production of Hello, Dolly! Photo by Eileen Darby, courtesy of DM Archives

The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.

Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.

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Here at Dance Media, we think everyone's list of New Year's resolutions should include reading more 💁♀️. And aside from reading Dance Teacher magazine (which should, of course, be a resolution in and of itself), we recommend some seriously wonderful dancer memoirs.

Here are three interesting books we think you should check out (or re-check out) in 2019!

Share your favorite dancer memoirs in our comment section! We can't wait to hear what you're reading!

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When it comes to Broadway, Becca Petersen does it all. Not only is she a swing learning multiple roles for Mean Girls on Broadway as well as understudy for the principal roles of Cady Heron and Regina George, but she also plays an administrative role as the assistant dance captain. When she's not onstage dancing one of the 10 different tracks she covers, or acting out two of Broadway's most notorious mean ladies, she's in the audience, taking notes in order to clean choreography in the next rehearsal. "Once the show opens and the creative team leaves, the dance captains, stage managers and associates keep things running," Petersen says. "I help teach choreography to newcomers when there is turnover and make sure the dancing looks good from day to day."

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Think back to your newbie dancer days. Can you remember your introduction to spotting? It might've involved staring hard at your own reflection in the mirror as you wrestled with your first pirouette. Or maybe your teacher had you put your hands on your shoulders as you attempted a series of half-chaînés across the floor.

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