Getting Parents Involved in Your Competition Numbers

Who says parents just don’t understand? More and more dance parents are joining competition troupes to spend time with their children. The result: unforgettable numbers and an increased sense of team unity. Having to learn choreography also helps parents appreciate their children’s accomplishments. Those who had trouble seeing why their children struggle with triple pirouettes, for example, will gain a different perspective once they’ve been asked to do a single.

DT asked studio owners and teachers who’ve embraced this phenomenon to weigh in on the rewards and challenges associated with bridging the generation gap. Here, they share their tips for creating a harmonious “dance family.”

Rally the Troops

Getting a parent/child program off the ground will take some initial effort on your part. Though Dance Unlimited in Oceanside, California, now has more than 100 parents participating on teams, Director Erin Riley-Carrasco says the idea was a hard sell at first. To remedy parents’ hesitation, Riley-Carrasco “tried to get them over the fear that they’d look funny [onstage] and convince them what an incredible memory it would be to perform with their daughters.”

Riley-Carrasco called each of her students’ fathers personally to ask them to join, and also employed stealth measures by asking mothers to convince them. Putting up fliers at your studio, sending home a letter with students and getting the word out via your newsletter might also do the trick.

Once you’ve enlisted interested parents, prepare everyone for the financial commitment involved, and be sensitive to the fact that, with jobs and other obligations, these adults may not have the same time to devote to rehearsals as their children. Heidi Jacobson of Heidi’s Dance Center in Kansas City, Missouri, has had difficulty finding rehearsal times that fit into parents’ busy schedules. “We only had one practice with everyone there and that was at Nationals!” she laments.

In contrast, Vicki Harvey-Sanders of Studio D in Omaha, Nebraska, says that her parent/child team is able to practice for three hours on Saturdays a few times a month. To allow time for parents to rearrange their schedules, Harvey-Sanders gives them a Saturday rehearsal calendar at the beginning of the year. While she only allows children to miss three practices the entire year, she affords the adults more flexibility, reviewing material often for those who missed previous rehearsals.

Be Flexible

When adding parents with no dance experience into the mix, remember to create choreography that is not as challenging, concentrate less on perfecting steps and, above all, be flexible in your expectations. Jacobson focuses more on vibe than technique. “Since you can’t plan on everyone having their arms straight or moving in precision, you just have to have fun with it,” she advises. On the premise of keeping it simple, Jacobson’s choreography for a recent number included a few lifts, a kick line and an optional cartwheel that parents and children worked on together.

To work with adult beginners, summon patience and diplomacy. Adults may feel silly or get frustrated if they can’t master movements quickly. In catering to these students, tailor your choreography to play to each parent’s strengths: While one person may feel more comfortable with jumps, another might be more theatrical. Also, take advantage of the extra muscle power that dads offer to create some fun and visually appealing partner work.

At the same time, don’t underestimate parents’ potential. Riley-Carrasco says that within months, her novice fathers were doing Russians and taking private tumbling classes to land their back tucks. “I’d like to say that we just give them a chassé ball change or a jazz square, but it’s not like that,” she says. “They come in never having been exposed to dance and our teachers really push them.”

Dance Unlimited’s 2004 competition routine made full use of the dads’ new skills. Titled “Back in the Day,” the routines had dads performing breakdance combinations, stalls and challenging hip-hop moves that earned the team first place in the Adult Division at Spotlight’s West Coast Nationals. Riley-Carrasco adds that she’s amazed at the lack of stage fright exhibited by the parents: “I have lawyers, doctors and people from every walk of life on my team. They’ll be very conservative in the waiting room and when they get onstage, they’re just total hams.” For those who are not completely comfortable in the spotlight, organize a video viewing party of past performances so they can see that others have been in their dancing shoes and survived.

Think Creatively

To maximize the enjoyment of your adult and child dancers as well as the audience, consider choreographing a themed routine. Pirates, gangsters, cowboys, Dr. Seuss and movies such as Men in Black are just a few of the themes studios have explored in recent years.

When choosing a theme, decide what will resonate with both the adults and the children in your group. Most recently, the troupe from Heidi’s Dance Center performed “Generation Gap,” a number designed to poke fun at the family dynamic. (For tips on selecting music, see “Hitting the Right Note” at right.)

To give your number the perfect look, alternatives to purchasing traditional dance costumes include making your own and visiting local Halloween stores. To offset costs, Harvey-Sanders requires parents and children to put in 17 working hours helping to sew the costumes. She makes this policy clear at the parent meeting she holds every year before competition team auditions. After consenting to the rules, parents put down a deposit of $170, after which they are refunded $10 every time they contribute an hour of work. “Everyone has a chance to see what it’s like to make and help design costumes,” Harvey-Sanders explains of her system. “We like to get the whole family involved.”

Build Team Spirit

The nature of this category creates a greater bond between parent and child, but what about team unity? Riley-Carrasco makes it clear from the start that teamwork is the name of the game. To get members of her competition team acquainted with one another, including the parents, she pools prize money from competition to put on year-round social activities such as pizza and beach parties. Other bonding activities include “getting-to-know-you” retreats and karaoke parties.

Overall, entering a team in the parent/child category can make for an entertaining and fulfilling experience. Harvey-Sanders says parents often thank her for this unique opportunity: “A lot of parents say they never got to dance when they were young and would have liked to, so I offer that for them. So many audience members have told me that the adult group is wonderful and they wish it were offered at their studio.”

Jen Jones is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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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