Guest Blog: A 12-Minute Lesson

This week in our jazz class, many of us are presenting our final project: a lesson plan that includes some form of vernacular jazz that we will teach to our peers. The overall course gives an overview of the history of jazz dance and its African roots. (Read more about it here) For our midterm, we each had to write a proposal on how we would implement a similar course in a studio, high school, college, etc., and why it is important to do so. For our final project we're supposed to teach a short lesson plan to the hypothetical students in that proposed setting.

I happened to write about a private dance studio where students can choose to take pre-professional or recreational classical ballet or flamenco. My reasoning for adding a similar jazz course once a week for one hour over the course of the school year was because ballet dancers need familiarity with vernacular jazz to be better prepared for contemporary choreography, and flamenco dancers can draw many parallels from tap, improvisation, and the grounded nature of African dance.

We were given an option to pair up or go alone for the final, and I choose to go alone because I wanted to teach my classmates something about flamenco. But given our time restraints for the length of the presentation - about 12 minutes - I recently realized I had a real challenge ahead of me because it's difficult to draw parallels to two dance forms when the entire group had never even tried flamenco before.

At first I wanted to explore jazz fusion and compare it to flamenco fusion - think Gypsy Kings, who took flamenco and made it "modern." But after exploring that topic, I couldn't really ask the group to make their own dance fusion with flamenco and say hip hop because most of them don't know anything about dancing either dance form.

So I ended up thinking about how flamenco involves two types of clapping, finger snapping, and even slapping of the upper chest, hips, and upper thighs. It seemed an easier concept for a newcomer to grasp. And when it comes to vernacular jazz parallels, there's the hambone dance, stepping, and if you want to use your whole body, you can beatbox.

So my lesson will illustrate how you can use your body as a percussion instrument, moving into syncopation and improvisation - the cornerstones of jazz music and many jazz dance forms. After teaching my classmates some easy body percussion from the flamenco realm, I plan to review the vernacular jazz dances and beatboxing. Then, I will have them break into groups of four people and create a 16-count movement phrase incorporating clapping, stomping, slapping, and vocalization, preferably with syncopation and even improvisation if they're feeling comfortable with the assignment. Then there will be a class showing and a discussion. All in 12 minutes. This should be interesting ...

 

Hannah Guruianu is a master's degree candidate in dance education at New York University. She is a freelance writer and editor, flamenco student, and someday hopes to own her own studio. Before returning to school, she was the features editor at the newspaper in Binghamton, New York, and taught ballet classes at a local studio and community college.

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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