Guest Blog: Update from the New NYU/ABT Ballet Pedagogy Program

In January, we observed 60 hours of classes at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. The idea was to see how the instructors used ABT's new teaching curriculum, and to note movement progression and class structure and themes.

The teachers were extremely precise in their demonstration of combinations, with an emphasis on accents, use of turnout and track of arms. There was no hemming or hawing about counts or about what was expected from the students. The students’ muscles and movement were being almost systematically trained – one could equate it to a sculptor carving out a work of art from a mound of clay. The exercises worked at chiseling specific muscle memories and movement qualities that were then built upon and honed as each level progressed.

There are three programs: Ballet for the Young Dancer for ages 5–10, the JKO school for students ages 12–18 and the ABT II studio company. Regardless of level, instructors made comments about looking beautiful, or performing or presenting the combinations. I particularly enjoyed the use of imagery and the way certain teachers made corrections:

  • “You are on balance because the music told you that you are on balance.” (level 7 women’s class)
  • “When you lift, the third turn (pirouette) happens. Do two on balance with an extra spot.” (Level 6)
  • “When are you going to practice being on stage? When you’re on stage? It’s too late.” (Level 7 modern)
  • “Your heels are kissing together.” (Explaining first position in Ballet for the Young Dancer class.)
  • “It’s like a beautiful package when you present yourself. You want to see the beautiful wrapping. Not the Scotch tape that holds it together.” (Level 7)
  • “It’s not a balance if you’re holding on to the barre.” (ABT II/ABT combined company class)
  • “Kiss the knees.” (Cambre forward, levels 5 & 6)
  • “Fifth is magic. From there, you can do anything.” (ABT II)
  • “Think of having a hot, delicious cup of hot chocolate on your shoulder. Don’t spill it!” (Ballet for the Young Dancer class)
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Photo by Yvonne M. Portra, courtesy Faulkner

It's a Wednesday in May, and 14 Stanford University advanced modern ­dance students are logged on to Zoom, each practicing a socially distanced duet with an imaginary person. "Think about the quality of their personality and the type of duet you might have," says their instructor Katie Faulkner, "but also their surface area and how you'd relate to them in space." Amid dorm rooms, living rooms, dining rooms and backyards, the dancers make do with cramped quarters and dodge furniture as they twist, curve, stretch and intertwine with their imaginary partners.

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Securing the correct music licensing for your studio is an important step in creating a financially sound business. "Music licensing is something studio owners seem to either embrace or ignore completely," says Clint Salter, CEO and founder of the Dance Studio Owners Association. While it may seem like it's a situation in which it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission—that is, to wait until you're approached by a music-rights organization before purchasing a license—Salter disagrees, citing Peloton, the exercise company that produces streaming at-home workouts. In February, Peloton settled a music-licensing suit with the National Music Publishers' Association out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. Originally, NMPA had sought $300 million in damages from Peloton. "It can get extremely expensive," says Salter. "It's not worth it for a studio to get caught up in that."

As you continue to explore a hybrid online/in-person version of your class schedule, it's crucial that your music licenses include coverage for livestreamed instruction—which comes with its own particular requirements. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about music licensing—in both normal times and COVID times—as well as some safe music bets that won't pose any issues.

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A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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