From the corner of his window-lined studio near Manhattan's Union Square, Gus Solomons jr has his eyes carefully trained on the dancer before him. The dancer is struggling to remember the quick-footed combination, with rapid-fire directional changes and difficult spinal shifts, that he's just reviewed with Solomons in preparation for this photo shoot. When he's successfully completed a pass of the exercise—Solomons calls it "fast feet"—his relief is visible. Solomons swiftly approaches him from the corner, his arms outstretched for a hug: "That was hard," he says appreciatively, enveloping the student in his embrace.


Like his hugs, Solomons, 78, is warm and effusive. He's also whip-smart, eloquent and a legend in New York City's downtown dance scene. He's spent the last six decades performing, choreographing, teaching, mentoring and writing dance criticism. But it's his association with the famously avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham that is perhaps his most lasting—despite the fact that he only danced in Cunningham's company for three years. Widely regarded as a master of the Cunningham technique, Solomons spent more than two decades teaching its intricacies and benefits to New York University undergrads and grad students.

Dance has been a part of Solomons' life from nearly the beginning. At 4 years old, he got up during Sunday school—"which was not appropriate," he chuckles—and began dancing to a hymn. Though he briefly studied tap, acrobatics and ballet as a preteen in Boston, Massachusetts, he was more interested in forming what he refers to as a "subtle" theater company in his basement with his brother and two girls who lived on his block. Later, he discovered puppetry, which he found attractive due to its solitariness. "I could do that all by myself," says Solomons. "I was in control."


Photo by Kyle Froman


While pursuing a degree in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ("Architecture seemed like the least reading," he quips), he was tapped to choreograph a school musical. Soon he was taking dance classes at The Boston Conservatory and other local studios. A successful audition for a Broadway show choreographed by Donald McKayle brought him to New York after graduation, and although the show closed in previews, Solomons found other concert dance work easily. "There weren't that many male modern dancers, so I had a lot of jobs," he says. He danced briefly for Pearl Lang and Martha Graham but found himself most drawn to Cunningham, never missing a class at the West Village studio.

What he appreciated most about Cunningham's technique was its self-sufficiency. "His technique did everything it needed [for the work]," he says. "I was always enamored of Merce Cunningham's approach because it was so articulated. So quiet. With Graham, you used everything all the time—you emoted it. With Merce, you became really calm and asked, 'What muscle do I need to do this?' And then you could do everything, because you had a sense of where everything was."

Solomons was as surprised as anyone when Cunningham invited him to join the company in 1965. "I never aspired to dance in his company, because there was no one in his company who looked like me," he says. "I was taller than he was. I was black. But then he asked me to dinner one night—we went to a little Italian restaurant on 16th and 6th—and said [here Solomons lowers his voice and speaks much more softly, in a gentle imitation of Cunningham], 'I think I'd like for you to come dance with us.'"

A debilitating back injury forced Solomons to leave the company after three years and was the impetus to begin seriously making his own work. The Solomons Company/Dance enjoyed a 22-year tenure before closing in 1994. Around the same time (1992), he was approached by NYU's then-dean of dance, Lawrence Rhodes, about an adjunct position. That eventually became a full-time professorship, in which Solomons taught technique, composition and improvisation.

His technique classes, though rooted in Cunningham, were an amalgam of things he'd learned from other choreographers—plus a few things he'd picked up on his own by learning what felt good in his body, like spending the first 10 minutes of each class warm-up doing floor work. "They were all based on the Cunningham approach," he says, "but I had Don McKayle in my body, I had Graham in my body, Merce in my body, I had Pearl Lang in my body. I wanted to give the dancers stability, balance, speed and control. How do you do that? Well, Merce knew. You have them move very slowly. That gives you strength and control, when it takes 10 minutes to do a passé. And you have them move very fast. Merce would say, 'When you want to move fast, move your feet.'"


Photo by Kyle Froman


Though he retired from teaching in 2014, Solomons still has fingers in many dance pies. His second company, PARADIGM—which he created to celebrate mature, older dance artists and with which he won a Bessie Award—is on hiatus, but he helped found a mentoring program, the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation's New Directions Choreography Lab, and occasionally coaches Cunningham pieces at New York City Center. Coaching, he says, has given him a new perspective on many of the pieces he danced while a part of the Cunningham company. "There's a solo in Walkaround Time that I had, and I didn't really appreciate it," he says. "I entered the stage in a long lunge, and the whole company picked me up and carried me across the stage. I didn't even think of that as a solo. But when I saw it this time, I thought, 'Holy moly!'"

His perspective on the importance of Cunningham technique has evolved over the years, too. "When you learn an instrument," he says, "you learn the basics of how to play it. You learn rhythm, reading notes, different timbres. So you have choices. You can pick up a violin and just scratch on it—that makes interesting sounds—but that's not playing it. When you're a dancer, you have to learn how to marshal your body, to learn how to get it to do what you want it to do. And that's where technique comes in. It's about the mechanics. It teaches you how to play the instrument."

Gus Solomons jr is a graduate of MIT and danced in the companies of Pearl Lang, Donald McKayle, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. He founded two companies of his own, The Solomons Company/Dance (1972–94) and PARADIGM (1996–present), and is currently a mentor in the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation's New Directions Choreography Lab. He writes dance criticism at solomons-says.com and has been honored with two New York Dance and Performance Awards ("Bessies") in 2000 and 2010.

Nicholas Grubbs
is a BFA dance graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jerome Capasso, courtesy of Man in Motion

Finding a male dance instructor who isn't booked solid can be a challenge, which is why a New York City dance educator was inspired to start a network of male dance professionals in 2012. Since then, he's tripled his roster of teachers and is actively hiring.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Courtesy of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center

For seven decades, Frank Shawl's bright and kind spirit touched thousands of dancers in the studio and in the audience.

After dancing professionally in New York City and with the May O'Donnell Dance Company, Shawl moved with Victor Anderson to the San Francisco Bay Area and founded Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in 1958. It is the longest running arts organization in Berkeley.

The two ran their own company for 15 years and Shawl-Anderson Dance Center became a home for dance for students and artists alike. It currently runs 120 classes and workshops every week for children and adults, plus artist residencies, rehearsal space and intimate performances. (If you have never visited, the Center is actually a large house converted into four studio spaces.)

Shawl taught modern classes at the studio until 1990, performed into his late 70s and took classes at the Center into his mid 80s.

As I simultaneously mourn and honor Frank—my dear friend, fellow dancer, mentor and boss—I reflect on a few lessons that I learned from him. These five ideas relate to our various roles in dance as students, performers, teachers and administrators.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Getty Images

Halloween is just a few weeks away, which means it's officially time to start prepping your fabulously spooky costumes! Skip the classic witch, unicorn and superhero outfits, and trade them in for some ghosts of dance legends past. Wear your costumes to class, and use them as a way to teach a dance history lesson, or ask your students to dress up as their favorite dancer from history, and perform a few eight counts of their most famous repertoire during class. Your students will absolutely love it, and you'll be able to get in some real educating despite the distraction of the holiday!

Check out some ideas we had for who might be a good fit. We can't wait to see who you all dress up as!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Photo by Sedge Leblang, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At 8, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle at with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

You've got the teaching talent, the years of experience, the space and the passion—now all you need are some students!

Here are six ideas for getting the word out about your fabulous, up-and-coming program! We simply can't wait to see all the talent you produce with it!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of HSDC

This fall Hubbard Street Dance Chicago initiates an innovative choreographic-study project to pair local Chicago teens with company member Rena Butler, who in 2018 was named the Hubbard Street Choreographic Fellow. The Dance Lab Choreographic Fellowship is the vision of Kathryn Humphreys, director of HSDC's education, youth and community programs. "I am really excited to see young people realize possibilities, and realize what they are capable of," she says. "I think that high school is such an interesting, transformative time. They are right on the edge of figuring themselves out."

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: What policies do you put in place to encourage parents of competition dancers to pay their bills in a timely manner?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Kim Black

For some children, the first day of dance is a magic time filled with make-believe, music, smiles and movement. For others, all the excitement can be a bit intimidating, resulting in tears and hesitation. This is perfectly natural, and after 32 years of experience, I've got a pretty good system for getting those timid tiny dancers to open up. It usually takes a few classes before some students are completely comfortable. But before you know it, those hesitant students will begin enjoying the magic of creative movement and dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Photo via @igor.pastor on Instagram

Listen up, dance teachers! October 7 is National Frappe Day (the drink), but as dance enthusiasts, we obviously like to celebrate a little differently. We've compiled four fun frappé combinations on Instagram for your perusal!

You're welcome! Now, you can thank us by sharing some of your own frappé favs on social media with the hashtag #nationalfrappeday.

We can't wait to see what you come up with!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Original photos: Getty Images

We've been dying to hear more about "On Pointe," a docuseries following students at the School of American Ballet, since we first got wind of the project this spring. Now—finally!—we know where this can't-miss show is going to live: It was just announced that Disney+, the new streaming service set to launch November 12, has ordered the series.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of Jill Randall

Recently I got to reflect on my 22-year-old self and the first modern technique classes I subbed for at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California. (Thank you to Dana Lawton for giving me the chance and opportunity to dive in.)

Today I wanted to share 10 ideas to consider as you embark upon subbing and teaching modern technique classes for the first time. These ideas can be helpful with adult classes and youth classes alike.

As I like to say, "Teaching takes teaching." I mean, teaching takes practice, trial and error and more practice. I myself am in my 23rd year of teaching now and am still learning and growing each and every class.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox