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 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
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox