Teaching Tips

Help! I'm a Dance Parent

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Q: My tween is begging me to go to a faraway summer intensive, claiming "all my friends are going." How do I know if she's ready?

A: It can feel like a rite of passage for serious dancers to attend an intensive at a major ballet school. They dance all day and often explore the area's surroundings or attend performances on weekends. But living away from home, having a roommate and living the "dorm life" can be a challenge.


Most major ballet summer intensives start accepting students at 12 years old. What makes that the "magic" number? James Payne, director of The School of Pennsylvania Ballet (and a dance dad himself), says that at 12, serious students have likely been in pointe classes for a year or two, and some can physically endure a six- to seven-hour day of dancing. Of course, age is relative to the individual. Here, he outlines a few signs a dancer may or may not be ready to stay overnight.

Readiness = self-sufficiency. Will your dancer eat correctly (i.e., three meals a day plus healthy snacks)? Go to sleep—and wake up—by herself? Can she do her own laundry?

Not ready = misguided intentions. Ask your dancer what she intends to get from the program. If it's to experience a new city and make friends, you might want to explore a less rigorous option.

Readiness = adaptability. Can your child persevere and keep a positive attitude even when little things might be off? If she's open to change and can go with the flow, it's a good sign.

Not ready = not always committed. Consider how often your dancer doesn't want to go to class. We all have down days and need breaks, but if she complains once a week, or more than twice in two weeks, she might not be able to push through when she's tired.

In 2019, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet's dorms housed just six 12-year-olds out of 80 total summer program students who needed housing. If your tween is getting solid training at home, Payne says, it's not really necessary to go away yet. (Fourteen or 15 is a more realistic age to start building professional relationships with companies.) And, as always, it's best to talk to her current teachers. Ask how the prospective school's syllabus compares to her current classes—confusing one training style with another can hinder progress at such a young age.


Supporting Your College-Bound Dancer

It all happened within three months. I was rejected from The Juilliard School, NYU Tisch School of the Arts, SUNY Purchase and Marymount Manhattan College, and wait-listed at Barnard (rejected later). By March of my senior year, I knew I needed to start over, even if it meant delaying admission by a semester. I began applying to universities with liberal arts programs and dropped my conservatory dreams.

Luckily, toward the end of April, I received my first (and only) acceptance letter—to The Boston Conservatory, now Boston Conservatory at Berklee. I very happily graduated with a BFA in dance performance four years later, but frequently think back to the college audition process. Yes, it would have been prudent to have had a few backup options going into audition season despite my confidence—perhaps hubris—and determination to attend a prestigious conservatory. It was a devastating time, but I was relieved that my mom didn't push me to rethink my future—or my talent level. (She also didn't call the schools and argue with faculty.) Instead, she gave me space to figure things out on my own and with my school's guidance counselor. She offered advice when I asked and a shoulder to cry on. Through it all, I felt trusted, supported and comforted—the very best a parent can do.

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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