Help Students Take the Lead

How to develop great teaching assistants

Joshua Brooksher teaching class

Using students as teaching assistants seems like a win-win: You have extra hands to help with younger dancers, and the assistants get a taste of what it's like to be at the head of the classroom. But how can you prepare these potential teachers for the chal- lenges and responsibilities they'll face? And if a student shows genuine interest in teaching, how can you help her learn more about pedagogy? Refer to the advice from these professionals before letting your students take the lead.

 

The Basics

Selecting the right students to begin teacher training is important. Sometimes teachers pick the most proficient students in terms of technique, but they aren't always the right choice; the danc- ers might excel without an understanding of what they are doing. "The student should have a critical eye, so she can aug- ment the teacher," says Tom Ralabate, chair of the department of theater and dance at SUNY Buffalo and national chair of education strategy for Dance Masters of America. "Somebody who is able to demonstrate but is also articulate can help with teaching effectiveness."

Begin by making sure your teaching assistants are familiar with your syllabus. Joshua Brooksher, artistic director of Southwest Classical Dance Institute, has his teaching assistants study the first five years of his syllabus at the start of the process. "Then they'll 'intern' for a year," he explains. "They'll observe and see how I relate to the kids." His interns also attend faculty meetings, where they discuss ways to better implement the

goals designed for each class.

And before young assistants step into the classroom, emphasize that teaching is not just showing the steps, as some dancers who enter the teaching world tend to do. "Assistants need to be aware of the creative process and the pedagogi- cal process," says Elsa Posey, president/ director of National Registry of Dance Educators and director of the Posey School of Dance on Long Island." Or else they're just showing the class that they can do it. They're not teaching anything."

 

Learning the Rules

Before students assist in class, they should know the studio's policies and procedures. What should they do if a student refuses to stop talking in class? How should they deal with disruptive students? If time allows, address these issues in a short seminar. Trainees can create mock scenarios, improvising problems and solutions. "If you videotape the seminar session," Ralabate explains, "it becomes a tool, allowing studio assistants to see themselves as other people see them in the situation."

 

In the Classroom

It can be tempting to leave a teaching assistant alone with a class. But these dancers are inexperienced and need professional guidance. "They can be giving the wrong information," says Ralabate, "making corrections and not going about it the right way, which will reinforce bad habits." The absence of an adult in the room also creates a liability issue. Teaching assistants need supervision until they are qualified to lead a class on their own.

It's a good idea to have students assist with younger levels first. If they work with students closer to their own age, it can be difficult for them to establish a sense of authority. Brooksher requires at least a six-year age difference between assistants and students. "It's much harder for a 15-year-old to take class from someone who’s 17," he says. "It's too easy for them to become buddies and breach the teacher/student barrier."

 

Educational Programs

If a talented student assistant expresses interest in learning more about pedagogy, suggest that she enroll in a university or college teacher training program. At these programs, students learn about special topics such as wellness, choreography and improvisation. Many offer courses in anatomy and kinesiology, so students can see how movement works in another body. Some even dip into areas of psychology and child behavior. Safety issues are also addressed. "How you work within the space you have, what the floor is like, what the lighting is like and how to work the heat and air-conditioning: All those things are the responsibility of the teacher," says Posey.

If your teaching assistants aren't able to enter a university or college program, they can also supplement their studio training with individual academic classes or intensives. The key is to have them gain as much information as possible before they step to the front of the class and assume more responsibility. "It's about fostering the creative process," Posey says, "and enabling students to understand teaching as an artistic field." DT

 

Julie Diana is a principal with Pennsylvania Ballet.

 

* Avoid using the phrase "student teacher," which isn't appropriate for a young dancer who is still learning. Instead, use the title "student assistant" or just "assistant."

* How should you compensate teaching assistants? That's up to you. Many are considered interns, so they are unpaid but benefit from hands-on experience. Other assistants are paid by the hour or receive free tuition for the classes they take themselves.

 

Teacher Training Programs

To learn more about pedagogy, consider these (and other) respected sources:

American Ballet Theatre's National Training Curriculum certification program: abt.org/education/teachercertification.asp

Chicago National Association of Dance Masters' Teacher Training School: cnadm.com/teacher-training.php

Dance Masters of America Teachers Training School: dma-national.org/pages/tts/805

Dance Teachers' Club of Boston Dance Education Training Course: danceteachersclubofboston.com/id7.html

 

Photo: Joshua Brooksher teaching class, courtesy of Joshua Brooksher

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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