High Five with Sarah Jo Fazio

No matter how much you and your dancers rehearse, things can go wrong at Nationals. But don’t wait until you get there to anticipate tricky situations. DT spoke with competition circuit judge Sarah Jo Fazio about how to prepare your dancers for nightmares at Nationals.

"Memorable routines are clean and original," says longtime judge Sarah Jo Fazio. (Darlene Ceglia's Dance Project at DanceAmerica)

What should dancers do if . . .


. . . they forget what they’re doing onstage? Remember this: The judges don’t know the dance! As long as you keep moving, the judges won’t know whether or not you’re doing the correct moves. My motto is “When in doubt, chaîné out.” Do a chaîné turn, take a breath and do anything you can come up with. Try to get your mind back in the routine and just keep moving.

If you blank during a group dance, look around and figure out where you are. Look at the person next to you and try to get back on the music.


. . . the music skips or shuts off in the middle of their performance? I like it when the dancers keep going. They can gain points from me for doing that. If you hear the song in your head, that’s all you need. The competition will usually let you perform again, but if you just keep going with a smile and don’t let it affect you, you’ll get a good score. The music becomes irrelevant if you’re able to perform without it.


. . . they fall or drop a prop in the middle of the routine? If the prop isn’t necessary—like a hat—leave it alone. But if it’s a prop you’re going to use and it’s vital to the dance, find a way to strategically get it back, like reaching down to grab it during a move.

If you fall, pop right back up and keep going. Do what you have to do to keep going. You never know what you’re going to get on different stages. Some are slick and others are sticky. You can’t control the floor and neither can the judges. A fall is a fall and I hardly ever deduct points for it.


. . . they get injured before the weekend is over? Your health is more important than a competition. Take care of your body first. It makes me very stressed out when I see a dancer come onstage wearing a knee brace. That means there’s something wrong with her knee and she needs to let it heal.


What are the most common mistakes you see? I see choreographers putting steps into routines that they think will earn the dancer a high score—but because the moves are not executed properly, it actually lowers the score. A great example is the fouetté turn. Don’t put it in the routine unless it can be done exceptionally well.

As a judge, I want to see a dancer do her best. So don’t show me any weak-nesses. I rarely give points, but I do take them away. Every dancer starts out with the full amount of points I can give her. If I see a move that she can’t perform well, she loses points from me. Had she never attempted that particular move, I wouldn’t have known she couldn’t do it, and she would’ve kept her points.



Photo: Darlene Ceglia’s Dance Project at DanceAmerica. Photo courtesy of Darlene Ceglia's Dance Project.

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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