High Five with Shannon Mather

Shannon Mather grew up in the competition and convention world. She and her brother, Blake McGrath, dreamed of the day when a convention would dance its way through their hometown of Toronto, Canada. When that never happened, they decided to get involved. So in 2007, with the help of Mather’s husband, Josh, Coastal Dance Rage was born.

Boasting a faculty that includes power players Mary Murphy, Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, Benji Schwimmer, Sonya Tayeh and Stephen “Twitch” Boss, Coastal Dance Rage now tours eight cities. Despite the impressive roster of teachers, Mather advocates for making students the stars at each event, rather than the familiar faces from TV.

What are the benefits for students attending a convention?

Dancers are usually limited to having just a few teachers in their studios. At a convention you can take from someone with a lot of different styles. It helps you become more versatile.

What etiquette do you wish all dancers adhered to?

Don’t skip ballet and tap class! As soon as those classes begin, all of a sudden we have half the people in the room. Even if you’re a hip hopper, you need to take tap and ballet.

It’s also important that dancers respect each other. When you’re watching the others, pay attention, cheer and show your support. It’s a great opportunity to learn from the other amazing dancers in the room.

How can teachers prepare their students for a convention environment?

Don’t let them get in the back of the room and hang out. Tell them to be aggressive, but don’t push their way to the front—that’s annoying! When the combination is broken down into groups, don’t dance on the side. Go for it, even if you’re not comfortable with the style. Explain to your dancers that that’s how they’re going to grow, by taking on a new style they’re not comfortable with. And of course, tell them to look nice. Conventions are big events and you’re working with amazing people—it’s important to look good.

What do first-time convention-goers need to know?

Don’t be nervous! It won’t help you get better. You paid the money to be at the convention, and you deserve to be there. Come in, and take in as much as you can. Don’t be inhibited. You will get so much better from a few days of intensive classes, and you’ll walk away a better dancer. Then take what you’ve learned back to your studio and practice.

Also, take advantage of making friends. When you go out into the world to audition, you’ll be working with those same people you’re dancing alongside at a convention event. Get to know the faculty. In the future when you have an audition it could be with one of our faculty members, and maybe they’ll remember you. It helps!

What shouldn’t dancers and their teachers expect from conventions?

They shouldn’t expect to get a lot of individual attention. That’s not what conventions are about—that’s what private lessons are for. It’s more about working off the energy in the room. Usually it’s a big, crazy environment. The dancers need to accept that and let that push them. There will be at least 150 dancers in a ballroom with you, so go in knowing you can get more feeding off other dancers and teachers than anything else. It’s going to be a weekend of being inspired, getting pushed, meeting new friends and working hard. They should expect to be really tired and a little sore.

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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