Higher Ed: Low-Residency Degree Programs Offer Working Artists Flexibility

Beatrice Capote: working artist, teacher, MFA candidateIn today's dance world, it's nearly impossible to get a teaching position at the university level if you don't have an MFA. But when you've spent years as a choreographer or performer building an audience for your work or honing your craft, the thought of returning to school may seem like a pipe dream. Yet, thanks to a number of new low-residency MFA programs that balance on-campus intensives with distance learning, many dance professionals and teaching artists are doing just that.

Whether your ultimate goal is to teach in academia or to strengthen your practice as an artist—or both—a low-residency master's program offers the opportunity to further your career without having to uproot it. Here are three educators who made it work.

Amara Tabor-Smith

Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley

Hollins University, two-year program

Though Amara Tabor-Smith was already an appointed lecturer at UC Berkeley when she enrolled at Hollins, she wanted to expand her options. Like many dance professionals, she lacked an undergraduate degree. “I wanted to increase my potential," she says, “but going to school full-time wasn't an option."

Hollins offers three MFA tracks, including an on-campus program. The most competitive of its low-residency programs is a two-summer track, which allows mid-career artists to earn up to 12 credits for previous work and takes two years to complete. For less-experienced professionals, there's a three-summer option. Hollins worked with Tabor-Smith—who had danced with and served as associate director of Urban Bush Women before founding her own company—to tailor a program to suit her needs, given her professional experience. Hollins, unlike most programs, doesn't require a BA or BFA; nevertheless, she worried about her ability to keep up. Her cohort's close-knit environment, however, helped her overcome her fears. “We were able to support each other," she says.

One unique opportunity for Hollins students is the chance to study abroad in Frankfurt, Germany, in multiple three-week segments and complete a two-day retreat in New York City (in addition to spending five weeks in residence at the Roanoke, Virginia, campus). Coursework places an emphasis on dance history and contemporary trends from a global perspective and includes mentored studio practice and creative writing (personal narrative, poetry) to inspire and inform dancemaking.

Heather Pultz

Public high school teacher

George Washington University, 18-month program

Dana Tai Soon Burgess, dirctor of GWU's low-residency MFA in Washington, DC, wants to leverage students' skills, connections and experience to get them where they want to be in 3, 5 or 10 years. For graduate Heather Pultz, that included her background in education (teaching at a DC magnet school, School Without Walls) and an interest in foreign travel.

The program focuses on choreography and begins with an eight-week residency at GWU. Students then complete two semesters of supervised distance education, using the virtual learning environment Blackboard, chatrooms and Skype. They upload private files of their work through Vimeo or YouTube to connect with faculty mentors across the country and graduate with performance portfolios and personal websites.

Pultz leveraged the international connections she made at GWU to teach and choreograph in Florence over the summer. Next, she's hoping to bring her School Without Walls kids to Bali, via a partnership with the Indonesian Embassy in DC, so they can learn Javanese and Balinese dance. “The MFA behind my name is opening doors," says Pultz.

Beatrice Capote

Professional dancer; freelance dance teacher

Montclair State University, two-year program

Beatrice Capote wasn't sure how she'd be able to balance her performing and teaching gigs with Montclair's MFA program. But she wanted to further her career as an educator and work on her solo choreographic practice, a blend of contemporary and Afro-Cuban dance.

Montclair's new program is only a 25-minute commute from NYC, which allows Capote to juggle her teaching gigs in the city with her studies in New Jersey. Not that it's easy—she wakes up at 5 or 6 am to complete her writing assignments before teaching her own classes. The sacrifice is worth it, she says.

Students spend four weeks on campus for each of two summers and complete three independent projects that encourage them to delve deeper into a subject of expertise or branch out into something new. Coursework ranges from Laban Movement Analysis to embodied anatomy and improvisation. Pedagogy is also required, since most students are used to teaching master classes instead of semester-long courses. Faculty members help students figure out how to make that transition and structure a college class over the course of the program's two years.

Being exposed to so many new ideas at once can feel overwhelming, but Capote knows it's ultimately a good thing. “It's about allowing yourself to not know exactly what you're doing," she says. “Our professors say, 'We want you to get lost and then come back up.'" DT

Kat Richter is a professor of cultural anthropology and dance. She lives in Philadelphia.

Photo by Russell Haydn, courtesy of Capote

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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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