Bessie Schönberg: Teaching the art of making dances

"The only thing dance should never be is dull." —Bessie Schönberg. Photo courtesy of the American Dance Festival archives

During a time when universities were just beginning to offer dance degrees, Bessie Schönberg invigorated the study of dance composition in higher education. She was a celebrated composition teacher at Sarah Lawrence College for nearly 40 years, known for championing her students' individuality. A revered mentor, she helped shape the creative work of four generations of artists.


Schönberg was born in Hanover, Germany. In her late teens, she and her mother moved to Eugene, Oregon. She took her first modern dance class in 1927 from the renowned dance professor Martha Hill. Inspired, Schönberg followed Hill to New York City two years later.

Upon arriving in the city in 1929, Schönberg began taking classes from Martha Graham at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. She immediately caught Graham's attention and was invited to join her company. For two years she danced with the troupe, performing in iconic works like Heretic (1929) and Primitive Mysteries (1931). But in 1931 a knee injury put an end to her career as a professional dancer.

She shifted her focus to teaching, earning a degree from Bennington College in Vermont in 1934 and joining the faculty as a dance instructor upon graduation. During her four years there, she was a teaching assistant to Martha Hill in her modern classes at the historic Bennington summer workshops and began to develop her own teaching philosophy. Unlike her contemporaries, she believed students should develop their own, unique expressive style, rather than simply mimic their predecessors.

She joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville, New York, in 1938, teaching fundamentals of choreography. She worked there for 37 years, eventually as director of the dance program, and became a highly influential figure in the study of dance composition in higher education. Her reach went beyond the classroom, too. She often attended her students' concerts and work-in-progress showings to offer guidance. Many of those students went on to become prominent choreographers.

In 1975, Schönberg retired from Sarah Lawrence but continued to teach at schools and festivals throughout the U.S. and the U.K., including London Contemporary Dance School, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Dance Theatre of Harlem, New York University and The Juilliard School. The famed Dance Theater Workshop in NYC named its theater after her. She lived to age 90. DT

Schönberg at Bennington College in 1934. Photo courtesy of the American Dance Festival archives

Classroom Style

Schönberg celebrated her students' individuality and choreographic choices. She was interested in any dance form or style. In class, she focused on the fundamentals of movement like locomotion and gesture and encouraged her students to explore variations on those ideas, by prompting them with open-ended questions, like “How many ways can you fall or run or turn?" She gave dancers parameters to create short choreographic studies, which they would then show in class. Analysis and discussion were key. By avoiding the “I" pronoun and offering suggestions rather than personal statements, students learned to provide articulate critiques of each other's work in a constructive, supportive way.

Fun Fact

The New York Dance and Performance Awards, which were established in 1983 to honor innovative dance work, are more commonly referred to as “The Bessies" in honor of Schönberg. She received her own Bessie Award for lifetime service to dance in 1988.

The Legacy Lives On

A mentor to many, Schönberg influenced the creative work of choreographers, dancers, teachers, writers and producers, including luminaries such as Jerome Robbins, Carolyn Adams, Lucinda Childs, Meredith Monk, Norton Owen and Ronald K. Brown. She helped to solidify Sarah Lawrence College as one of the nation's preeminent dance programs. Additionally, tenets of her dance composition teaching methodology, like creating short dances under explicit instructions and offering constructive feedback through group discussion, are now used in university dance departments nationwide.

Resources

Print:

“Bessie Schönberg, 90, a Mentor for Dancers," by Jack Anderson, The New York Times, May 1997

“Bessie Schönberg," by Rachel Straus, Dance Teacher, September 2010

Web:

Dance Heritage Coalition: “America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures": danceheritage.org

Sarah Lawrence College Archives: “Bessie Remembered": archives.slc.edu


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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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