Holidays in Every Way

Sharing ideas for a cheerful and inclusive season

Manhattan maids decorate the tree in Roxanne Claire’s unique Nutcracker.

Holidays are a festive time for studios and schools. But, as student populations diversify, it becomes harder to be inclusive. Whether focusing on certain holidays or taking religion out of the equation altogether, it’s important to consider your location and cultural demographic when planning festivities. You may choose to celebrate the snowy season with generic decorations, or plan a holiday show that’s welcoming to all. From gifts to special events, there’s a lot to keep in mind to make all students—and their families—feel a part of the merriment. DT spoke to six teachers about their approaches.

 

JAZZIN' IT UP

Roxanne Claire

Claire School of Dance

Houston, TX

As a student, Roxanne Claire performed in the Omaha Civic Ballet’s Nutcracker year after year. And now, just hearing the “Waltz of the Flowers” music brings her back to the excitement of those holiday shows. “But everyone does a Nutcracker,” says studio owner Claire. “So we looked for a way to make our show different.” Claire produces the New York Nutcracker, based on her favorite childhood book, Eloise at Christmastime, about a little girl living in The Plaza Hotel. “The characters are all New Yorkers: shoppers, city girls, hotel maids,” she says. “We do include some classic Nutcracker characters, such as Spanish and Flowers, but with an NYC sophistication.” Eloise is set to Duke Ellington’s jazz arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker score, and students love it. “They wear the T-shirts long after it’s over,” she says. “The show generates an esprit de corps within the school.”

 

A KWANZAA EXTRAVAGANZA

Lula Washington

Lula Washington Dance Theatre

Los Angeles, CA

Kwanzaa, not Christmas, takes center stage during the holidays at Lula Washington Dance Theatre, which heads into its 21st annual Kwanzaa celebration December 29 and 30 at Nat Holden Performing Arts Center in L.A. “Kwanzaa is a cultural celebration, not a religious one,” says Lula Washington. “It’s open to people of all ethnic origins.” Audiences look forward to this annual celebration, which consists of music, dance and spoken-word performances by the professional company, students and invited guests. Since each day of Kwanzaa has its own meaning, performers focus on different themes every year. This year’s focus is Ujamaa (cooperative economics) and Nia (purpose). “People leave the show feeling rejuvenated and uplifted,” says Washington.

 

MULTICULTURAL HOLIDAYS

Jamee Schleifer

The Magnet School of Multicultural Humanities—PS 253

Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, NY

With 62 languages spoken at PS 253, and religion a taboo topic in public schools, celebrating the holidays can be complicated. “The school’s lobby is decorated with a Christmas tree, menorah and Kwanzaa lights,” says dance teacher Jamee Schleifer, who incorporates dances from Mexico, Russia, Israel and China into class. “Teaching about different cultural holidays is an important way for kids to learn about the world around them."

Although she doesn’t put on a show, The Nutcracker factors into Schleifer’s dance class festivities. “I teach about the ballet by playing Tchaikovsky’s music and teaching short combinations,” she says. “I also read them the Nutcracker story, and show video clips of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland performing the ballet.” As a special in-class activity, Schleifer has students make their own versions of a nutcracker doll out of paper.

 

A STRESS-FREE NEW YEAR

Jane Weiner

Hope Stone Center

Houston, TX

Jane Weiner, of Hope Stone Center, prefers to celebrate without decorations. “The studio is too small,” she says. “And there are too many religions.” Weiner likes to stay clear of the holiday hoopla and focuses instead on giving her students a stress-free season.

But she’s not against a little holiday fun. So each year, former Houston Ballet principal Dawn Scannell teaches “Bah Humbug Ballet,” a class with festive music that’s focused on reducing holiday stress. “During the holidays, we all need to stop and take care of ourselves,” says Weiner. “And Dawn is very funny, so there’s a lot of laughter.” To add a little extra holiday fun, the class is followed by a cookies and cider party, which Weiner finds fitting for her eclectic student population.

 

PUT ON A SHOW (OR TWO OR THREE)

Phyllis A. Balagna

Steppin’ Out—The Studio, Inc.

Lee’s Summit, MO

It’s all about Christmas at Steppin’ Out, Phyllis Balagna’s studio near Kansas City. “Our entire population celebrates Christmas,” she says. “So we are very festive, with a tree in the lobby, stockings for each teacher and lights framing the front desk.” And the decorations are just the beginning. Students perform a special holiday program with the Lee’s Summit Symphony Orchestra, which includes both classic ballet selections and holiday numbers. “It sells out every year,” says Balagna. Younger students, who don’t get the chance to perform with the orchestra, throw their own holiday performance called “Snack Time with Santa,” and the musical theater students put on a vocal recital in Kansas City.

 

A TIME FOR GIVING

Danie Beck

Dance Unlimited

Miami, FL

On the last day of classes before the holiday break, Dance Unlimited students perform holiday-themed combinations for each other, play games and receive a small gift. And the staff is always game for donning reindeer antlers and elf hats. “The children love it,” says owner Danie Beck. Iridescent snowflakes, glittered Christmas ornaments and foil stars jazz up the lobby. “Our enrollment is 90 percent Latino, so we put up ‘Feliz Navidad’ signs as well,” she says. “But the decor is mostly the standard Christmas look with no strong religious leanings. And I ask our staff to use the phrase ‘Happy Holidays,’ so no one is offended.”

In lieu of teacher gifts, the studio holds a toy and food drive for nearby migrant labor camps. “We gather quite a few large baskets,” says Beck. “This time of year, it’s essential to stress the importance of giving.” DT

 

Photo: Manhattan maids decorate the tree in Roxanne Claire’s unique Nutcracker (by Jayne Maltbie, courtesy of Claire School of Dance)

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.

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.