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Letter From a Ballet Teacher: How My Own Home Isolation as a Teenager Deepened My Love for Dance

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As a ballet teacher adjusting to the startling new world we are living in with Covid-19, I keep thinking of my dance students and the worry they must feel adapting to this stressful situation. Being stuck at home can be frustrating and scary, particularly when your ballet studio feels like a second home. I wanted to share my own experience dancing in isolation as a teenager, and what I learned from it. Hopefully my story will help buoy your spirits for the better days ahead.

When I was a senior in high school, a professional ballet career was all I wanted in my life. While training at an intensive ballet program in Virginia, I was so focused on getting a job that when I came down with an illness (chronic mononucleosis), I refused to stop dancing. Unfortunately, this caused me to become even sicker. I eventually had to fly home to Florida, where I was required to rest for several weeks. This period of home isolation felt torturous at the time, but I learned important lessons that later made my professional career much more rewarding.


A young female dancer wearing a copper-colored leotard, pink tights and pointe shoes stretches over her right leg, which is propped on a barre.

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A New Appreciation for Barre Work

During my first few weeks of recovery I was too weak to dance. Once my health started to improve, I started to give myself barre. Incorporating dancing at home lifted my spirits and gave me hope, and I began to appreciate ballet in a new way. As a young dancer, I loved center and tended to feel barre was tedious. During recovery, I became so grateful for the ritual of barre, and how it can be done almost anywhere under nearly any circumstance. Simply giving myself barre and following the series of prescribed exercises that have been performed for centuries gave me purpose as a dancer. Although I was alone, it felt as if I was part of something bigger than myself. I know of dancers who have given themselves barre outdoors or even in hospital rooms. During home isolation, barre remains a meaningful way to stay connected to ballet.

Watching More Ballet 

During my isolation, I regularly watched videos of ballet performances; it was frequently the high point of my day. Escaping into another world became so therapeutic. It hit me that getting to dance for other people through ballet performances was such an honor and privilege. I realized how amazing it was to work in a field that allowed me to transport people away from their troubles. When I returned to performing, I felt a new sense of purpose. Keep in mind, my only access to ballet performances was through the VHS videos I owned—students today have a wealth of performances to choose from online!

A young ballerina, wearing a white romantic tutu and veil, stands in tendu derri\u00e9re with her arms crossed in front of her, palms up. A row of similarly costumed women stand directly behind her in the same pose.

The author as a wili in Orlando Ballet's production of Giselle

Tanya Schmidt, Courtesy Katie Slattery

Gratitude for the Corps de Ballet

After recovering, I developed a new appreciation for corps work and found group pieces to be so energizing! Students tend to crave solo opportunities, but when I was finally able to return to a group, I realized how amazing the camaraderie and vitality of corps work could be. I took that heightened appreciation and sensitivity into my professional career and it made such a difference. Some of my most nostalgic moments onstage are actually corps de ballet roles—I still recall how alive and connected I felt dancing as a wili in Act II of Giselle.

Healing Time for My Body

Finally, home isolation forced me to take the necessary time to recover and patiently listen to my body. Dancers frequently push through injuries and illness because of their strong desire to dance. Take advantage of the time at home to check in with your body—let your sore knee recover, perform therapeutic exercises to strengthen a weak ankle, or practice performance visualization. Taking time to recover is essential, yet it's somehow a hard lesson for dancers to learn. But upon returning to the studio, you will be a stronger and wiser dancer for it.

In the end, my period of home isolation helped me appreciate dancing far more than I would have otherwise. It strengthened my love for performance, for team work and for ballet itself. I became a more joyful dancer. Although it was a difficult time I wouldn't choose to repeat, it taught me valuable lessons that I carried into my professional career. We will get through this time together and arrive on the other side with a deeper appreciation and sensitivity to the art we love. Please keep on dancing!

Katie Slattery is a teacher and outreach/artistic assistant at Orlando Ballet School.

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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