Honor Roll

While there have long been academic honor societies to recognize students’ achievements in the classroom, only recently have dance educators found a way to formally acknowledge young dancers. Founded in 2005, The National Honor Society for Dance Arts aims to promote and honor outstanding dance students at the middle and high school levels. To date, there are just under 100 chapters at schools across the country.

“Until NHSDA, we had decades of tremendous professional dancers, but no way of honoring them for their artistic excellence as well as their academic achievements and leadership capabilities,” says Jane Bonbright, executive director of the National Dance Education Organization, a partner organization of NHSDA.

Modeled after the International Thespian Society, the world’s largest honor society for theater arts students, NHSDA is open to students ages 11 to 18. Those who are studying dance in private or public middle or high schools, dance schools/academies, performing arts centers or community centers with active dance programs are all eligible to apply for admission. “Theater students were inducted into the International Thespian Society, so I felt we should have something like that in dance, too,” explains Wrenn Cook, executive director of the South Carolina Dance Education Organization, and the first to found a NHSDA student chapter.

While the criteria is largely determined by the educators, or sponsors, of each chapter, NHSDA requires prospective inductees to earn a certain number of points (15 for middle school, 30 for high school) before joining. “We feel strongly that the sponsor knows her program better than we do and knows what level of achievement the students should be reaching for,” says Cook. Some of the ways students can earn points include participating in performances, taking extra technique classes or working behind the scenes of a production.

Student Rewards

Once they have accumulated enough credits, members receive a certificate and an honors cord and pin to wear during graduation. High school juniors and seniors may also be eligible to apply for the NDEO Artistic Merit, Leadership and Academic Achievement Award—the highest national honor in dance education. After screening at the state level, top applicants compete nationally through portfolio analysis, which includes a dance video, teacher recommendations and proof of a 3.0 grade point average or higher. One to four winners, who receive trips to conferences, mentorships and other benefits, are chosen annually.

In addition to the tangible benefits of membership, students also gain a sense of validation. “The kids love it,” says Laura Earnhardt, chapter sponsor of NHSDA at Holly Springs High School in North Carolina. “They appreciate knowing that they are part of an organization that wants to recognize them at such a young age. It acknowledges their dedication both to dance and to themselves.”

Last year, 200 seniors graduated with this distinction, and the numbers are growing. “We’ve made the program very broad and inclusive because we want students dedicated to dance to be able to receive recognition no matter where they’re receiving their education,” adds Cook, noting that nearly any dance teacher of a program offering public or private training is eligible to participate, as long as they apply to be an institutional member of NDEO.

To celebrate induction, many chapters hold formal recognition ceremonies that provide performing opportunities for students. Before handing out certificates this year, Earnhardt gave each student a candle: “I told them the candle is their young flame as artists and their job is to protect and nourish it—to light the path to success.”

School Perks

The students aren’t the only ones winning with NHSDA; the schools that implement chapters also see big results. It helps to bring credibility and national recognition to dance programs by acknowledging legitimate training, notes Earnhardt. “And this ensures that we’re delivering quality instruction to prepare students for the college level,” she adds.

In establishing the point system, sponsors can organize their programs to better suit the needs of students. And because it’s based on participation, pursuit of membership provides motivation for students to be involved in dance beyond the basic class requirements. “It’s a great way to structure your department or program,” says Nancy Petro, a state affiliate in Florida, where there are currently 26 chapters. “Like other honor societies, there are officers. The students can take some of the responsibility.”

In addition, sponsors can use the attachment to NDEO to promote school events, leading to greater visibility. “It’s the networking between the K–12 schools, the private dance institutions and the artists in the community that allows those who are conducting programs to recognize the power of their work,” explains Bonbright.

Earnhardt believes that she “has a duty as an artist to get my art out there. We represent dance, not just the school.” The members of her locally celebrated program perform for the community, which, she says, doesn’t always understand or appreciate the form. “Dance is common on television and is coming into homes, but [NHSDA] recognizes things beyond the entertainment value and sees why students are pursuing it.”

In encouraging the well-rounded dancer, NHSDA makes a point to recognize factors beyond innate talent. “It works to develop the whole student,” says Bonbright. “It integrates the mind, body and spirit with technique, academics and leadership. It makes them all equally important, which I think is a wonderfully wholesome way to go in our dance field.” DT

Taylor Gordon, a freelance dancer and writer in New York City, is currently pursuing a master’s in publishing at Pace University.

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

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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