How and When to Step In If a Student Is Having Problems

Photo by Lauren Guy Summersett

Christy Wolverton had a student who often either missed class or seemed to be sick. "When you're in our pre-professional company, attendance is huge," says Wolverton, owner and director of Dance Industry Performing Arts Center in Plano, Texas. She tried to be patient with the dancer and communicate with her parents to get a better idea of what was going on at home. "When she was diagnosed with a serious illness," she says, "we were relieved that we didn't come down on her for something that wasn't her fault."

Wolverton prefers to err on the side of caution when working with young students. But she admits there's a broad spectrum of personalities and pain thresholds to consider with dancers. "You have kids who stub their toe and think their foot is broken, and the ones who actually break their foot and still want to dance on it," she says. "And when there's not a physical problem but something emotional, that's tricky, too." Knowing how and when to intervene can be a tough call, especially when dancers try to hide their difficulties. Teachers need to be adaptable and intuitive to assess individual students and guide them back to the right track.

Talk About It Encourage communication and talk often with students. Wolverton includes a clause in her studio contract letting students know they can speak openly, and she insists families tell her if there's anything that might affect a student in class. If dancers are struggling with an injury, for example, they might not want to talk about it for fear they'll disappoint the teacher or get replaced in a part. "I need to know if there's a problem," says Wolverton, "so that I can adjust my teaching and make sure I'm not being overly hard on a child because they're not doing something full-out or working to their full potential."

Families are often eager to respond to a teacher's call for help. But there might be unfortunate situations when parents deny a child's behavior or physical complaints. "In that case, keep advocating for your dancer," says Dr. Susan Margolis, clinical psychologist at Amplifying Performance Consulting. She suggests you present facts, rather than offering opinions, because facts will be more difficult to argue against. Bring your concerns to the director or principal of the school, if necessary, and frame your role as a caring educator. "You're not the parent, so there's only so much you can do," she says.

For Wolverton, the key to knowing when to step in is communication—with both students and parents. Photo by Lauren Guy Summersett.

Physical Issues Some dancers want to push through injuries despite the pain, potentially causing even greater problems. "I try to get these students to focus on the future," says Raymond Rodriguez, head of Joffrey Ballet's studio company and trainee program. "I give them examples from my past, pointing out mistakes I made or things that have happened to other people. This serves as a warning for them and shows that they might need to take two steps back before they can move four steps forward."

If Rodriguez notices that a certain dancer is constantly injured or frequently sits down in class, he'll address the problem right away. "Unless something is seriously wrong, I help them understand that they have to work through the discomfort sometimes," he says. "By center, it usually feels better." Rodriguez frequently receives reports from the Joffrey Ballet Academy doctors and physical therapists to stay up to date on student injuries. "We have to teach them when to stop and when to push through. Get them to overcome that fear of failure," he says.

Emotional Challenges If students are showing frustration, anxiety or fear, it might be wise to let them take the lead rather than singling them out in class. "Maybe the dancer excuses herself from class," says Margolis. "If she's struggling and needs to sit down for a moment, or get some water and take a few breaths, give her the permission to do it." Always approach the student and talk kindly and calmly about what you've been observing. Give the dancer an opening to share her thoughts, if necessary.

In cases of tremendous anxiety, try taking a performance angle with the dancer. Talk about how professionals work with sports psychologists to examine the mental component of performing, and try to destigmatize the idea of talking to a professional. Rodriguez suggests not rushing to interfere but instead giving students time to handle it on their own first. "So many of our students are young adults, dealing with many emotions and issues outside the studio," he says. "I don't like to be a disciplinarian 100 percent of the time—I will be empathetic if I know they are having a rough day."

Remind students that the studio is a safe environment, and it's OK if they have setbacks or failures. "I've had kids with stage fright, anxiety or such perfectionism that they're afraid to mess up," says Wolverton. "They have to remember that dance is supposed to be their passion, something they enjoy. I try to help them keep a healthy perspective." DT

Julie Diana was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. She and her husband Zachary Hench now direct Juneau Dance Theatre in Alaska.

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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