Dance Teachers Trending

How Connecticut College's Lisa Race Passes Confidence on to Her Students

Photo by The Fleet, courtesy of Lion's Jaw Festival

Growing up in New Jersey, Lisa Race trained with a memorable dance teacher: Fred Kelly, the younger brother of famous tapper Gene. "Fred would introduce our recitals," she says. "He would always cartwheel down the stairs." It wasn't until years later, when Race was pursuing her master's degree and chose to write a research paper on Kelly, that she realized there was a clear connection between her own movement style—improvisational and floor-based—and his. "In this television clip I watched, Fred jumps up to the piano, then jumps off it—he's going up and down and around," she says. "I thought, 'Oh, wow, all this time, I've thought of my dancing as my own, but that's where it started!' Moving upside-down and into the floor. There's a thread there. I rerouted it in different ways, but there's a connection."

Now, as a professor at Connecticut College, she concentrates on how to introduce her students to that love and freedom of upside-down work—and how to best prepare them for life after graduation, no matter what dance path they take.

On not flailing

Race discovered modern dance at Rutgers University and quickly fell in love. "I first learned about Limón and Laban and Humphrey-Weidman and found spiral and floor," she says. "I thought, 'This is interesting to me.'" But after moving to New York City upon graduation, she felt lost. "I would go to auditions and try to look exactly like the person giving the material—and I would always flail," she says. She held brief company or apprentice stints with a few choreographers—Bill T. Jones, Ronald K. Brown, Sara Pearson/Patrik Widrig—but it wasn't until she attended an audition for David Dorfman that she truly managed to be herself.

She'd met Dorfman at a performance in Central Park, and after seeing her perform a few months later, he asked her to attend a company audition. "I did it reluctantly," Race says, "because I was terrible at auditions. But somehow I went, and I said to myself, 'Be yourself. Don't do other people. Do you.'" That, she says, "seemed to be the right approach."

She got the job and danced with Dorfman's company for 11 years. Toward the end of her tenure with the company, she and Dorfman began dating. They've now been married for 16 years and have a teenage son, Sam.

Race's teaching path was similarly meandering. Her first teaching gig happened by accident, when someone canceled at Movement Research in New York City and Race happened to be around and available. "I was really about trial and error," she says. "Early on, I taught so many phrases. One of my learning curves and processes has been trying to understand what I want people to get from classes and take the time to develop that." When Dorfman accepted a teaching position at Connecticut College, Race joined him first as a guest artist, officially signing on as full-time professor in 2007.

Making friends with the floor

The time Race spent in Dorfman's company has informed much of her approach to teaching. "I think a lot about how a contact-improvisation–based form of partnering was a part of that work," she says. "And I did a lot of gymnastics as a kid. So my desire to go upside-down has been a root of my teaching." Inversion work—in which dancers lift their lower halves above their upper bodies, using hands and arms to support themselves—can be a scary element of modern dance for many college freshmen. "Students tend to come in with a strong sense of verticality," says Race. "I'm trying to instill a confidence in them to dance with their entire bodies—to think about the whole kinesphere that surrounds you, so you're ready to move into the space above, below, behind, beside you. A large part of that is being really comfortable with the floor as your first partner."

Race tries to make the transition from right-side-up to upside-down as intuitive as possible. Rather than asking dancers to start with their arms up over their heads and then reverse their entire bodies all at once (the way many are first taught a handstand, for example), she stresses using an under-curve—bending the legs from an upright position and gradually curving the top half of the body down toward the floor. Upside-down work isn't about holding a static position with your legs over your head, for Race. "It's a place to play with suspension and then come down," she says. "What's it like to use that under-curve to get your hands on the ground and reach through the leg but not really go off the floor? Then, we use that to develop the confidence to go a little bit further."

Race performing with David Dorfman in Mid-Tide, which premiered at Connecticut College last year.Photo by Lauren Cress, courtesy of Connecticut College

An evolving curriculum

As the landscape of what it means to dance professionally evolves, Race and the rest of the faculty at Connecticut College are committed to holistically preparing undergrads for life after college. "We're finding ways to allow all dance forms to be equal and relevant to the major," she says. Connecticut's past model had first-year majors attending a modern technique class three days a week and a ballet class twice a week. "This fall," she says, "they'll have a three-day course that will rotate each week, so that all of our modern teachers will teach a week, but so will our Afro-Caribbean teacher, and so will our West African teacher, and we'll probably have a hip-hop teacher." The idea is to give students more of an introduction to different forms right away, so that they can "contextualize the connections between dance forms and the cultural differences," says Race. Students can then choose if they want to focus, for example, on West African or improvisation.

Race is also teaching a new class in the fall: dance pedagogy. "For the students who want to dance professionally," she says, "it's really important to offer a dance pedagogy class," so that they can supplement their careers with teaching jobs. It's also a way to give back to the community in New London, Connecticut, she says, and she's in the process of trying to set up a dance program within local schools to give undergrads teaching experience.

Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine

When choosing music for tap, Jason Samuels Smith encourages teachers to start with classic jazz music. Improvisation, call and response, and syncopated rhythms embedded in the genre and its history, in general, help students to understand the structure of tap, which is different than other styles of dance. "Tap dancers have the responsibility to be more than just a visual artist," he says. "They're an instrument and a sound."

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo Courtesy of Ballet Next

In 2011, when former American Ballet Theatre principal Michele Wiles departed the company and formed BalletNext, she found an artistic freedom she'd been longing for. Along with new collaborations with choreographers and musicians, she began working with trumpeter Tom Harrell, who introduced her to the multilayered sounds of jazz. "The dancers are another instrument to a jazz musician," says Wiles. Pairing this music genre with her classical foundation has been pivotal in defining her style. "I have this classical facility, but my mind is more contemporary. Jazz is a good intersection for my work," she says.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo by Rachel Papo

Martin Harvey brought a little movie star charm into morning ballet class at our New York Dance Teacher Summit. (His acting credits include Gossip Girls, All My Children, Dirty Dancing, A Chorus Line, Carousel, plus Metropolitan Opera productions of Carmen and Manon Lescaut.) Educated at the Royal Ballet School in London, he danced many principal roles for The Royal Ballet during his 12-year career.

Mark Your Calendar

Join us in Long Beach, CA, July 26–28, or in NYC, August 1–3, for our 2019 Dance Teacher Summit.

Dance Teacher Tips

Q: What suggestions do you have for dancers to get their shoulder blades to lie flat on their backs?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo by Sarah Ash, courtesy of Larkin Dance

Ask Michele Larkin-Wagner and Molly Larkin-Symanietz what sets them and Maplewood, Minnesota–based Larkin Dance Studio apart, and they immediately give the credit to their mom. Shirley Larkin founded the school in 1950 and continued to oversee the growing business until she passed away in 2011. "She put Minnesota on the map for dance training and made other local studios step up to the plate to become as strong as we are," Michele says. "A lot of people's lives are better because of Shirley Larkin."

For Michele and Molly, following in their mom's footsteps was a no-brainer. "I knew I was going to be a choreographer and take over the studio," Michele says. To Molly, seven years Michele's junior and the baby out of six siblings, the studio was always a second home. The two sisters trained across genres but had distinct specialties: Michele found her niche in jazz, musical theater and lyrical, while Molly excelled in tap. In the summers, they'd travel for workshops in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. While Michele was in class with jazz legends like Gus Giordano, JoJo Smith, Luigi and Frank Hatchett, Molly was taking tap classes with the likes of Brenda Bufalino and Phil Black.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Gandarillas

In Macarena Gandarillas' jazz class at California State University, Fullerton, a sign in the studio reads, "Never underestimate the power of determination." This simple mantra embodies what has made this self-described "danceaholic" such an impactful teacher.

When Gandarillas came to Los Angeles at age 6 with her family from Santiago, Chile, the language barrier was beyond overwhelming—until her mom enrolled her in ballet classes. Gandarillas found an instant love. "There were no Spanish-speaking kids at my school," she says. "But with dance I could communicate with my body. I'd finally found my voice."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Is teaching for an after-school program a good way to find a job in K–12?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Inspire School of Arts and Sciences

It was the morning of November 8, 2018, and Jarrah Myles' first-period choreography students were in last-minute rehearsals for their fall dance concert that evening. "All of a sudden my students' phones started ringing like crazy," says Myles, a teacher at Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, a Chico, California, high school whose dance and theater programs Myles helped establish in 2010. "And once they answered, I saw these tragic faces staring back at me."

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox