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.

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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