Dance Teachers Trending

How Edward Ellison Is Molding Ballet's Future

"The Vaganova style is so pure and logical. It's designed to show your deficiencies, not to disguise them. You're forced to be honest with yourself," says Ellison. Photos by Jim Lafferty

Edward Ellison shapes his students like clay. If a leg needs more turnout, he rotates it and drops the hip into place. If a torso is off-kilter, he pokes and lifts until everything's aligned. During combinations, he watches with intense focus, and when someone pulls off a difficult step or sequence, he radiates pride. His dedication to both his pupils and the Vaganova technique he teaches is evident in his every word and gesture.

Ellison has long been known as a master teacher, but since he launched his own school in 2005, his reputation for excellence has only grown. Ellison Ballet is small by design—during the year, there are usually between 30 and 40 students, while the summer intensives draw 175 to 200—but the school's output rivals that of larger, more famous academies. Ellison only accepts the best of the best, dancers who show potential that he's confident he can shape into something spectacular. That attitude pays dividends; his students dominate at major ballet competitions, and his graduates perform with top-tier companies around the world.

"We expect a lot from our students," Ellison says. "I believe they can achieve something extraordinary, but to achieve the extraordinary takes extraordinary work. How much you want that end result will show in what you do every day." Given his complete commitment to his students, he could just as easily be speaking about himself.


An Unconventional Start

Before Ellison did his first tendu, he was a champion break-dancer. When he was 18, a fellow street dancer convinced him to take a summer intensive at a studio in San Diego, to try other dance styles.

"Ballet fascinated me," he says. "I would look at what the advanced boys were doing, and it was very exciting. And yet, in the beginning class, we weren't trying to do those jumps and turns. We were standing at the barre while the teacher corrected our stance. As an athlete and a break-dancer, I'd never experienced anything like it."

Interest piqued, he signed on for year-round training. In addition to his beginner classes, he was invited to study with Marius Zirra, a Romanian who'd trained in St. Petersburg, Russia, and defected to the U.S. Ellison spent the next two years immersing himself in ballet, and when Zirra left the school, he searched for a teacher who would be equally knowledgeable and passionate about ballet. He briefly landed at Houston Ballet Academy, and after only five months was offered a company apprenticeship, which he turned down in favor of further training.

At San Francisco Ballet School, Ellison found his next mentor: former Bolshoi Ballet dancer Larisa Sklyanskaya. "She tore us to shreds," Ellison says, laughing. "She emphasized the use of parts of the body that other teachers weren't even talking about. The improvements we made in two years with her were remarkable." At 22, Ellison joined San Francisco Ballet, where he remained for 10 years.

A Surprise Passion

"I honestly never dreamed of being a teacher," Ellison says. And yet, the first time he was asked to lead a class, he was excited to discover a natural rapport with the students. He had a chance to hone his pedagogy during his final year with SFB. While on injury leave, he asked Sklyanskaya if he could observe her classes. Soon, he'd accumulated stacks of notebooks. "I wrote down every combination, every correction, every metaphor," he says. "When Sklyanskaya saw how serious I was, she started asking me to give corrections and create combinations."

Ellison leads a session of his summer intensive at Manhattan Movement and Arts Center.

When he left the company, Ellison took a teaching job at SFBS. But it wasn't long before he felt like he needed a change of scenery. He moved to New York City in 1997 and spent a few years teaching open classes, including at Steps on Broadway and Peridance. He also led company classes at American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and he offered private lessons. Still, he wanted to do more.

An Impossible Dream

Ellison clearly recalls the December 2004 day when the seed that would become Ellison Ballet was planted. "I was in the hallway at Steps," he says, "and I mentioned to a friend that I was frustrated. If I wanted to really instill my knowledge, I needed to see my students for more hours, every single day. My friend told me, 'Start a school.'"

As with each turning point in his life, Ellison jumped in straightaway, but not everyone around him was supportive. "The more people I spoke to, the more I learned why I was going to fail!" he says. "I didn't have money or backers. How could I hope to compete with the major schools in the city? People also said, 'You're moving too fast. Wait a year.' But I felt momentum. I had to try."

In 2005, his first summer intensive attracted 22 students. Ten girls signed on for his first full year of classes, held at New Dance Group in Manhattan. Ellison wasn't at all disappointed by the small turnout. "I wanted to have a selective school," he explains. "I wasn't going to accept someone just because they could pay the tuition." The operation was bare-bones, but the dancers were hungry. Some had even left prestigious academies to study with Ellison.

The biggest roadblock in those early years was studio space. In 2008, Ellison learned that New Dance Group was closing its doors. He was given one month to relocate. "For the next year and a half, we jumped from studio to studio," he says. "Some days we'd start at 11 am, and other days at 3 pm." He was working around the clock and barely earning a salary, but he was convinced that the school would land on its feet. In the meantime, the talent kept showing up.

A Philosophy That Works

Ellison Ballet has been based at Manhattan Movement and Arts Center since 2011. Dancers ages 12 to 19 are split into junior girls, senior girls and a boys' class. They're in the studio from 10:30 to 4:30 daily, studying ballet technique, pointe, pas de deux, variations and contemporary. Many also have private coaching with Ellison. (Academics are completed online.)

Ellison's approach is steeped in the Vaganova method his mentors shared with him. "The Vaganova style is so pure and logical," he says. "It's designed to show your deficiencies, not to disguise them. You're forced to be honest with yourself." He believes hands-on corrections are essential, and he has students and parents sign a document acknowledging that Ellison Ballet is a hands-on school. "When you have a teacher manipulating your body," he explains, "you're able to feel muscles engage that you didn't feel before. Teaching only through verbiage and demonstration is simply not as effective." He tends to repeat class material for several days, giving students a chance to dig in without having to memorize new combinations, and he doesn't hesitate to stop mid-phrase to point out errors. He's exacting, and it's clear everyone in the room relishes the challenge.

Ellison with full-time student Keaton Gillespie

His students often medal at competitions, but he's quick to stress that winning isn't the goal: "Competing is an invaluable learning experience. You're taking choreography that was created on principal dancers. It's difficult technically, stylistically and artistically. You have to learn the character and the context of the ballet. The preparation can be very intense, and the growth you see—it's beautiful."

Graduates of the program leave with far more than stellar technique and rich artistry. "Mr. Ellison's energy is captivating, and it forces you to match him," says Melissa Chapski, who studied at Ellison Ballet from 2013 to 2015, and now performs with Dutch National Ballet. She still returns to train with Ellison each summer. "When I first joined, I never got away with standing in the back. He had me working on something every second. If I saw someone working more than me, I wasn't doing enough."

"He instills so much discipline," says Adrian Blake Mitchell, who trained at Ellison Ballet from 2012 to 2014 and is currently with the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. "In a company, there's no one who is invested in you the same way your teacher is when you're a student. No one can succeed for you."

Ellison elaborates: "One of the hallmarks of an Ellison Ballet graduate is their preparedness. It's not about what our dancers are going to get out of being in a company. It's about what they're going to give. That means developing an awareness of how you're taking in information. It's not letting yourself receive the same correction multiple times. It's being willing to go the extra mile."

In the end, that's Ellison's vision: dancers whose technical skill and artistic expression are exceeded only by their sense of responsibility. "My students may go on to make quite a contribution to this art," he says, "but only if they see ballet as something of great value. That's why I give them everything I can."

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
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
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 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
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

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
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

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
Site Network

abezikus/Getty Images

"Dancers can do everything these days," I announced to whoever was in earshot at the Jacob's Pillow Archives during a recent summer. I had just been dazzled by footage of a ballet dancer performing hip hop, remarkably well. But my very next thought was, What if that isn't always a good thing? What if what one can't do is the very thing that lends character?

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Courtney Schwartz and Jake Mcauley perform a Talia Favia combination at Radix Dance Convention Nationals. Via Instagram

Summer intensives and Nationals make June, July and August some of the richest dance-video months of the year. There is so much fabulous content out there, we can hardly contain our excitement!

We have spent hours down the rabbit hole of class videos this week and thought you should see some of our favorite findings.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Infinite Flow

While taking class in 2006, Marisa Hamamoto felt a tingling sensation in her elbows, then suddenly collapsed to the floor. She was hospitalized and diagnosed with spinal cord infarction, a rare spinal stroke that left her paralyzed from the neck down. Despite being told by her doctor that she may never walk again, let alone dance, Hamamoto miraculously walked out of the hospital two months later.

Since her stroke, Hamamoto has found a new lease on life. She has channeled her indomitable will to overcome adversity into a dance company that marries her love of ballroom dance with her passion for social activism. Los Angeles–based Infinite Flow is the first professional wheelchair ballroom dance company in the U.S. Over the past four years it has become a torchbearer for social change, performing worldwide and offering workshops and school assemblies to educate audiences about accessibility and inclusion.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox