How Gaga Teacher and Choreographer Shamel Pitts Is Using His Guggenheim Fellowship

Scott Shaw Photography, courtesy Pitts

Shamel Pitts, New York City–based founder of the performance collective TRIBE, is one of three dance artists awarded Guggenheim Fellowships for 2020. Born and raised in Brooklyn and a graduate of LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, The Ailey School and The Juilliard School, Pitts received the Princess Grace Award in choreography in 2018 and danced with Batsheva for seven years. He spoke with DT this summer during shelter-in-place.

What was it like receiving the Guggenheim? What will the award support this year?

I was finishing a performance tour at the Adelaide Festival in Australia when I got the news. A hugely surprising acceptance. It was around 3:33 am, and I was online at the airport.

Since the public announcement (on April 8), the world has changed hugely. This award propels me forward at a time when I am asked to stay at home. I am thinking about how to continue to work as an artist, an African-American artist and a citizen during this time.

It does help to receive awards where people and institutions say, "We see you. We believe in you. Keep going. And keep finding new and creative ways to keep going." At this moment, I am digging into the intersection between solitude, creativity and solidarity.

What is the intersection of choreographing and teaching for you?

When I am creating a work, I am teaching. When I am dancing in a work, it is a teachable moment. I am continually trying to find new ways of engaging people and what it means to teach. The more that I can sustain myself as a student of teaching, the more pronounced my choreographic voice and purpose becomes. What comes out through clarity of research and coherent instruction helps me find out what the moment is asking for. One of the most meaningful ways to learn and to lead truly is to teach.

You are one of a select roster of certified Gaga teachers in the world. What do you love about Gaga?

Ohad Naharin has said that Gaga asks you to listen to your body before you tell it what to do. It is so multilayered to teach Gaga, and I love that. It is a complex, fascinating, invigorating, stimulating and challenging experience. You are constantly teacher and student. You are always moving with others, and at the same time you are listening to what is coming out of your body and out of their bodies to facilitate a clarity of instruction and research.

Teacher Voices
Photo courtesy Rhee Gold Company

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, there has been a shift in our community that is so impressive that the impact could last long into our future. Although required school closures have hit the dance education field hard, what if, when looking back on this time, we see that it's been an incredible renaissance for dance educators, studio owners and the young dancers in our charge?

How could that be, you ask?

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Photo by Yvonne M. Portra, courtesy Faulkner

It's a Wednesday in May, and 14 Stanford University advanced modern ­dance students are logged on to Zoom, each practicing a socially distanced duet with an imaginary person. "Think about the quality of their personality and the type of duet you might have," says their instructor Katie Faulkner, "but also their surface area and how you'd relate to them in space." Amid dorm rooms, living rooms, dining rooms and backyards, the dancers make do with cramped quarters and dodge furniture as they twist, curve, stretch and intertwine with their imaginary partners.

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Securing the correct music licensing for your studio is an important step in creating a financially sound business. "Music licensing is something studio owners seem to either embrace or ignore completely," says Clint Salter, CEO and founder of the Dance Studio Owners Association. While it may seem like it's a situation in which it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission—that is, to wait until you're approached by a music-rights organization before purchasing a license—Salter disagrees, citing Peloton, the exercise company that produces streaming at-home workouts. In February, Peloton settled a music-licensing suit with the National Music Publishers' Association out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. Originally, NMPA had sought $300 million in damages from Peloton. "It can get extremely expensive," says Salter. "It's not worth it for a studio to get caught up in that."

As you continue to explore a hybrid online/in-person version of your class schedule, it's crucial that your music licenses include coverage for livestreamed instruction—which comes with its own particular requirements. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about music licensing—in both normal times and COVID times—as well as some safe music bets that won't pose any issues.

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