News

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.

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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