How My Approach to Class Changed Once I Went from Student to Professional Dancer

The author with Sarasota Ballet corpyhée Weslley Carvalho. Photo Courtesy Madeleine Purcell

When you graduate from student to professional dancer, you still need to take daily class. But while the structure of class is the same, I've found the mindset to be drastically different. My first job post-graduation was with the Sarasota Ballet, and the last thing I wanted to do was look like a student. I knew wearing a black leotard and pink tights without warm-ups could be a dead giveaway, but all another new company member had to say was "Why are you wearing your tights under your leotard? You look like a kid," and I hurried to the dressing room to change! Beyond the way I dress as a professional, my class philosophy also changed. Here are four things I've noticed:


Company class is a bit more relaxed.

A company class is full of people with jobs—they're more secure than pre-professional students with uncertain futures. The general atmosphere is more relaxed, too. There's room to check a combination or timing with another dancer if you're unsure. More than once I've asked someone next to me for clarification, or quietly commiserated about a difficult step. Also, class won't be the only dancing you do all day—in fact, some dancers view it only as a warm up, or a way to prepare for rehearsal. It's not necessarily required to take all of class, either; if an injury is flaring up, you might not jump, or only repeat the combination once. If I have a light day, I try to give class the energy of a performance, whereas with a heavy schedule, I'll go easier. It's up to you to determine what you need from class each day.

When it comes to corrections, you're often on your own.

Photo by Indiana Coté, courtesy Madeleine Purcell.

Like in an open class, company teachers give general corrections but very little individual attention: It's assumed you know what you need to work on. Because improving is up to me, watching more experienced dancers is the most valuable part of company class. I love observing their artistry when they rehearse and perform, but seeing seasoned dancers in class means I can study their technique, break down exactly what they're doing, and apply it myself. That way, when I repeat the combination I have my own correction to apply. It also serves as a reminder that even principal dancers aren't perfect—the polished Princess Aurora you see onstage can miss a step in class, fall out of a pirouette or have an "off" day.

You'll be exposed to a variety of techniques and ideas.

I trained at American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and at Ballet Academy East. Though the style of each school is different, their respective looks are cohesive: everyone's technique is similar. In company class, however, there's much more variation because dancers are from all over. It's sometimes even surprising: I spoke to one dancer who I thought looked very classically trained, only to find out she was from School of American Ballet.

As I'm exposed to a variety of ideas and aesthetics, I'm discovering what works for me and building it into my technique, even if sometimes it requires more than observation. When I really admire the way someone does a step, I'll ask them after class what they're thinking about or aiming for in their execution. I might not always receive a helpful answer, since I've discovered some dancers don't think about anything specific. But talking about a step and learning how they were taught can help me figure out what I should change. There's nothing wrong with incorporating an idea or tool that works for you, even if it's not necessarily in the training you received!

Dancing is about the big picture.

Purcell with Sarasota Ballet coryphée Nicolas Moreno. Photo courtesy Madeleine Purcell.

In school classes, certain complex combinations could terrify me to the point of psyching myself out of a double pirouette on pointe. Because I felt so stressed, I wasn't able to focus on anything other than what the most difficult steps, and could get stuck in self-doubt and self-criticism if a turn didn't work. As a professional, I quickly realized that the whole picture of dancing was more important than a single step. Yes, a clean double is essential, but the dancers I admire most are those who can make a difficult transition appear effortless. That's what I want to master.

Company life has freed me from a lot of the stress I used to feel in class. At times when I feel anxiety creeping back in, I stop and remember my former teacher, Peter Frame, saying to me, "Stay present! I want to see Madeleine. Show me one hundred shades of you." Now, because class is for me, my focus is on growing as an artist. It's the greatest gift to find myself in my dancing, let go a little bit more, improve beyond the technical and aim for excellence rather than perfection.

Music
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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