How-To: Above and Beyond

These days, giving students a thorough and balanced dance education often means going beyond your regular curriculum. Since dancers are expected to be versatile, intelligent and savvy, it pays to go that extra mile with special workshops and activities that will enrich them physically, mentally and emotionally. “The reason to have adjunct classes is to create the total dancer,” says Charles Maple, director of the Maple Conservatory of Dance in Irvine, Calfornia, and a former soloist with American Ballet Theatre. “And those who don’t become professional can be successful in other areas of dance.”

Here are some ways you can cultivate dancers who are well-rounded in body, mind and spirit.

#1 Weekly film series

Host a film series at your studio, and screen documentaries and performance videos to boost students’ dance history knowledge. Once in a while, throw in a fun cult hit like The Turning Point. Lucretia Lomax Alvarez, director of The Dance Studio in Austin, Texas, holds movie-night slumber parties. A self-described “avid collector of dance films,” she’s shown everything from documentaries on Jacob’s Pillow to West Side Story. Task dancers with taking turns bringing different snacks or beverages to share with everyone.

#2 Special workshops and guest teachers

A summer intensive program is a great way to expose your students to disciplines you can’t fit into your regular curriculum, such as yoga, Pilates, Gyrokinesis, Irish step, character dance, acting, mime, world dance, audition technique and more. If you don’t have staff instructors qualified to teach these classes, find local experts through your network of parents and colleagues. Or search online for teachers in your area with whom you haven’t yet connected.

Another option is to take a cue from the Maple Conservatory and integrate some enrichment classes into your regular curriculum. Maple offers special classes on Saturday mornings before rehearsal and changes the topic often to give students a wide range of material. You can also invite guest teachers to come in for a chat with your dancers—for example, Maple recently brought in former ABT dancer Cynthia Gregory to give a lecture about her life and career. Alternatively, take students to classes outside your studio. When Edward Villella was teaching at The University of Texas at Austin, Alvarez arranged for some of her advanced students to attend.

#3 Health days

Educate students about the latest dance medicine research. Maple requires students in his professional division to take courses held at the studio in injury prevention and nutrition, and he brings in local health professionals, many of whom he knows from his ABT days, to give the seminars. To find experts in your area, check nearby universities, medical centers and physical therapist offices that specialize in adolescent dance or athletic care.

#4 Trivia game

At the end of the year, test what your students have learned with a “Jeopardy”-style game of trivia. Challenges can include performing a tricky step or piece of choreography, translating a ballet term, recalling a piece of dance history or naming the composer of a famous work. Offer winners prizes such as discounted tuition or a gift certificate to a local dance retail shop.


#5 Company tours and performances

If you live in or near a city with a major dance company, inquire about arranging a tour of the company’s studios or theater. Your students will gain an inside look into the professional dance world by watching company class or rehearsal. They may also be allowed to visit the costume, prop or set rooms, and chat with designers.

Finish the day by attending a performance (be sure to ask about group discounts). Alvarez makes an effort to bring awareness about any local shows to her students and their families. “A lot of times I choose one for the parents and children to see. We’ve seen Broadway shows like Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, and companies like ABT, Philadanco and Pilobolus.”

#6 Book clubs

Take advantage of all of the great nonfiction dance titles available—from biographies and memoirs of famous dancers and choreographers to dance criticism. Encourage students to participate in book clubs and discussion groups. It doesn’t require a lot of work on your part: Appoint one dancer to organize each group and allow the groups to report back to their classes about what they learned. Parents may also wish to participate.

#7 Stretch-and-study parties

Invite students to prepare for SAT tests while they stretch. You can quiz them on vocabulary with call-and-response while directing their stretching exercises. Just make sure they continue to breathe and stretch actively, rather than passively.

#8 Campus visits

Alvarez arranges for college-bound dancers to visit nearby schools like The University of Texas at Austin, Southern Methodist University and one of her alma maters, Texas Christian University. In the past, she’s even organized campus visits in the cities where her dance company is also attending a convention. “I take them to watch class, and sometimes they’re allowed to take class,” says Alvarez. “I arrange with the faculty to give us 10 or 15 minutes so that they can talk about what their jobs are at the university and what they entail.”

#9 Stage makeup seminars

Lori Lahnemann, director of The Philadelphia Dance Academy, held a class on how to apply stage makeup, and it was by far the most popular special class offered in her summer program. Lahnemann hired a dancer’s mom, a makeup artist with experience doing runway shows and theatrical productions, to teach dancers how to apply stage makeup and alter it according to different types of lighting. At the end, students did each other’s makeup and received feedback.

#10 Choreography workshops

Alvarez has enjoyed great success with her Young Choreographers Workshop, in which students spend three months setting works on their fellow dancers that are presented in a spring show. As part of the experience, Alvarez often enlists theater specialists to give lectures or takes the students on field trips.

“They learn firsthand about working with their peers, how to handle the responsibility of being in charge of their rehearsal and using the time wisely and productively,” says Alvarez. “As their coach and mentor, I guide them and make suggestions on how to work more efficiently, how to give staging and layering to their choreography, and how to choose or design costumes to fit their music and choreography.”

#11 Video analysis

Teach students to self-correct and analyze technique by videotaping them. Then sit down together and watch the tape in slow-motion. It’s a strategy Maple often uses for pirouettes.

Here’s how it works: Replay the tape with the student, pausing and rewinding to point out problems with form, and explain how they affect the execution of a particular step. Students eventually should be able to recognize good form without your assistance. You can also use video analysis to tape rehearsals, so dancers can analyze their technique and interpretation of the choreography.

#12 Terminology

While Lahnemann makes it a point to explain ballet terms during technique classes, she also teaches a terminology class during the summer to build students’ understanding. In the class, Lahnemann, who minored in French, requires dancers to learn word meanings as well as spellings. She concludes with a quiz. “It’s multisensory,” she explains, “writing, doing and saying.”

#13 Mock Company

One of Maple’s most popular activities is a company project that gives dancers firsthand experience with what it takes to run a successful professional group. He divides students into faux companies, empowering each to come up with a name, fundraise, rent rehearsal space, organize rehearsals, cast, choreograph, market and perform. The company with the most money in its account at the end of the project wins. Any money raised is funneled back into the school’s nonprofit preprofessional company, Maple Youth Ballet. DT

Kristin Lewis is a writer in New York City.

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