Teaching Tips

How to Approach Teaching After a Body-Changing Injury

Jessie Laurita-Spanglet teaches modern dance at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Photo by Betsy Mann, courtesy of author

Nearly all dance educators experience injury at some point in their careers.

After I was diagnosed in 2016 with Freiberg's disease, a rare foot injury, I began asking myself a series of questions, starting with "What do we do when we can no longer teach by doing?"

When I explained the condition to my dance program director, I realized that even if my department were to give me a semester off from teaching technique, I didn't want to put my career on hold. With this in mind, I devised a plan for teaching my intermediate modern technique class while injured. What I discovered has changed some of my core beliefs about teaching.


Can Verbal Description Be Just as Effective as Physical Demonstration?

I have always leaned heavily on physical demonstration over verbal explanation. In my own conservatory training, dancers were taught to do, but rarely to speak. My injury changed this. How did this work? For some combinations, I wanted my students to understand an overarching idea rather than the details of the movements, so I would only show the combination once and ask them to view it through a particular lens. Thus, the combination became a road map for improvisation, not a study of specific gestures or steps.

When I wanted to focus on detailed movement acquisition, I had to find ways to communicate nuance with words. I might say, "Swipe your right elbow like you're running it across a smooth table," or, "Drag the inside edge of your foot as if you're pulling a heavy chain." At first it felt awkward, and often I was tongue-tied or lacking words for something I understood on a visceral level. I craved a common language to describe movements to my students—an issue that might have been helped by a deeper understanding of Laban Movement Analysis.

Like many of my contemporaries, I am a product of an education that draws on disparate influences and teachers. If I'd been trained in only one technique—say, Cunningham or Graham—I could have drawn on an established vocabulary.

How Do We Move Away From Seeing Our Bodies Merely as Objects to Be Trained and Perfected?

Though I had to limit my physical demonstration of standing combinations, I found new freedom in floorwork. Drawing on distant memories of floor barres from my ballet training, my work leading Pilates mat classes and knowledge of Bartenieff Fundamentals, I created a lengthy floor warm-up combination. Then I transitioned to more physically vigorous floorwork and tumbling through space. As a result, my students improved their ability to drop their weight and release unneeded muscular effort—skills that translated well in standing combinations.

What Do We Do When We Can No Longer Teach by Doing?

Next, drawing my inspiration from a performance class I took with Adriane Fang as a grad student at the University of Maryland, I asked my students to learn a solo from video (in this case, Caribou, by the choreographer Helen Simoneau). The idea was to challenge them physically in ways that I could not, providing a stand-in for the full-bodied combination often at the end of a modern dance technique class. I divided the class into three groups, one for each of the three sections of Simoneau's solo. Once each group had learned their section, I created new groups, taking one person from each of the original groups so that each new group combined students trained in different sections. This project proved successful in many ways: My students learned from teaching their peers a short piece of choreography; they were challenged physically by the very intricate and complex nature of the work; and they gained experience performing a solo—a new experience for many.

Toward Seeing the Body as an Ever-Changing Record of Who We Are and Where We've Been

As a teacher who'd always relied on my own body to gauge students' physical experience, I felt blinded when I lost this ability. Eventually, however, I learned to see from the outside more than I ever had before—in part because I wasn't dealing with the interference of my own physical limitations. This new type of observing, done with my eyes rather than my body, allowed me to see each student in a more individualized manner.

From this, I've come to think of the body not as either injured or healthy, young or old, strong or weak, but as a constantly evolving entity. As I think about my own body on a continuum, I feel humbled at the position of privilege that makes my small foot injury appear to me as a major hurdle. When I shift to seeing my own body as I see others—in a constant state of flux—I recognize that my difficulties and the ensuing shift in my teaching are all part of the natural human condition of change and growth.

Checking in anecdotally with my students at the end of that semester, I discovered that they'd barely noticed that I was injured. What felt like such a monumental shift to me—what had completely upended my teaching style and approach—turned out to be barely discernable to them. Something else, too: Around midterm of this very challenging semester, I noticed a shift in my own language and thinking about my injury. Instead of saying that I was "dealing with an injury" or "getting over an injury," I started saying that I was "dancing with an injury." This minor shift in language marked a major change in seeing. Instead of ignoring my injury or letting it overpower me, I was doing something else: I was engaged in a dance with it.

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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