How to Manage (and Structure) a Mixed-Level Class That Benefits ALL Students

One of Nicole Belanger's reliable fixes for a mixed-level class is the buddy system. Photo by Caitlin Hargett, courtesy of Gus Giordano Dance School

Teen jazz class at Chicago's Gus Giordano Dance School, under the direction of Amy Giordano, has a wide range of students. "Some just started dancing a month ago, and others have been dancing for three years," says Nicole Belanger, dance education director. To maintain a positive environment, Belanger pairs older kids with less experienced ones. "It builds a bond," she says. "Then they're all open to taking corrections and working toward their goals, rather than comparing themselves to the next person."

Teaching a mixed-level class isn't ideal, but sometimes a shortage of space or faculty prompts consolidation. Workshops and open recreational classes may also attract diverse groups in terms of age, level and ability. If the class moves too slowly, advanced dancers might lose interest. If it progresses too quickly, the beginners feel lost. Structuring a multilevel class can be a challenge, but there are some surprising advantages if you manage it right.


Communicate

Set the tone at the beginning of class. "If a teacher takes the initiative to make the atmosphere positive and encouraging, the kids will usually follow," says Belanger. She makes an announcement after attendance, reminding students that everyone will be working on something different. "Our main goal is to build confidence and make the environment welcoming and open to all," she says. "I remind them that it's all about improving themselves and not worrying about others."

If you recognize students' progress and abilities throughout class, you're more likely to keep them engaged. "They feel good when the teacher thinks they're ready for more," says Kristan Ballard, owner of Texas Academy of Dance Arts. She might suggest that more experienced dancers do an extra pirouette or add a jump at the end of a progression. "It's important that the top level doesn't feel held back by students who aren't as advanced," she says. The lower levels will get excited if you promise that they'll tackle a new step the following week.

Encourage Teamwork

With a few standout dancers in a multilevel class, it might be tempting to use them as good examples, all the time. But that can cause others to feel intimidated and self-conscious. The less advanced dancers might be reluctant to step forward and try something new. "I prefer to make general, sweeping comments and corrections so that no one feels singled out," says Belanger. She groups her class into twos or threes to prevent anyone from feeling vulnerable.

Belanger's buddy system pairs more mature dancers with younger ones to develop mentor/mentee relationships. "The older ones are helpers, even though they're still learning," she says. "Then they don't feel put down even though they're mixed with younger students." Ballard might have a second teacher to provide additional support, or invite advanced students to assist with the lower level [see sidebar]. "It's magical how much better they get, themselves, when they're instructing others," she says.

Offer Alternate Versions

When groups within a mixed-level class are separated by more than just subtle differences, give variations of a step or combination. Rachel Chew, ballet mistress and director at California Academy of Performing Arts, will have some students do an advanced version of a combination in center while keeping others at the barre longer. "I break it down for them and make it less overwhelming," she says. "They also don't feel left out, and I don't have to slow down the rest of the class too much."

Belanger might also focus on one movement, like a six-step preparation for pirouette, and divide her class into groups based on experience. Dancers new to the movement work on a simple balance in passé so she can check their alignment. The ones who have already practiced the preparation might start working on single or double turns. "Everyone is moving at the same pace across the floor and still working at their individual levels," she says.

Know When to Hold Back—or Push Forward

Sometimes you might have students with focus issues combined with students who are progressing at a faster rate. Chew sees greater variances in mental, emotional, physical and social development with her minis and juniors. "Sometimes I'll pull the class back because I see the majority is struggling," she says. "Other times, the entire class moves forward because there are more kids who can keep up." If some haven't mastered a step but have a good understanding of the fundamentals, she lets them try to move ahead with the group.

In the summer, Chew experiences more mixed-level classes because students have the opportunity to start changing levels or taking more classes. "Dancers have been on vacation and others have been doing intensives, so I have to assess each class as it happens," she says. "I don't have a foolproof plan, but I try to stay adaptable."

Be sure to make the structure diverse enough in skill level to accommodate all students. "Approach the class so everyone is encouraged but also pushed appropriately," says Belanger. "No one wants to feel defeated or in over their head."

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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