Dance Teacher Tips
For dancing in heels, Quigley (right) prefers high boots. Photo courtesy of Quigley

Voguing will help any dancer sharpen her attention to detail and develop a confident performance quality. In this style, face-framing arm and hand movements are layered on top of different walks. House of Ninja founding member Archie Burnett likes to have students face the mirror and runway-walk forward, emphasizing clarity in every position. Here, he shows a basic phrase with sharp lines and angles. For each new arm position, take a step forward, crossing your legs at the thighs.

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Petipa choreographed Swan Lake in 1895, near the end of his career. (Photo by Natasha Razina, courtesy of the Mariinsky Theatre)

When Marius Petipa began his career as a choreographer with Russia's Imperial Theaters in 1847, he forever changed the face of ballet. He made more than 50 ballets, and many are still part of the classical repertory of ballet companies all over the world. His far-reaching influence includes a reimagining of the corps de ballet, which was until then little more than background decoration for the featured dancers. He also pioneered a new structural model for the pas de deux and demanded a higher technical standard from dancers.

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Dance Teacher Tips

In a sunny studio at Gibney Dance Center in New York City, Janet Panetta is gearing up to teach Ballet for Contemporary Dancers. She slips on her signature red ballet slippers while chatting with one of her students. At her feet, a tiny white Maltipoo bounds over to a dancer stretching on the floor. “She has a job," says Panetta about her dog, Lulu. “She does something really nice for people. She relaxes them."

Because her class draws a wide variety of dancers—from contemporary to jazz to burlesque—that sense of relaxation is paramount. “It's not terribly important for people in my class to do six pirouettes. I'm not interested in super-high extensions," she says. “I'm interested in the placement of the lines. I want them to be functional." Panetta's relaxed and supportive atmosphere, emphasizing healthy alignment and efficient movement, is a haven for today's contemporary dancers seeking to maintain their technique.

“When I started the class, it was called Ballet for Modern Dancers," says Panetta. “Then in the '90s, as contemporary dance became a new field, the content of the class changed. Contemporary dancers need something different than modern dancers need." Whereas once she focused on offering supplemental training to professionals in companies like Limón and Cunningham, now she caters to a broader group: dancers of all ages, backgrounds, skill levels and disciplines. “The dancer today doesn't know what kind of dancing they'll be doing," she says. “They really need to have this overall condition of their body that is healthy and functional, and enables them to do the many different tasks being asked of them."

Class exercises are simple, and there is plenty of room for exploration. During a balance in passé at the barre, Panetta has each student shift their rib cage off-center and then back on-center. She then has them hike their working hip up and lower it to feel the difference. “You want them to feel it," she says, “not look in the mirror, but really feel it."

A particular challenge for contemporary dancers, she notes, is working through feelings of inadequacy. “They have a great love for movement, but often, in their past ballet or other technical training, they've been injured. And I don't mean physically; I mean emotionally," she says. “I have to keep saying to them, 'Stop critiquing yourself. This is a small task I am asking you to do.'"

Her positivity never falters—nor does her wry sense of humor. “Often dancers don't know how easy ballet is," she says. “One of the things I like to say in class is, 'Ballet has been around forever. No one would have done it if it was that hard.'" DT

A native New Yorker, Janet Panetta trained at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School before dancing with American Ballet Theatre in the late '60s. From 1973 to 2010, she ran the Panetta Movement Center in Manhattan. Today, she teaches at Gibney Dance Center and The New School in New York City and has an active schedule abroad, at the Brussels-based contemporary dance school P.A.R.T.S and ImPulsTanz dance festival, and serving as a guest ballet master for Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal. She received a Martha Hill Dance Fund Mid-Career Award in 2008.

Eleanor Hullihan is a professional contemporary dancer in NYC.

Photos by Kyle Froman

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Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Kyle Froman

With serpentine fluidity, Nijawwon Matthews gives his intermediate contemporary jazz class at New York City's Broadway Dance Center a rundown of his warm-up sequence. His spinal undulations, spider-like finger articulations and seemingly infinite wingspan transform a relatively standard array of pliés, roll-downs, head rolls and stretches into something soulful. "Warming up is like being in a meditative state of mind," he says. "You're working from an internal place out to the external."

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Dance Teacher Tips
Participants in the Croi Glan Integrated Dance Training Workshop improvise a "satellite score." Photo by Rachel Caldwell

I recently had the pleasure of attending, not one, but two workshops on teaching integrative dance. The first was a six-day intensive in February with Cork, Ireland–based Croí Glan Integrated Dance Company. The second was a three-hour workshop last night with Oakland, California–based AXIS Dance Company. Both companies are made up of dancers with and without physical disabilities. In these workshops, I learned tools for teaching dance to physically and intellectually disabled populations. Here are some of the do's and don'ts.

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Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Kim Black

For some children, the first day of dance is a magic time filled with make-believe, music, smiles and movement. For others, all the excitement can be a bit intimidating, resulting in tears and hesitation. This is perfectly natural, and after 32 years of experience, I've got a pretty good system for getting those timid tiny dancers to open up. It usually takes a few classes before some students are completely comfortable. But before you know it, those hesitant students will begin enjoying the magic of creative movement and dance.

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Dance Teacher Tips
Many breaking moves require the upper body to bear weight. Photo by Kyle Froman

Pavan Thimmaiah casually hovers in a freeze, his weight between his head and hands on the floor, legs extending out on an upward diagonal. From this topsy-turvy position, he encourages his students to try this breaking staple. “Take a picture and make it your Facebook profile," he jokes.

Self-taught Thimmaiah founded PMT Dance Studio in New York City in 2001 to teach breaking in a classroom setting to students of all different backgrounds, levels and ages. By focusing on safe technique and catering to his students' diverse skill levels, he's built a loyal following of teen and adult b-boys and girls in his Breakin' 101 for Beginners class. “I think a lot of times in breaking classes, teachers want to fly around and show what they can do," he says. “I want to show the students what they can do."

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Dance Teacher Tips
Shamblin with her fifth-grade boys' class at Ballet Tech. Photo by Kyle Froman

“Let's build our houses together, gentlemen. Shall we?" Tammi Shamblin asks 20 fifth-grade boys at the top of ballet class, during the final week of Ballet Tech's summer program in New York City. “Is your body square, dragon tails down? Are your eyes looking out your vacation windows? Where do you want to go today?" Every boy stands at attention, ready to begin a series of pliés facing the barre. As they lift their heels and stretch their knees, Shamblin offers corrections like a modern-day Mary Poppins, brightly singing out images like “Sip your slurpee legs up!" and “Squish marshmallows under your heels!" to the rhythm of the accompanist.

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Dance Teacher Tips
LimĂłn, Lucas Hoving and Pauline Koner in LimĂłn's Symphony for Strings. Photo by Matthew Wysocki, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives
Roxane D'Orléans Juste has been dancing with the Limón Dance Company since 1983, and she is currently the associate artistic director of the company. Here, she teaches a successive fall-and-recovery phrase from the Limón technique.
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Gus Solomons jr includes this exercise in his warm-up, following an initial 10 minutes of floor work. The combination's constant plié-and-rise dynamic is designed to help students find the ease and weight of the pelvis. As in Cunningham technique, the top of the body moves independently from the bottom half.

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Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Kyle Froman

When Martine van Hamel burst onto the New York dance scene in the 1970s as a ballerina with American Ballet Theatre, she was a bit of an anomaly. At 5' 7", she was taller than most ballerinas at the time, but what really made her shine—in a company already filled with stars like Gelsey Kirkland and Natalia Makarova—was her immaculate technique, poignant interpretations of dramatic roles and extreme stylistic range. She could embody the fragile Odette in Swan Lake as convincingly as the sultry female lead of Twyla Tharp's Push Comes to Shove, a role created specifically for her. Her ascendance was astronomical: After just one year in the corps, she was promoted to soloist. Two years later, after a particularly brilliant performance of Swan Lake, she was promoted to principal.

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Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of Jill Randall

Recently I got to reflect on my 22-year-old self and the first modern technique classes I subbed for at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California. (Thank you to Dana Lawton for giving me the chance and opportunity to dive in.)

Today I wanted to share 10 ideas to consider as you embark upon subbing and teaching modern technique classes for the first time. These ideas can be helpful with adult classes and youth classes alike.

As I like to say, "Teaching takes teaching." I mean, teaching takes practice, trial and error and more practice. I myself am in my 23rd year of teaching now and am still learning and growing each and every class.

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