In the Swing

For Joshua Bergasse, who teaches theater dance at Broadway Dance Center in New York City, jump sequences are the highlight of any routine. That much was evident in a recent class—from the way his smile expanded and his energy rose as he explained a series of sautés ending in a huge, turning jump with one knee bent and the other in second position.

Bergasse is not alone in his preference. Powerful jazz, contemporary, hip-hop and modern jumps explode both in the studio and onstage. Fortunately, the basic jump technique students learn in ballet classes will bolster their large jazz jumps, making classical training a must for all students hoping to achieve impressive—and safe—ballon (air time). But, while the underlying elements are the same for all jumps, the extra layers of theatricality, dynamism and musicality make for different challenges in jazzier genres.

DT talked to top jazz and musical theater instructors to learn more about mastering jumps outside of the ballet world. (Ballet jump technique, was covered in-depth in "Joyous Jumps" in the September 2008 issue.)

From the Ground Up

Just as in classical ballet technique, a jump's ballon, safety and comfort are highly dependent on the quality of the plié that precedes it. In Bergasse's words, "It's simple: A better plié equals a better jump."

Chris Hale, a fellow NYC teacher and dancer, notes that only when the plié is deep enough can a dancer's legs reach the full, straight length necessary to create beautiful lines during a jump. "The plié is one of the building blocks of a jump, as are truly straight legs—not hyper-extended and not bent—that come from it," he says.

Rebecca Blanchard, a NYC-based doctor of physical therapy, adds that the plié following a jump is no less important; using the bend in the knees to its full extent absorbs shock. "A correct plié allows the tissue to stretch upon landing and creates a natural rebound, like an elastic band," she says.

Since jazz, musical theater and contemporary dance jumps are often more forceful than feathery, Michéle Assaf, master teacher at BDC and President of Tezoro Productions emphasizes this point in her classes. "You can't sit in the plié. Hit the plié and then immediately rebound," says Assaf. "It's 'and a' timing, as in 'and a jump', instead of 'one, two, jump.'"

When it comes to the switch leaps, barrel jumps and stags synonymous with jazz, strength is another essential factor. In addition to utilizing a proper plié, students can achieve the force necessary to execute these larger jumps by activating the inner thighs, hamstrings and abs. "The quads are the breaks and when the inner thigh is engaged and rotating forward, it cradles the entire jump," explains Hale.

Blanchard agrees that the entire leg and its cumulative strength of the whole legs helps a dancer achieve a great jump, noting that there needs to be balance between the muscle groups of the upper and lower legs as well as the foot and ankle to avoid over stressing muscles and joints. "Dancers also should not underestimate the importance of hip and core strength," she adds.

With strength comes control—allowing dancers to release tension while in the air, creating the illusion of suspension. Assaf refers to a photo of dancer Desmond Richardson in a huge jeté to back up the point: "When jumping is done correctly, you can't see the effort in the air, because all of it has been expended while pushing off from plié, leaving the jump to look like floating," she says.

Momentum and Style

Bergasse believes that once dancers have mastered the basic elements of a proper plié, adequate muscle strength and foot technique (rolling through the foot, not pronating or suponating upon landing), momentum is what sets jazz jumps apart from ballet more than anything else. "You need momentum to go high and have the swing of jazz or theater involved," he says. "Momentum builds like a wave, and in jazz, where you have license to use this force, you should."

To create this momentum safely, Bergasse suggests hopping or marking a jump until the placement feels comfortable before attempting it with full force. Then he helps students add elevation followed by momentum. “You can build on the layers until it's perfected, because the first couple of times you try a new jump your feet are tangled. You need to understand the placement and landing position first," he says.

Bergasse then warns students not to place their newly found energy incorrectly by traveling out, instead of up, on a non-traveling jump. Doing so in jumps like axles or sautés can be dangerous for knees and ankles.

Blanchard takes this idea one step further, suggesting that teachers not approach difficult jumps at all until small jumps that land on two feet are completely mastered. The time spent on working on these simpler jumps is also an ideal opportunity to check that students tracking their knees over the feet, instead of letting them fall forward.

Hale agrees that new jumps should be approached with restraint, even if that means taking the force down a notch until movement is mastered. Then, to maintain that control, he says that dancers should never “run at” the jump or fling arms, which leads to both sloppy movement and injury-prone situations. Instead, he suggests that dancers try to always move arms through first position to a pose when possible.

Just as momentum is more acceptable in jazz, stylish, twisted and unusual jumps can make more of a lasting impression than traditional choices that audiences have seen time and again. "A lot of people continue to choreograph jumps like big Russians, and that's fine," Bergasse says. "But I like doing a double stag, with an arch in the back, while turning, because in jazz and theater, you can!" Even so, style and details should always be a conscious choice, not a habit—and simple jumps should be mastered first. "A lot of dancers can't take the affectations they've learned out of their jumps," he says. "With so many different choreographers, styles don't always cross over. You have to be able to strip that away and adjust."

Fortunately, once these issues are addressed, the joy of jazz jumps is readily achievable. As Bergasse explains, "In big jumps you don't have to fight yourself. Instead, you find the momentum, and through it, you find your power." DT

Lauren Kay is a former assistant editor of Dance Spirit, as well as a dancer and writer in New York City.

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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