It Takes a Village

High school dance teachers forge a collaborative model

Kathleen Flynn (front) and Michelle Perosi (right) lead class at Union County Vocational-Technical School Academy for Performing Arts.

For the past year, Michelle Perosi and Kathleen Flynn have donned hard hats as often as dance shoes. As dance teachers at Union County Vocational-Technical School Academy for Performing Arts, they have witnessed firsthand the construction of a state-of-the-art performance complex for the high school in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Slated for completion this month, the building’s careful balance of academic and performance space (it will house a theater, two dance studios and a sound recording studio, along with academic classrooms and a science lab) demonstrates the academy’s mission to provide specialized performing arts training in a rigorous academic environment.

An equal commitment to academics and artistic excellence has inspired more than the shape of the school’s new home. It has led the academy’s founders to build off-campus bridges linking students with professional dancers—and with a nearby university, where, through a unique agreement, the academy’s seniors can simultaneously earn high school and college credits.

Founded in 2008, the academy currently has 101 students, including 29 dance majors. Applicants must audition and are also evaluated based on grade point average and standardized test scores. “We want to prepare the whole child. That’s why we preach strong academics,” says principal Scott Rubin.

The first class of 47 dance and theatre arts students will be juniors this fall. Through an innovative agreement, they will leave campus for their senior year and take a full freshman college course load at nearby Kean University, including a concentration in their performing arts major. “It’s a great transition for college, and it will strengthen them dance-wise as well,” Flynn says. Though Kean does not offer a BFA in dance, Perosi and Flynn are putting their backgrounds in curriculum development (Perosi founded the full-time dance program at Ocean County Vocational-Technical School in 2001, and Flynn is former head of dance faculty at the Middlesex County School of Performing Arts in East Brunswick, NJ) to work with university administration to create a strong dance pathway within Kean’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.

With the help of a dedicated advisory board of performing arts professionals, the academy also gives students access to the professional dance world through an ongoing residency with the Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company. At least once a month, Artistic Director Carolyn Dorfman conducts a master class in modern dance technique and composition. She also sets pieces on the students and her company performs in the academy’s end-of-the-year concert. “To have the consistency of a residency that lasts all year is wonderful,” Flynn says. “Carolyn really knows our students. It’s like having an extended faculty.”

Perosi and Flynn would like to build on the idea of extended faculty by making connections to the area’s private dance studios. Academy dancers are encouraged to take 10 hours of dance class off-campus each week and Perosi and Flynn purposely schedule no rehearsals or classes after 3 pm, so that students can take classes at local studios. “We are not a threat to their programs,” says Perosi. “We are here to support what they do.”

Flynn and Perosi are excited about their roles in developing the program from its inception. “This is much different from being hired as a dance teacher somewhere and then being told what the philosophy is,” says Flynn. “Michelle and I are writing the curriculum and crafting the program. We want to teach the students to be artists. And the new building will be an artists’ home.” DT

 

Darrah Carr is a New York–based choreographer, educator and writer active in both the Irish and modern dance communities.

Photo by Dylan Scalora, courtesy of Union County Vocational-Technical School Academy for Performing Arts.

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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