It’s Not a Popularity Contest

Ballet may never be the first love of your competition dancers, but they can learn to like it.

Kelly Burke’s competition dancers took 2015 Best Ballet Performance at The Dance Awards.

At Westchester Dance Academy in Mt. Kisco, New York, lyrical class starts with a warm-up in center. Owner and artistic director Kelly Burke plays music by artists like Adele as she leads students through a progression of pliés, tendus and ronds de jambe en l’air. She gives the dancers a ballet barre in a nonballet setting. “Kids who don’t want to be ballerinas are still getting the foundation they need,” says Burke. “They’re just getting it in a style that interests them the most.”

Teaching ballet at a competition studio can be a daunting task. It can be a struggle to fit ballet into an already packed schedule, especially when students prefer working on contemporary, hip-hop and jazz routines. Dancers might show little interest in ballet even though the classical training boosts their technical ability, artistry—and competition scores. Yet despite these challenges, it is possible to ensure that they get the right ballet foundation. Teachers can inspire and engage them with a creative approach, positive attitude and immersive format that reaches beyond the ballet class.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Students need more than one class a week to develop an understanding of ballet basics. Burke sets a minimum for her competition students: Dancers under the age of 12 must attend two 1 1/2–hour classes, while older students are required to take three classes plus pointe. This formula works at Westchester Dance Academy, where students routinely take home trophies—in ballet—from Nationals, including New York City Dance Alliance and The Dance Awards. “I would love to have ballet every single day,” says Burke, “but not with these kids going to school and wanting to compete in every single form. There’s no way.”

To compensate, she incorporates some ballet into every class. Whether they’re taking lyrical, contemporary or jazz, dancers are always working on some aspect of ballet technique. “Every warm-up in every class has all the elements of a full ballet barre.”

Judy Rice (shown here with University of Michigan students) brings personality and precision to ballet class.

Move Slow to Go Fast

In ballet class, teachers might feel the need to rush through combinations in order to keep the students’ attention. But moving at a slow pace can actually generate more enthusiasm. Judy Rice often recruits dancers from her convention classes to audition for the University of Michigan dance program, where she is an associate professor. She recently taught a three-hour class that never got off the barre. “They’re learning to do things accurately,” she explains, “and then they see how ballet helps them achieve stronger technique scores.” Were the students in this marathon class engaged? Absolutely, she says. “I deliver it in a way that’s exciting for the kids.”

For one thing, she breaks everything down in a logical way, talking about anatomy, alignment and symmetry. She has a dancer do tendu side with her right leg, for example, not holding the barre. Then she asks her student to lift her foot off the floor. “If she can’t hold it and has to put her foot down, I’ll tell her it’s because her left hip wasn’t lifted enough. I make the student say what the problem is as she fixes it.” Asking the students to speak out loud helps them understand the physicality. “I get so excited when it’s right, which is infectious to them,” she says. “They understand what’s wrong and they can fix it. It gets really fun to be specific and make minute changes. The strategy is immediately successful.”

Grab Their Interest—and Keep It

Students might show more interest and develop an appreciation for ballet when they see how it relates to their favorite styles of dance. Lyrical dancers might like doing adagio. Jazz and tap dancers might have more fun executing a fast petit allégro combination with playful rhythms. “Acknowledge their strengths,” says Rice. “I told one dancer she was really musical and asked the other dancers to follow her. Turns out she was an amazing tap dancer.”

Rice also has young students skip around the barre and has been known to stop older students mid-class for a series of jumping jacks. “When I see their eyes glaze over and they just can’t stand still any longer, I do something to get their blood flowing.” She also rewards students with a fun, “big foo foo” class (sweeping waltzes, easy turns and a buoyant grand allégro) at the end of the week if they’ve been working really well. “If kids feel good, then they’ll love what they’re doing and are willing to go back to the specifics.”

Westchester Dance
Academy’s Kayla Mak was named National Miss Junior Onstage New York, 2015.

Let Them Discover the Ultimate Payoff—Results

Dawn Rappitt, director of Elite Danceworx in Markham, Ontario, puts ballet classes first on her class schedule. “It’s important for dancers to see how different their bodies feel and operate in other classes after they’ve already done ballet as a warm-up,” she says. To encourage students to get more ballet hours, Rappitt allows them to take other classes below their levels, free of charge. She also makes sure that her dancers do a full barre together before each competition. “When they arrive, it’s just part of the process,” she says. Ballet has become a consistent routine whether the dancers are on the road or at the studio.

Dancers get really excited when they see a difference in their competition routines, and parents notice the improvement, too. “It’s very much part of the culture within our studio,” says Rappitt, who took home the Studio of the Year Award from The Dance Awards in 2014. “I made the decision to put the focus on ballet as its own entity. We don’t treat it as a necessary evil.” As a result, students at Elite Danceworx are never late for ballet—even if they’ve just had another class. And, perhaps even more telling: Ballet class is never canceled in favor of working on the jazz number. “If it’s important to me,” says Rappitt, “it’s important to them.”

Elite Danceworx’s advanced company performed “Grand Pas” from Raymonda at The Dance Awards in 2014.

“Kids start to love it the more they do it. They also see how it changes their bodies,” she says. Lines are longer, spines are straighter and muscles are more defined. “It’s really nice to have 12-year-olds saying they need a ballet class when they get home from a convention or competition weekend,” she says. “Putting ballet first has really made a big impact, because they have a more disciplined approach and a stronger work ethic. And the kids are not going to be limited. They’ll have the tools they need to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them.” DT

Julie Diana retired from Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014. She and her husband Zachary Hench now direct Juneau Dance Theatre in Alaska.

Photos from top: by Rachel Papo; by Peter Smith; by Rachel Neville Photography, courtesy of Westchester Dance Academy; courtesy of Elite Danceworx

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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