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Joelle Cosentino Wants Her Pre-Professional Students to Be Good Humans

Cosentino and her students pose for a photo after a performance in New York City. Photo by Kyla Dodd, courtesy of Cosentino
Joelle Cosentino is on a mission to shake up dance education with an alternative model for pre-professional training. Because she turned her competition dance background into a star-studded career (she's worked with Beyoncé, Mick Jagger and Lenny Kravitz), you might think her teaching goals would include a quest for rhinestones and first-place trophies. But by the time she became a teacher, Cosentino had become disillusioned with competition dance. "It had become so expensive," she says. "Parents were getting sucked into endless routines and unreasonable hours." She believed there was a better way, and to that end she created Z Artists Group—a New York City–based collective for pre-professional training with an emphasis on performance and advocacy.

The 20 junior-high- and high-school-aged dancers that she hand-selects each year for the company have performed at the Guggenheim, The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, The Joyce Theater and The UN General Assembly. They have also traveled to India, Cuba and Italy as part of their training. Their weekly schedule includes working with faculty such as Katy Spreadbury, Jason Williams, Miles Keeney and James Kinney. Guest faculty have included such stars as Emma Portner and Noel Bajandas.

To set the right tuition, Cosentino researched standard rates for suburban competitive dance studios nationwide, then cut the result in half. "Our school has a flat tuition rate that is paid monthly, and beyond that, everything is funded through donations. Private donors finance travel, and we use donations to offer scholarships to dancers who can't afford tuition."

The developing artists of Z Artists Group are also expected to advocate for a charitable cause. "Our kids each have a charity they are passionate about," Cosentino says. For example, one dancer chose to focus on Alzheimer's awareness this past year, and the troupe held an intergenerational dance class to help support the cause. "I want these dancers to understand what's going on in the world and decide what's important to them," she says. "I want them to be good humans. I'm not raising dancers to stand at the barre and hope that one day someone will tell them they're good enough. I want them to be confident, to go out there and make work they care about, to make their own decisions and to advocate for the kind of careers they want."

MUST-HAVE TEACHING ATTIRE "I'm always wearing Bandier. They have the freshest and best selection of activewear. I'm also always in Apolla Shocks. They really give you the support you need."

GO-TO AFTERNOON ENERGY BOOST "I am so ashamed to say this, but I drink sugar-free Red Bull or Clean Cause yerba mate (50 percent of their profits go toward helping recovering addicts) before I teach."

FAVORITE BREAKFAST "I like to go to this little place on 25th Street in New York City called Sullivan Street Bakery—they make the best egg sandwiches!"

MUST-READ BOOK "My favorite book is The Fountainhead. It taught me a lot about being an individual with integrity."

SKIN-CARE OBSESSION "I am obsessed with FADED [an anti-inflammatory bruise cream by Post Love Skincare]. I use it on all of my bruises after class."

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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