Dance Teachers Trending

John Selya, Former Twyla Tharp Dancer, Brings His Passion to High-Schoolers in New Mexico

Selya in Movin' Out; by Joan Marcus, courtesy of the photographer

"I had no idea you could do that!" says John Selya to Taylor Johnson-French, a freshman who has just executed a fiercely intentional and riveting passage of improv. Zooming like an arrow down a hallway lined with giant, neon coral sculptures, she looked to be seeking a target with her focus and the precise lines and angles of her limbs.

"I didn't either!" Johnson-French responds.

This exchange is one of many moments of empowerment and facilitated self-discovery from Selya's first semester as the dance chair at New Mexico School for the Arts in Santa Fe, a public, statewide high school, where the arts disciplines (visual arts, music, theater and dance) are taught in daily three-hour intensives that follow the academic day. Founded as a charter school in 2010, the program is open to all students in New Mexico who qualify through a blind, competitive audition or portfolio admissions process.


Since taking the helm of the dance department, Selya has introduced a program of stylistic variety. In addition to ballet, students are exposed to subgenres of hip hop and various styles of contemporary and modern through the study of repertory. There are currently 23 students in the program, reflecting a range of previous dance exposure that includes everything from conservatory training to local studios to avid YouTube video watching.

"I want to empower my students to grow into dancers with a sense of artistic independence," says Selya. "When they graduate, I want them to be able to contribute in a professional context with confidence. Choreographers and directors these days will sit back and say, 'Show me what you have.' Dancers need to be able to bring their own strengths and ideas to the floor. By exposing the students to more stylistic variety I hope to help them recognize and cultivate their unique talents."

Trained at School of American Ballet, Selya danced with American Ballet Theatre for 11 years (at the invitation of Mikhail Baryshnikov) before joining Twyla Tharp Dance. He has been choreographing for his entire career and has received multiple awards and nominations.

He eagerly participated in outreach opportunities when they arose during his years with Twyla and went on to conduct residencies at LaGuardia High School, Youth America Grand Prix and university programs, including Princeton and Yale. He moved to New Mexico after the school recruited him and is currently receiving mentorship from longtime ballet instructor Sheila Rozann in working with adolescents.

"The transition from performing to teaching was really hard," he says. "As a dancer, you learn to trust and act on your instincts. To be an effective teacher you need a much longer perspective on what your students need in order to grow. It's a whole different skill set and way of thinking about the art of dance."


Photo by Sage Morris-Greene, courtesy of New Mexico School for the Arts

Selya watches his students perform at Meow Wolf, an interactive arts installation in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

​Photo by Gene Carl Feldman, courtesy of Come Fly With Me

Selya Rehearsing Tharp's Come Fly With Me

Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of the photographer

Selya in Movin' Out

The culminating performance of the fall semester took place at Meow Wolf, a unique fantasy world/interactive narrative arts installation in Santa Fe. The show was the result of a monthlong workshop in immersive performance. Students developed characters with complex backstories and movement vocabularies. Their performance was semi-improvisational as the dancers responded to each other and to visitors in the exhibition space.

"The Meow Wolf experience helped me get over a fear I've had for a while," says senior Violet Briggs. "I can feel a change in my attitude toward how I should be approaching dance and how I should take it in—not to fear it as a perfectionist but to take it seriously in a positive way. This realization has been a long time coming."

"I have felt myself grow so much as a dancer and had so many new experiences. It feels like I'm creating a new future for myself," says junior Magnolia Matishak. "I've started to choreograph material for myself and to feel more confident in what I show. It's helping me to find myself as a dancer."

This semester has been a serious challenge and growth experience for everyone," says Selya. "One of my biggest takeaways has been to give the dancers as many performance experiences as I can. When I first came in, I wasn't sure how much to do that. Without knowing them better, I was initially reluctant to push them in situations they weren't ready for. Now I realize they need every opportunity I can give them to grow as performers. They're rising to everything I've thrown at them. It's my job to challenge them and make sure they have the support they need along the way."

To Share With Students
Performing with Honji Wang at Jacob's Pillow; photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

Celebrated New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns has recently been exploring collaborative possibilities with dance artists outside ballet. Just this year she was guest artist with Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Company, and performed on Broadway in her husband Joshua Bergasse's choreography for I Married an Angel. This summer she appeared in a highly anticipated series of cross-genre collaborations at Jacob's Pillow, titled Beyond Ballet, with Honji Wang of the French hip-hop duo Company Wang Ramirez, postmodern dance artist Jodi Melnick, choreographer Christopher Williams and more. Here she speaks with DT about the effects of her explorations.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Aidan Gibney, courtesy of Lanzisera

Walking into Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles at 11:30 am on any given Tuesday or Thursday, you're likely to find a large group of dancers flocking to take Nick Lanzisera's class. Millennium's staff says his contemporary class is so popular, he often fills their rooms with up to 80 students.

Lanzisera, whose professional credits include The Oscars, The Grammys, the MTV Video Music Awards, High School Musical 2 and 3, Fame, Footloose and more, got his teaching start as a substitute for one of his mentors, Erica Sobol, at Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio. Though he didn't expect to become an educator until later in his career, Lanzisera enjoyed the experience so much that he began to sub in regularly. One of those classes was attended by a manager at Millennium, who invited him to teach their new contemporary class, and he has maintained the same Tuesday/Thursday slot for nearly eight years.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of SAYE

The Shawl-Anderson Youth Ensemble, a key component of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center's youth program in Berkeley, California, strives to develop the whole person, not just improve dance technique. And its caliber of performance has made SAYE visible and respected in the San Francisco Bay Area over the past 13 years.

As a pre-professional, audition-based, modern performance group for ages 14 to 18, SAYE has its dancers co-create at least six pieces with professional choreographers each year. These dances explore relevant topics for teens, like bullying, coming-of-age and claiming identity.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Risa Steinberg (center); photo by Alexandra Fung, courtesy of In the Lights PR

In an adult ballet class, Kimberly Chandler Vaccaro noticed a woman working so hard that her shoulders were near her ears. "I was going to say something about her tension, but I didn't want her awareness to go there," says Vaccaro, who teaches at Princeton Ballet School. Instead, she told the dancer to remember that breathing muscles are low, below her sternum. "Then we talked about moving from the shoulder blades first, and how they're halfway down your back. She started this lovely sequential movement, and it eventually solved the problem."

Drawing attention to symptoms, such as tense shoulders, might create more issues for a dancer if the cause of the problem remains unaddressed. Simply saying "shoulders down" might compromise alignment as the dancer tries to show a longer neck or forgets to breathe, jeopardizing movement quality. Teachers can be strategic and communicate information in a way that doesn't aggravate the situation. "Dance will never be easy," says master teacher Risa Steinberg, "but it can be easier if you're not folding new problems on top of old ones."

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Lindsay Martell at a class performance. Photo courtesy of Martell

More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:

"Is your daughter the dancer?"

"Actually," I say, "I am."

"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"

"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."

Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Any teacher who works with little ones knows that props can make class time run much more smoothly. That said, it's often difficult to find the right mix of tools that will both capture a child's attention and are manageable enough to carry around from one location to another—or pack up and store easily. Anything too big or too heavy is out, and some of the props you love to use with little ones may not be the most practical choice if you're a freelance teacher traveling to multiple studios throughout the week.

We asked two experienced teachers to share a couple of their favorite tips for easy-travel props for those who teach young ones. Here are five solid suggestions you can choose from, to incorporate into your overall teaching plans.

Keep reading... Show less
Instagram
Paige Cunningham Caldarella. Photo by Philip Dembinski

It's the last class of the spring semester, and Paige Cunningham Caldarella isn't letting any of her advanced contemporary students off the hook. After leading them through a familiar Merce Cunningham–style warm-up, full of bounces, twists and curves, she's thrown a tricky five-count across-the-floor phrase and a surprisingly floor-heavy adagio at the dancers. Now, near the end of class, she is reviewing a lengthy center combination set to a Nelly Furtado song. The phrase has all the hallmarks of Cunningham—torso twists atop extended legs, unexpected timing, direction changes—which means it's a challenge to execute well.

After watching the dancers go through the phrase a couple of times, Caldarella takes a moment to troubleshoot a few sticky spots and give a quick pep talk before having them do it again. "I know it's fast," she tells them. "I know it's a lot of moves. And you're hanging in there! But stick with the task of articulating everything—try to hyper-explore that."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Q: What tips do you have for creating end-of-year performances that teachers, students, parents and administrators will all be happy with?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Savion Glover instructs students in rehearsal for NJPAC's revival of The Tap Dance Kid; photo by Yasmeen Fahmy, courtesy of NJPAC

Tony Award–winning tapper Savion Glover is giving back to his hometown community in Newark, New Jersey, by directing and choreographing New Jersey Performing Arts Center's revival of the Broadway hit that launched his career, The Tap Dance Kid.

September 13–15, you can see the group of young dancers Glover handpicked from throughout the New Jersey and New York areas, as they bring the 1983 story to life in a new and modern way. Here, Glover shares a bit about creating movement inspired by the show's original Tony Award–winning choreography by Danny Daniels, as well as what it's like to revisit the show that changed his life.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Via YouTube

For all the time we spend talking about feet, we think it's time we did a deep dive into toes. Those little piggies bear a lot of weight, endure painful blisters and help your students soar across the classroom day after day.

So, to show our toes the love they deserve, here are five exercises that are all the self-care you need this week.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox