It’s only a few moments before Leah Cox will begin teaching at the American Dance Festival winter intensive in New York City, and she has just confessed that she doesn’t quite know what will happen. This isn’t a standard technique class, where the typical pattern will do—warm-up, center work, culminating phrase. Solo Forms is a unique offering of the intensive designed by Cox, during which students create a one-minute solo. For the next hour and a half, Cox will casually blow the students’ minds by asking them to write and draw, and to question their assumptions about making movement—all while delivering a running commentary that includes concepts like inertia and stasis, particles and waves, cinematic jump cuts and a “Seinfeld” reference or two. It soon becomes clear that what she’s really doing is supporting 27 strangers as they expose their private creative processes.

It isn’t surprising that Cox is a thinker as well as a mover. Her career trajectory reflects that: The former member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company (2001–09) gave up performing in her prime, when she felt the irresistible call to education. Since then, she’s headed an education program for Jones’ company; organized a partnership between the company and Bard College in upstate New York; and joined the permanent dance faculty at Bard. Now 40, Cox is set to approach her newest undertaking, dean of ADF, with the same strengths that have always served her well: curiosity, thoughtful planning, an ever-present love of teaching and her own (not inconsiderable) experience.

From Performer to Educator

Growing up outside of Houston, Texas, Cox was more serious about piano than dance, until she realized her crippling stage fright would make a career as a concert pianist impossible. After recalibrating her focus on dance while in high school, she spent her senior year enrolled in the University of North Carolina School of the Arts ballet program. Then, at Texas Christian University, she became an active part of the modern dance program while majoring in philosophy and minoring in religion. “College gave me a lot,” she says. “I was so thankful for having done all of that academic work, because I find it to be such a part of my teaching and my identity as a dancer. I’m convinced it’s why I got the job working with Bill—with him, it was, ‘Yeah, you kind of have to have some ideas about things.’”

Cox spent nearly a decade dancing in Jones’ company, until she had the unsettling realization that she had become too comfortable. “There was a moment when I was performing and thought, ‘You know what? You’ve figured this out for yourself. You’ve figured out how to go to class every day, how much time you need to spend resting, how to honor Bill’s work. You figured out how to perform and do your best there,’” she says. “It was all becoming a little familiar—and a little selfish.” That was the moment she realized she wanted to teach.

Soon after her epiphany, Bard College approached Jones about forming a partnership with the Bill T. Jones company, which would be in residence at the school. Jones put Cox in charge of the program, which offered Bard dancers regular technique, repertory and composition classes with company members. Cox quickly grew to love her new role (despite the two-hour commute between her New York City apartment and the campus).

“She has a very good eye,” says Janet Wong, associate artistic director of Jones’ company. “She can see ahead toward a goal: What does this person need to develop into that? She can take her own goals as a teacher and translate that into a curriculum.” That part of teaching was particularly appealing to Cox: “It was really fun to figure out, ‘What should we teach of Bill’s works? How do we get it across? Who’s a really great teacher?’” she says. When the partnership ended in 2015, Cox stayed on as associate professor at Bard, teaching technique and composition—a position she continues to hold.

Participants of ADF winter intensive class, Solo Forms, write, draw and question their assumptions.

Like Coming Home

In 2013, ADF director Jodee Nimerichter invited Cox to apply for the job of associate dean, to work under Gerri Houlihan, who would be leaving in 2014. It was a dream come true for Cox, who was in residence at the festival to restage a Bill T. Jones work for the students. “I immediately kept thinking, ‘This is the job for me. I have to have this job,’” she says.

She’d participated in the Durham, North Carolina–based festival—one of the country’s oldest summer dance schools, known for its Six Week School, a technique and repertory program that enrolls about 300 students each summer—in practically every role possible. First, as a college student in the summer of 1996; then, as a performer with Jones’ company; later, as a teacher and répétiteur of Jones’ work; and, finally, as an MFA candidate at Hollins University. “Every time I went to ADF as a teacher or a performer, it was: ‘I love this place. It just makes me so happy,’” she says. “I hadn’t felt that kind of drive or light like I did for this job since I first auditioned for Bill.”

Nimerichter immediately thought of Cox for the position of dean. “What I love is how well-versed she is in the field today—what techniques and classes could be the most advantageous to propel our students forward,” she says. “Her curiosity is amazing. She wants to share information not just in the classroom but to have open dialogues about all kinds of things.” Cox spent a year learning the ropes and officially became dean of ADF in August 2015.

 

With an Eye Toward the Future

“So much of what I do at ADF is facilitating experiences for other people, where I can see them getting really excited,” says Cox. “How do we get this amazing group of people together, and how do they share what they want to share? What do they want to teach? OK, so queer theory is important right now? How do we give the students and teachers moments to exchange about that? And who’s the best person to lead it?” During her first summer as dean, Cox will teach, too—a selective composition class called Choreolab. “It’s important that I stay connected to the students,” she says, “and that they know who the dean is—not just as the person walking around programming, but as someone who teaches.”

 

By the end of class, each dancer has made a one-minute solo.

As dean, one of her biggest concerns, ever mindful of the tradition of ADF, is to push the festival forward. “I want to keep making sure that we’re offering students what the range is in the field, in terms of training, and a sense of the past. But also really preparing them for what contemporary dance practice is now,” she says. She’s converting to an audition-based enrollment for the three-week program for high schoolers. Too many students arrived unprepared for the rigor of the program, having taken dance only a couple times a week during the school year. “I would say maybe 25 percent of the dancers we were getting were meeting the minimum standards for technique—now we’re making sure they’re fulfilling them,” says Cox.

She is also committed to keeping ADF competitive in an oversaturated summer festival market. In addition to intensive training and performing, part of her plan is to give students more opportunities to produce work. She noted that a growing number of dancers were eager to create and show their own choreography during festival downtime. “We added four student concerts last year, because otherwise students would self-produce their work—like, ‘Show up at 11 pm,’” she says. “And we filled up those four concerts with no problem. That’s almost 40 students wanting to make their own work!”

Cox seems to get the most joy out of something surprisingly simple: seeing students eager to learn and share their enthusiasm. As her class at the winter intensive nears its end, the 27 students are no longer timid or hesitant—they’re offering feedback, sharing thoughtful observations, cheering each other on. “To see people come out of class—they’re so excited!” she says. “That’s the thing I wanted. You never see it as a performer—you go out the stage door, and people look at you like you’re the odd thing that was onstage and they’re kind of afraid to talk to you. But this—oh my god, I love this!” DT

Rachel Rizzuto is an assistant editor for Dance Teacher and a modern dancer and choreographer in NYC.

Photography by Jim Lafferty

Don't miss a single issue of Dance Teacher.

The Conversation
Studio Owners
Thinkstock

Costumes are one of the most important parts of your annual recital and competition routines, yet the process of choosing what your dancers will wear, measuring them accurately and ordering your selections can be fraught with second-guessing. We compiled your questions and asked the experts—the costume companies, that is—for their frank advice and guidance.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
From left: Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet; Michael Curley, Courtesy Cincinnati Zoo.

Yesterday Cincinnati Ballet announced an exciting addition to this year's Nutcracker cast: a character based on Fiona, the world's most famous hippopotamus.

Fiona was born at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in January 2017. Six weeks premature, she weighed only 29 pounds at birth as opposed to the standard 55-120, and required round-the-clock care from dedicated zoo staff. Cincinnati Children's Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit even got involved. The zoo chronicled her progress on Facebook, creating the heart-warming Fiona Show (see the first episode below). The baby hippo's story went viral, winning hearts in Cincinnati and around the world.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Cheyenne Murillo and her partner Sasha Altukhov at Millennium Dancesport Championship. Photo courtesy of Murillo

It seems everyone is trying to break into the ballroom scene these days, and we don't blame them—it's ALL kinds of fabulous!

But getting started can seem overwhelming for everyone involved. Whether you're a studio owner looking to implement a new ballroom program or a student looking to get started, you're likely to have A LOT of questions.

To help, we've talked with Cheyenne Murillo, U.S. Open Pro Rising Star Champion and teacher at Strictly Ballroom in Orem, Utah, to answer five questions every aspiring professional is sure to have.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
"In part, I became a teacher because I felt the need to help others dance," says Slattery (center in all black). "Working on this project has been so fulfilling, and I look forward to it each week." Photo courtesy of Orlando Ballet

A year ago, Orlando Ballet School offered a weekend workshop called "Come Dance With Us." The pilot program was designed for children with physical special needs and disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus, brittle bone disease and a variety of conditions that require children to wear braces or use walkers and wheelchairs.

The workshop was such a positive experience that the school expanded it to 10 weeks. Recently, I was given the opportunity to teach within the program. To my surprise, the students were capable of participating in ways I wouldn't have expected.

In a short time, I've been so impressed with the children's ability to modify movement, not to mention the joy and incredible spirit the students bring to class each week. It has been an extremely valuable experience for me as a teacher, and I have learned a great deal working with these inspiring kids.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jacqueline Connor, courtesy of Nowakowski

In 2015, Houston Ballet demi-soloist Jim Nowakowski made a shocking career about-face when he soared into the heart of pop culture and made Top 6 on Season 12 of "So You Think You Can Dance." The commercial world was taken by his flawless technique and perfect lines, while at the same time classical dancers were surprised by his choice to leave a coveted position with Houston Ballet. He was an enigma—and now he's done it again. He has recently returned to ballet company life and is well into his second season with BalletMet.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Last Wednesday was National Stress Awareness Day, and all day we couldn't stop thinking about dance teachers.

Whether it's helping your students cope with anxiety caused by the pressures of our industry, unpacking your own anxiety caused by a lifetime in this industry or simply just managing the day-to-day stresses that come with teaching, you are dealing with a lot of stress, and we want to help.

Dance Teacher caught up with a Pacific Northwest Ballet School consulting psychologist Toby Diamond to get some professional advice on how to deal with anxiety. She gave a teacher's seminar at PNB on this subject earlier this year.

Try out some of her tools, and see how they can benefit your health and the health of your students!

Good luck! We're rooting for you!

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Shelby Williams via @biscuitballerina

Fall is arguably the best season of the year, and "Falling Fridays" are arguably the best day of the week on the @biscuitballerina Instagram page. So, we thought it was only fitting that we combine the two "bests" for a fall-tastic post today!

Heaven bless @biscuitballerina for making us laugh day in and day out. SHE. IS. EVERYTHING.

Get ready to laugh 'til you cry, ladies and gentleman.

There's just nothing that can hit your funny bone like watching dancers eat it!

Keep reading... Show less
A still from the new documentary, DANSEUR. Image courtesy DANSEUR

According to the new documentary DANSEUR, 85% of males who study dance in the United States are bullied or harassed. A quote in the film from Dr. Doug Risner, faculty member at Wayne State University, states, "If this scope of bullying occurred in any activity other than dance, it would be considered a public health crisis by the CDC."

So why is it allowed to persist in ballet? And why aren't we talking about it more? These are the questions that DANSEUR seeks to answer. But primarily consisting of dance footage and interviews with male dancers like ABT's James Whiteside, Houston Ballet's Harper Watters and Boston Ballet's Derek Dunn, the film only addresses these issues superficially, with anecdotes about individual experiences and generalizations about what it's like to be a male dancer.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

A: For those with more music training or tech savviness, I recommend using Apple's GarageBand. For anyone who's not quite ready to create a song from scratch, I recommend trying a program called Incredibox

Keep reading... Show less
Mia Michaels has learned the power of inspiring those she works with. Here, rehearsing Rockettes. Photo courtesy MSG

Dancers are human, which means they're bound to make mistakes from time to time, both on and off the stage. But what happens when those mistakes burn bridges? In an industry so small, is it possible for choreographers and performers to recover?

In a moment of vulnerability, three-time Emmy Award winning choreographer Mia Michaels opened up to Dance Magazine about some of the bridges she herself has burned, the lengths she's gone to in order to rebuild and the peace she's made with the new direction her career has taken because of them. —Haley Hilton


Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Stacey Tookey and student at Camp Protégé via @sjtookey on Instagram

There are certain dance teachers out there who have a gift for making students feel loved, cared about, capable, encouraged and inspired—all at the same time. They're beautiful sparks of light in the midst of this competitive and at times exhausting industry.

Three of those special souls happen to have a gigantic reach through conventions and television, and have somehow made each and every one of us feel like they're our second moms. Don't believe me? Go take (or observe) class from anyone of them and then try to tell me they don't love you as their own!

Check 'em out below, and then share a time one of them said something that made you feel important and validated!

xoxo

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored