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
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance teachers have a lot of strengths (communicating corrections, choreographing gorgeous movement, planning excellent recitals, cleaning technique—just to name a few) but when it comes to interior design—talent isn't exactly a given. So when studio owners remodel or build, worrying about the decor can feel a little overwhelming (you've got just a few too many other things to worry about, don't you?).

No need to fear! In 2019 we have Pinterest, which shows us all the latest trends we should know about. To help you make the best design decisions for your studio, we've compiled a list of public Pinterest pins we think you'll love.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Vanessa Zahorian. Photo by Erik Larson, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet Academy

At the LINES Ballet Dance Center in San Francisco, faculty member Erik Wagner leads his class through an adagio combination in center. He encourages dancers to root their standing legs, using imagery of a seed germinating, so that they feel more grounded. "Our studios are on the fifth floor, so I'll often tell them to push down to Market Street," says Wagner. "They know that they should push their energy down to the street level." By using this oppositional force, he says, dancers can lengthen their bodies to create any desired shape.

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

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

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

After years of throwing summer parties at your studio, you're likely fatigued by coming up with themes and event details. You want your students to have a good time, but you're also up to your eyeballs in choreography and costume decisions.

Never fear! We've come up with party themes and activities to do during the event. Delegate tasks to your teachers and office managers, and voilà! You have a stress-free party ready to go.

Have a blast, people!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I recently returned to a modern dance class after a long absence. While I didn't feel any acute pain at the end of class, the next morning I could barely walk from the soreness in both my Achilles. What can I do to fix this?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Q: I'm trying to think of ways to maximize studio space and revenue during the summer. What has worked for you?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

In 2019, dance parents are more eager than ever to observe their child's progress, and stay up-to-date with the ins and outs of what's happening in the classroom. That means yearly recitals aren't always enough to keep them satisfied—especially if you have rules against visitors observing class from week to week. The solution? Visitor observation weeks. Trust us, the guardians and loved ones of your students will love you for it!

We caught up with Suzanne Blake Gerety, vice president of Kathy Blake Dance Studios and regular contributor to Dance Teacher's "Ask The Experts" column, to hear her tips on how to have a successful visitor observation week.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Adequate dorsiflexion mobility is needed to find a supple demi-plié needed to bound into the air and land safely. Getty Images

Dancers are trained to think often about the range of motion, stability and power of their extended lines: the point of the foot, the reach of the penché, the explosion of the sauté in the air. But finding that same mix of flexibility and strength in the flexed foot is just as integral to technique and injury prevention. Without adequate dorsiflexion mobility, it is nearly impossible to find the kind of supple demi-plié needed to bound into the air and land safely.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox