Lifetime Achievement Awardee Franco De Vita

How I teach ballet

In Franco De Vita’s class, less is more. Trim and poised, a neck scarf tucked neatly into his popped collar, he leads his Level 5 students through short, simple combinations, maintaining a brisk pace between exercises. He walks slowly among the barres, crisply clapping his hands to interrupt an exercise here, adjusting a head there. He avoids lengthy pontifications, preferring one or two pointed corrections laced with a touch of theatricality.

“Voilà!” he says as a student demonstrates a finished fifth position en bas, De Vita’s thick French accent making the moment remarkably authentic. “When the arm comes down, the upper body goes up, up, up!” The young dancers, ages 12 to 14, work earnestly, but not fearfully—De Vita knows how to sprinkle just the right amount of humor throughout his class to draw out smiles. The respect and affection between him and his students is palpable.

Since taking the helm of American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, De Vita has developed a national reputation for professionalism, efficiency and, above all, commitment. Yet his rise to director of one of the world’s top training institutions was slow and steady, steeped in 30 years of experience teaching pre-professional and recreational dancers alike. The ABT National Training Curriculum, which he co-authored along with longtime collaborator and curriculum artistic director Raymond Lukens, developed through decades of pedagogical work together. Since the NTC’s debut in 2007, De Vita’s teaching methods have had a nationwide impact on ballet instruction. This year, Dance Teacher honors him with its 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award.

A Reluctant Calling

Ironically, De Vita originally had no interest in teaching. Born in Italy, he trained with Hannah Voos at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique de Charleroi in Belgium and danced with several European companies, including the Ballet Royal de Wallonie, where Lukens was also a dancer. After chronic back pain forced De Vita to retire, he enrolled in hairdressing school. But the universe had other plans for him.

Brenda Hamlyn, who directed the Hamlyn School of Dance in Florence, Italy, invited both De Vita and Lukens to teach at her school. De Vita told her he wasn’t interested. “I wanted to cut with ballet,” he says. But she insisted, so he agreed to teach her advanced students for a week. Afterward, he still wasn’t sold, so Hamlyn suggested he try teaching a lower level. Although doubtful, De Vita nevertheless gave it a shot. “And then, something happened with the younger ones,” he says. “I really enjoyed it.”

His interest piqued, he attended the Cecchetti Society’s teacher-training program in London and joined Hamlyn’s faculty full-time, where he and Lukens eventually became school directors in 1983. There they taught students of all ages and abilities. “The audition process was basically a pulse and a purse,” says Lukens. Nevertheless, De Vita held his students to high standards. “He was tough. He demanded that they do it the way it should be done—but without making it oppressive. He didn’t force them to go into positions that their bodies couldn’t take.”

De Vita has changed very little in his pedagogical approach since then. “In Florence I was teaching the same way I teach at JKO,” he says. “I present the class like you are a professional—the students love that.” He firmly believes dance training should be slow and methodical; pushing too much too soon can be detrimental to a young dancer’s technique and physical health. “It’s important to look at the body of the student,” he says. “If a student is 12 but has the body of a 9-year-old, then don’t push the body too far. This is my big advice: Do everything gradually.”

BalletMet Dance Academy director Susan Brooker, a longtime friend and former faculty member at De Vita’s school in Italy, describes him as one of the best teachers she knows. “He has an incredible knack for putting exercises together in a manner that’s comparatively simple, but that prepares students of all ages and levels to be placed and on their legs,” she says, “with an emphasis on getting them off the barre and dancing.”

Indeed, De Vita’s JKO students are ready for center in 35 minutes. He often repeats the same barre for a week or so, allowing them to process one or two corrections at a time before adding more. “When there’s too much correction, you don’t know what to think about,” he says. His classes are meticulously prepared, designed to achieve daily, weekly and yearly curriculum goals as thoroughly and efficiently as possible. “I’m very organized,” De Vita says. “You can’t just improvise—you have to think about what you want to reach at the end of class, and from the barre you work on top of that.”

Leading the Way

In Florence, the early seeds of the NTC were planted when De Vita, Lukens and Brooker began developing their own curriculum. “It was a wonderful opportunity to develop our own philosophy of pedagogy, without outside pressures,” says Brooker.

At the invitation of then-director Kirk Peterson, De Vita joined the staff of the School of Hartford Ballet and helped revise its syllabus. Afterward, he joined the faculty at The Ailey School and the Ailey/Fordham BFA program before taking over as dean of faculty and curriculum at the Boston Ballet School.

In 2005, De Vita was invited to guest teach for the ABT Studio Company. Company director Kevin McKenzie observed and, impressed with De Vita’s deep knowledge and enthusiasm, tapped him to lead the newly formed JKO School. “Franco cares for the whole child,” says McKenzie. “He instills respect for the lessons the artform can teach young people about the nature of accomplishment—that achieving excellence is not easily won, but in striving for it, you learn a lot about yourself.”

The appointment also coincided with McKenzie’s desire to create a national training system for teachers. With the help of an artistic advisory panel and health professionals, De Vita and Lukens (who was appointed director of the ABT-affiliated master’s program at New York University) spent the next two years co-authoring the guidelines for ballet training, which incorporate elements from the French, Russian, Danish and Italian schools. “Every school has something to offer,” says De Vita. “Why not try to have the best of everything?” The goal was to produce well-trained, unaffected dancers who could easily adapt to classical, neoclassical and contemporary styles.

Since then, his JKO students have starting filling out the ranks of ABT, and McKenzie is impressed with the results. “They’re unusually versatile and adaptable to stylistic nuance,” he says. Skylar Brandt, an ABT corps member who trained with De Vita from the age of 12, says that one of his top priorities is purity of movement. “Franco always expressed that there was value in dancing cleanly—that two clean pirouettes have a greater effect than trying for a triple and falling out of it,” she says. “Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t push his dancers to do more. But they must do so without sacrificing quality.”

The response toward ABT’s teacher-training workshops, held throughout the year in New York and other cities, has been overwhelmingly positive. Dance educators are immersed in curriculum coursework, observe JKO classes and take examinations, which they must pass in order to receive ABT certification. Rather than dictating set exercises, the program offers guidelines and year-end goals that allow teachers to retain their own voice. Since the program launched in 2007, more than 1,200 teachers have become certified. “A lot of them say that after one or two years, they really see a difference in their school,” says De Vita.

The curriculum, he adds, will always be a work in progress. “There’s evolution in everything,” he says. He flips through the heavy NTC binder and smiles, noting that they can easily change a page if something isn’t working. “It’s the same as teaching—you never stop learning.” DT

Grace Ann Pierce, 13, is a Level 5 student at the JKO School at American Ballet Theatre. She is a seventh-grader at Professional Performing Arts School.

How I Teach Pas de Chat

When breaking down pas de chat, De Vita uses the method taught in the French school. “Most of the time, the big problem in pas de chat is that the back leg starts turning in before the action of the jump,” he says. Emphasizing retiré helps students consciously maintain their turnout as they pas de chat.

 

 

 

 

 

Begin in fifth position with the hands on the shoulders. “When I start teaching a step, I like to place the hands on the shoulders, like in Le Corsaire, because it really works the back,” says De Vita.

 

 

 

On count 1, demi-plié, looking over the shoulder toward the direction of the jump.

Make sure that the back leg never touches the front leg in plié (a sure sign of rolling in).

 

 

On count 2, lift the back leg into retiré, with the foot placed in front of the knee.

Maintain proper alignment in the pointed foot to avoid sickling.

 

 

 

On count “and-a-3,” push off the standing foot into a jump, lifting the second leg through a turned-out retiré position as you land the first leg before finishing in fifth-position plié. Make sure that the second leg does not turn in and kick out as it leaves the floor.

 

 

 

 Straighten the legs in fifth.

 

 

 

 

Adding the port de bras: Keeping the back engaged, lower the hands from the shoulders to create fourth-position en avant with the arms. Look over the shoulder toward the direction you are jumping, keeping the chest lifted.

 

 

 

In retiré, feel opposition as your knee pushes back and your shoulder pulls front.

Don’t let the shoulder lift up or roll forward.

 

 

 

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Photos by Kyle Froman

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?


The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."


Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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