With a career spanning nearly six decades, Liz Lerman has been questioning and testing the boundaries of dancemaking and education her whole life. She is known for building communities, working with dancers of all ages and abilities and creating works that explore topics like the human genome, particle physics and the defense budget.

Earlier this month, at The Jacob's Pillow 85th-anniversary season opening gala, Lerman was honored with the festival's 2017 Dance Award. This summer she'll also be honored as American Dance Festival's 2017 Balasaraswati/Joy Anne Dewey Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching.


ADF dean Leah Cox says this award acknowledges the ways in which Lerman teaches through her artistic practice. "It's not living just inside the studios; it bleeds into people's lives," Cox says. She first experienced Lerman's teaching at a Dance Exchange Summer Institute. "She blew my mind. She teaches nondancers how to feel in the ways that dancers do, connecting them with their bodies."

The idea of "turn discomfort into inquiry" has been a through-line that began with Lerman's formative dance education. "My training began classically in ballet, but a teacher of mine had choreography workshops every other Saturday where I was given opportunities with freedom and experimentations," Lerman says. In those early stages, even at 14, she felt like she was beginning her process of questioning.


Lerman's Healing Wars. Photo by Teresa Wood/Arena Stage, courtesy of ADF


Lerman founded the Dance Exchange in 1976 in Washington, DC, and led the company for 34 years before passing it on to a new generation (with Cassie Meador as artistic director). The company's school enabled Lerman to explore new approaches to dance education. "Questions were coming up for me," she says, "like 'Why is there only one teacher in a room with 30 to 40 bodies all carrying their own knowledge?'" She brought together those based in somatics, African dance and other modern techniques, to exchange practices and teaching.

In 2016, she took a new role: the first Institute Professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. In her creative research lab there, she gives her students opportunities to work across disciplines and encourages them to be fearless about their subject matter choices.

Lerman has impacted the field of dance and education with her open-source approach to the techniques and tools she's cultivated over the years. The Atlas of Creative Tools, an ever-growing collection of creative practices, includes her own methods and those of DX alumni and artists and is encouraged to be used, repurposed and adopted by other artists worldwide.

Her Critical Response Process, a four-step process for giving and receiving useful feedback, has become a staple in arts education in the U.S. and abroad. "She has almost single-handedly given us the gift of figuring out how to talk about work in a way that is helpful to the artists," says Cox. "There is not a conference that I go to, in all of my touring of universities and colleges, that is not aware of and employing her process, because it works."

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As a dance teacher, chances are you strive daily to be a great role model for your students—cheerful, enthusiastic and motivating, offering plenty of positive reinforcement as well as a sense of clear control over your classroom. But what happens when your personal life gets in the way of those good intentions?

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Name calling, physical intimidation and cyberbullying are all-too-common experiences among male dancers. Photo by Goh Rhy Yan/Unsplash

Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.

"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "

A different classmate, who often called Russo "Dancing Queen," would lurk near the cafeteria doors each day at lunchtime, hoping for an opportunity to corner him. "I'd find ways to exit the cafeteria at the same time as a teacher, or go as far as walking out through the kitchen and reentering the building somewhere else," Russo admits.

Anthony Russo was called names like Bojangles, Twinkle Toes and Dancing Queen while growing up. Photo by Christopher Erk, courtesy Russo.


His experience is sadly similar to what many male dancers endure throughout their training and careers: name calling, physical intimidation, cyberbullying, sometimes even death threats.

Although girls, too, can be bullying victims, it's far less common, as our culture views dance as a more acceptable activity for them to pursue. Boys who dance are frequently stereotyped as gay and mocked for participating in what many consider to be a feminine art.

As conversations about bullying heat up throughout the country, with the role of social media and the effects on adolescent mental health emerging as related concerns, there's no better time to consider what the dance world can do to help male students of all ages feel safe and accepted.

Teachers Can Make a Difference

Many male dancers agree that positive adult role models are essential for bullying prevention. Dancer and choreographer Chris Bell, who remembers being incessantly called a "faggot" throughout middle and high school in San Antonio, Texas, says he channeled his anger into his school work, focusing on excelling academically.

Now a performer with Eryc Taylor Dance and dendy/donovan projects, he realizes how necessary it is for teachers—both in academic schools and dance studios—to speak up.

Chris Bell says teachers need to stop bullying in its tracks. Photo by Craig Macleod, courtesy Bell.


"The second that you hear anything demeaning or demoralizing, stop it and talk about it," he says. "You have to acknowledge that it's wrong, explain why it's wrong and then move on."

The message is especially effective if teachers work in schools that support dance as part of the curriculum. "The dance world should get into public schools, especially younger grades, to show what both men and women do in the dance world—any kind of dance," says Andy Jacobs, a modern/contemporary dancer and choreographer in New York City. "It's all going to open up their eyes and show them there's no boundaries to what you can like."

Dance Should Be Introduced More Like a Sport

Tap dancer Leo Lamontagne, assistant director at North Andover School of Dance and former company member with Chicago's Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, asks what would happen if dance were treated more like sports in school. "What if dance were introduced at the same age that basketball was? What if dance were used to teach gross motor skills?" he asks. "Bullies are intimidated by what they don't understand, so it's up to us to educate not just dancers but also non-dancers on what dance can be."

"So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Peter Sabasino suggests creating more performing arts schools altogether. "Then more kids would look at dance as a cool thing to do," he says.

Peter Sabasino suggests more performing arts schools could help dance look "cooler" among kids. Photo by Matthew Carby, courtesy Sabasino.


We Need More Role Models

More male ambassadors in popular culture could also help. "We could certainly use another Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire to show how cool dance is, not just showing hip-hop dancers as cool or men as strippers, like in Magic Mike," says Todd Shanks, an artist in residence at Dean College. "Honestly, though, dance doesn't have to be masculine to be cool. Talent doesn't have a sexual preference."

Todd Shanks feels another Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly could show that men dance, too. Photo courtesy Dean College/Paladino School of Dance.


But maybe we don't have to wait for a dance celebrity: Young men can also be role models for each other. "We need to expose boys to other male dancers, not just the professionals," Lamontagne says. "We need to come together to support our boys to support one another."

He suggests that competitions and conventions offer classes exclusively to boys, as all-male classes can sometimes be impossible in many small communities, where few male students are in attendance.

That is exactly the idea behind the Male Dancer Conference, launched last year by the founders of online dancewear store Boys Dance Too. The event gives boys a chance to be surrounded by their peers in classes led by role models like Sascha Radetsky and Alex Wong.


Similarly, Earl Mosley's Hearts of Men intensive offers two weeks of training and networking for male dancers. The National Dance Education Organization also held a symposium last year for teachers of male students to address how dance can attract more boys.

Power in numbers, after all, may be a valuable tactic. Bell points out that all dancers who are bullied have something in common—a shared experience that has made them stronger. "These experiences help you to become a better, more enriched person," he says. "A lot of the kids who bully want some kind of essential quality that you have. They want the freedom that you already have to do what you love."

Showstopper's National Finals Opening Number Performance

Showstopper has been making its impact on the dance world since 1978. Before then, dancers didn't have a stage to perform on, the opportunity to learn from peers, or a competitive outlet like most sports. Debbie Roberts recognized this missing piece in the dance community and that is how America's first and longest running dance competition, Showstopper, was born. Debbie taught dance for over 26 years and owned and operated her own dance studio for 20 years. She is now the owner and National Director of Showstopper, along side her husband, Dave Roberts. Dancer, teacher, business owner, author, and mother, Debbie has made dance her life's career.

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Dance Teacher Tips
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As teachers and studio owners, your lives are full of stressors—everything from harried recital weeks to curriculum overhauls to building-maintenance issues, not to mention addressing the needs and concerns of all your students and parents. How you view and cope with a stressful situation can have a direct influence on how you experience it.

You already know it's important to eat right, exercise and get good sleep to keep yourself from feeling run into the ground. You may even use deep breathing to calm or center yourself in tense moments. (If not, check out our breathing-exercise sidebar.) But Joel Minden, a cognitive behavioral therapist who works with dancers in California, says while physical coping strategies can be helpful, they alone aren't enough. It's even more important to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally. If you begin practicing psychological stress management as part of your routine, along with relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation, you will be better prepared for the crisis moments.

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This past week, Brianna Bundick-Kelly broke the internet when she posted a video of her dancing Beyoncé's Beychella, only hours after the live performance. The Virginia State University freshman, who's Twitter handle is "Briyonce," told Business Insider that she taught herself the choreography in 40 minutes. For dance teachers, this might seem just like another day at the office–dancers are supposed to pick up choreography fast, right? But Bundick-Kelly gets some serious props for her near flawless slaying of the Queen B's latest moves from a video, a feat she's no stranger to.

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The Royal Ballet, under the artistic direction of Kevin O'Hare, will be screening the company's Bernstein Celebration as a part of the Royal Opera House's 2017–18 cinema season April 20–May 20. The program celebrates American composer Leonard Bernstein with work from the company's three associate choreographers, including Liam Scarlett's The Age of Anxiety and new works from Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor. The screenings will be held in movie theaters around the world, with nearly 50 in the United States and Canada.

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Marueen Straub, left, co-owns the studio with her mother Diane, right.

Last week, the Professional Arts Academy in Edgewater, New Jersey, caught fire, and the entire studio was destroyed.

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