Technique

Martine van Hamel: How I Teach Ballet

Photo by Kyle Froman

When Martine van Hamel burst onto the New York dance scene in the 1970s as a ballerina with American Ballet Theatre, she was a bit of an anomaly. At 5' 7", she was taller than most ballerinas at the time, but what really made her shine—in a company already filled with stars like Gelsey Kirkland and Natalia Makarova—was her immaculate technique, poignant interpretations of dramatic roles and extreme stylistic range. She could embody the fragile Odette in Swan Lake as convincingly as the sultry female lead of Twyla Tharp's Push Comes to Shove, a role created specifically for her. Her ascendance was astronomical: After just one year in the corps, she was promoted to soloist. Two years later, after a particularly brilliant performance of Swan Lake, she was promoted to principal.


Despite a wealth of ballet knowledge acquired over her 35-year career dancing with ABT, National Ballet of Canada, Joffrey Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater III, it's only been the past few years that van Hamel has truly embraced her role as a teacher. Today, she translates the unique combination of intuition, musicality and crystalline form that made her a star to the young pre-professional dancers at ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and with the ABT Studio Company, where she is on faculty.


Born in Brussels, van Hamel joined ABT in 1970, after six years with the National Ballet of Canada and one with the Joffrey Ballet. She retired from dancing professionally at 53, after 21 years with ABT and another 6 with Nederlands Dans Theater III (a company created by Jirí Kylián featuring older dancers). Unlike many retiring dancers, who go straight into teaching, van Hamel eased her way into it. “It was a transition that was really tough," she says. “It scared me at the time. I knew I would find it hard as a novice teacher, even though of course I knew a lot about dance and had my points of view."

It took founding the Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in 1990 in upstate New York to convince her that teaching was the right next step. Van Hamel co-founded the center with her husband, Kevin McKenzie, her frequent partner at ABT and now its artistic director. At the 153-acre farm, which hosts choreographic residencies, performances, an academy and a summer intensive program, she helms the ballet component.


Van Hamel takes on the occasional character role with ABT: the queen in Swan Lake (seen here), the witch in La Sylphide or Carabosse from The Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of ABT

Now 71, van Hamel still has the impeccable posture, grace and magnetic presence of a prima ballerina. With calm command of the studio, she looks completely at home, illustrating combinations efficiently and effectively, accenting the musicality of the steps with her voice. “You have to let me see what the music is," she tells her JKO students, a large group of teens from around the world. “If the music went away, I should still know what song the accompanist is playing."

Healthy alignment is a priority, thanks to her training with Maggie Black, a beloved mentor of dozens of professional dancers in New York City in the '70s, '80s and '90s. “I think I gained a real understanding of the physical body with Maggie Black," she says. “She was smart on every level—emphasizing how to work most efficiently with your own structure. So that is very much where I'm coming from." For instance, van Hamel isn't a fan of perfectly flat turnout. “I don't think everyone is gifted with 180-degree turnout," she says. “Forcing that hurts the knees and ankles, and a lot of unnecessary physical problems happen that way." She emphasizes to her students that they move in one piece. “When you travel through space," she says, “it's important to realize that the whole body goes through space—not just your legs."

Van Hamel's pure love of moving is apparent even in the way she guides her JKO students through a simple révérence of four grand pliés at the end of class. Former students, like Miami City Ballet principal Simone Messmer and ABT soloist Blaine Hoven, are confirmation of her influence. They experienced her guidance at Kaatsbaan and ABT's Studio Company before joining the ranks of ABT. “You start to go, 'Oh, I can make a difference,'" she says. “This makes sense. I do enjoy seeing them progress."

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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