Music: Keith Clifton

Leading a DanceMakers, Inc., ballet class

When Keith Clifton was 18, he booked a Dr Pepper commercial, and his performance career took off. He was part of a number of successful projects, including multiple “Be a Pepper” commercials, the 52nd annual Academy Awards with Donald O’Connor and 42nd Street at the Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles. And when Roland Dupree asked him to teach for Dupree Dance, Clifton became inspired by the other convention teachers. “I immediately knew I wanted to do what these people were doing,” he says. “They were actively changing children’s lives and making a difference in them as people and as dancers.”

He found the transition from performing to teaching surprisingly simple. “When you’re standing in the front of a room or on a stage teaching, you are entertaining,” he says. “You have to be an extrovert and find your niche, almost like a stand-up comedian, to make sure you’re keeping the class energized and excited about learning.”

Now, with a teaching career as impressive as his performance credits (after co-founding L.A. Danceforce and EDGE Performing Arts Center, he opened his own successful studio in 1996), Clifton spends his weekends traveling with DanceMakers, Inc. “Ballet is the foundation of all styles of dance, and to have the privilege and honor to teach it is a huge responsibility,” he says. And musicality plays a big role. “I try to be musical even in the way I speak and count, to encourage the dancers to really feel the music and tell its story,” he says. “It’s about them learning how to phrase their movement and mimic what they hear with their bodies.” DT

 

 

Artist: Josu Gallastegui

Album: Measure for Measure

“This album is one of my favorite, reliable choices. From adagio to allégro and plié to pirouette, it is straightforward and easy to count. The artist has a passionate approach to the piano, and his playing is full of character. The arrangements allow me to enjoy the melody and phrasing even after years of use. His other albums are great, too. My Turn is another favorite, because the melodies are luscious and haunting.”

 

 

Artist: Jamie Narushchen

Album: At the Movies with Narushchen

“For some truly beautiful music that is arranged for exercise and education, this is my go-to. Narushchen plays pieces that are light, fun, romantic and melancholy. He includes classics like Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” but also choices that might be more recognizable to children, like “We’re in the Club Now” from Disney’s Up and “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The melodies are soothing and allow for concentration and focus, but the familiar tunes also keep children excited as they anticipate what song they might hear next.”

 

 

Artist: Douglas Schultz

Album: Music from Company Class, Vol. 1

“This album has all the perfect tempos and elements a ballet class needs. His pirouette and waltz tracks are long enough to allow for repetitions when your class is at a size that you need to divide your students into groups. It’s a great album to turn to on days when your creativity isn’t at its highest, and you just need music that’s well-played and will help both you and your students conquer class. His style is very classical.”

 

 

Artist: David Plumpton

Album: Modern Melodies Inspirational Ballet Class Music

“He takes pieces from both popular movies and artists and puts them into waltz format. On this album, he meets the needs of a teacher who wants a true ballet class with contemporary music selections that will help keep younger students from running for the door when they haven’t yet gained an appreciation for piano music. He also has beautiful approaches to more classic music for class on other albums.”

 

 

Photo by Brien Rich, courtesy of DanceMakers, Inc.

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Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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