New Moves

Freddie-Lee Heath wins over PE instructors with his pop culture-inspired choreography

Freddie-Lee Heath wins over PE instructors with his pop culture-inspired choreography.

Lady Gaga’s voice reverberated through the hotel’s multilevel atrium. It was the second day of the Arkansas Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance’s convention, an annual gathering of instructors and college majors from throughout the state. Freddie-Lee Heath’s “Get your ‘Glee’ On!” packed dance workshop was held in the atrium, in full view—and earshot—of other guests. Susan Mayes, an instructor in the Health Science, Kinesiology, Recreation & Dance department at the University of Arkansas, looked up at the floors above her and spotted two girls dancing Heath’s choreography. “They had heard the music and came out of their room,” Mayes says. “There they were, in their pajamas, learning combos four floors above!”

Best known for his musical theater and tap choreography, Heath has used his tenure as the National Dance Association’s 2010 K–12 Dance Educator of the Year to encourage PE teachers to incorporate contemporary choreography into their dance units. He hopes that using dances modified from popular movies and TV shows, such as Stomp the Yard, Honey and “Glee,” will help PE instructors overcome their fears of teaching dance and encourage them to make dance engaging for their students.

“In a perfect world, I would have dance teachers teaching dance units,” Heath says. But with budget cuts, many states have rolled dance standards into PE classes. While sports and dance both rely on physical aptitude, strength and discipline, making the leap from teaching one to the other can be daunting for PE instructors. Those with little or no dance experience can be intimidated by teaching moves they themselves don’t feel comfortable doing. Other teachers, such as Kayla Daniels, a PE instructor at John Tyson Elementary School in Springdale, AK, have dance backgrounds but remain wary of teaching complicated choreography to reluctant students. “I was concerned about my students’ maturity level,” says Daniels, who attended both of Heath’s workshops at the ArkAHPERD convention.

Heath, who teaches at an inner-city magnet school in Raleigh, NC, is sensitive to their fears. He has worked as a dancer, choreographer and educator for over 20 years, and many of his students have little or no dance background. “I have to bring them gently into the fold,” he says.

Heath has presented his workshops at conferences across the country, and his upbeat, lighthearted manner quickly sets participants at ease. He begins the hour-long sessions with warm-ups and isolations. Then he introduces 8-count phrases slowly, giving participants a taste of more complex choreography, but always returning to basic movements. “He has so many variations of how you can do one step,” says Daniels. To execute a 180-degree turn, for instance, he has beginners take a single step toward the back of the room, while more advanced dancers might make a three-step turn completing one and a half revolutions. Heath checks in with participants frequently, asking them if they’re ready to move on and repeating the step if they’re not.

Rather than use unfamiliar dance terminology, Heath uses descriptive phrases and everyday terms—Beyoncé booty, robot hands—that participants can relate to. He slowly brings in more technical choreography, including attitude turns and syncopation, but always allows beginners to keep practicing basic steps if they don’t feel comfortable moving on. At the end of the workshop, he hands out sheets reviewing the music and steps in shorthand, often using the same language he uses in the workshop. One 8-count for Heath’s Honey routine, for example, reads: “Walk R/L/R/L; pop fist by head on 5; turn over back shoulder 6, 7; look right 8 (sucker punch).”

Throughout his workshops, Heath references ways to incorporate steps into a variety of classrooms. “He’s constantly talking about muscle groups and developmentally appropriate techniques,” Mayes says. For younger dancers, for example, a simple hop might substitute for a more complicated footwork pattern. Heath also considers age-appropriate music, telling elementary teachers that they can swap Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” for a more familiar and less controversial song such as “Thriller.” What’s important is that dance is relevant to students’ lives, says Heath. He uses choreography and music inspired by “Glee” because it’s popular among middle schoolers. It’s a way to capture students’ attention while also “tying in levels, spacing and slow, sustained movement,” he says.

While Heath acknowledges that some participants might forget the specifics of his choreography, he hopes the experience will break down their inhibitions to teaching dance. The temptation, he says, is to rely on a DVD or a video game like Dance Dance Revolution. Between his cue words and the actual steps, he hopes they’ll use even a small excerpt of his routines and build on it to make it their own. He wants to foster creativity in teachers and thus their students. “I always preface choreography with ‘What I’m giving you is just a skeleton,’” Heath says.

His workshops gave PE instructor Daniels the confidence to try his approach with her elementary-aged students. This year, she revamped her dance unit to focus less on traditional square dances and more on contemporary moves and music. “I honestly underestimated my students in thinking there would be no way they’d get it,” she says. “They do get it, as long as you have variations that start very, very simple and let them add as much as they want to a step.” DT

 

Sara Versluis is a freelance writer and former English teacher who lives in Virginia.

Photo by Nathan Acosta, courtesy of NCAAHPERD

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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