Teaching Tips

Put Your Best Foot Forward: Eight Tips for Starting the New School Year Right

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Though this school year comes with uncertainty due to the pandemic, and classes may be online where you are, it still holds true that how a teacher conducts class at the start of September can set the tone for the entire year. Taking the first few classes to establish expectations and break the ice can mean the difference between a harmonious classroom and total chaos. Here are eight ways to put your best foot forward.

Introduce Yourself

This may sound like a no-brainer, but take the time to tell students who you are. "I used to assume students would show up and have read my bio and understand what modern dance is," says Elizabeth Wright, principal dancer with Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Dance Company and modern dance instructor at South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts & Humanities in Greenville. "Often, that's not the case." Take a few minutes to tell your students what you bring to the table. Contextualizing your knowledge and experience will help them understand where they are in a larger dance lineage, too.

Break the Ice

An opening circle (virtual or in-person) can be an opportunity for students to say their names and pronouns, but some might be afraid of speaking up. Ease their anxiety with simple, fun questions. Claire Augustine Hixon, dance teacher at J. L. Long Middle School in Dallas, Texas, often puts students in pairs, with prompts like "If you were a superhero, what power would you have?" or "What's your favorite memory involving food?" She then has the pairs introduce their partners to the entire class.

Get Them Moving

"It's really important to get students moving right away, so it's an expectation that's set," says dance teacher Laura Migas of Ravenswood Elementary School in Chicago. "I try to spend as little time as I can talking in that first class." She has students share their names and pronouns and briefly introduces herself, but then it's time to move. She favors Anne Green Gilbert's BrainDance to warm up K–8 students and then afterward will play a name game.

Assess Students' Technique Level 

Seeing where students are in their training lets you tailor your material to suit their needs. At the Governor's School, Wright likes to start with improvisation exercises to see how her students move. "It's new to all of them and puts them in a position where they're a little uncomfortable," she says. "I do a lot of walking improvisations, adding complexities along the way. It puts everybody on a level playing field." Augustine Hixon usually starts the year off by keeping combinations small and simple, so students can build confidence with less material. This summer she assessed technique of new and returning members of her performance group by having them submit videos. From those, she offered feedback on what was working and what to improve.

Communicate Expectations

Decide whether or not you want to write a syllabus. (Depending on your school and the age of your students, it may be required.) Use it to clearly outline what your class will cover, your classroom code of conduct, how students will be evaluated and how they can reach you."My syllabus includes the national and state dance standards," says Wright. "It's a helpful starting point for discussion." She keeps it as a general outline of what she's going to cover for the year, in order to allow room for changes based on the class. Migas prefers to send a welcome letter to parents instead of a syllabus.

Include Etiquette

Communicate how you want class to run and what classroom etiquette you expect to see. Some students may not know the unspoken rules and procedures commonly used in dance classes. "One of the first things I teach is my exit," says Augustine Hixon. "Thank-yous are big for me. If a dancer knows how to say 'thank you,' that helps them for life."Similarly, make sure you communicate how feedback will be given. "It's important to talk about constructive criticism," says Wright. "Explain that it's a positive." If you're teaching in person and plan to use hands-on corrections, let students know ahead of time. Not all dancers are OK with being touched in class, and you should get their consent at the beginning of the year and reconfirm their consent each time a correction is necessary.

Collaborate on Class Culture

Migas has found success working with students to create a classroom structure they can all take ownership of. With prompts like "What do we want our class to look and sound like?" and "What does a respectful class look like?" she and the students write down their expectations and agreements for class. She says this works best with younger children when she offers a couple of examples and lets students choose between them.No matter how you choose to start the year, be mindful that your students are watching, listening and learning from day one. "It's almost not what you say, but how you say it," says Wright. "Think through the relationship that you want to have and how the cues you give at the beginning of the year support that. It's very powerful."

Returning to School During COVID-19

Whether in person or online, it's important to be flexible and keep a few things in mind.

  • You may have reduced class sizes or have to space students farther apart in class. Laura Migas, for instance, will have her creative dancers find "the perfect spot" not near anyone else or the walls or mirror, and she will mark it with tape, so young students can't move it.
  • With most summer programming canceled, students may return to classes after being more sedentary than usual.
  • You can use students' COVID-19 technology crash course to your advantage. Now that students are adept in programs like Zoom and Google Classroom, in what creative ways can you use them?
  • After months apart, building community among your students will be even more important than usual.

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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