Nick Palmquist's Teaching Style Will Change the Way You Give Corrections to Your Students

Photo by James Jin, courtesy of Palmquist

Something about the way Nick Palmquist walks into his class at Steps on Broadway immediately puts dancers at ease. His body language and warm smile invite them to let their hair down and embrace the fun of dance. But it's not just his appearance that lessens their insecurities. Palmquist is of a generation of educators and choreographers who prefer to use praise more often than intimidation as a teaching tool.

"You don't need to be a hard-ass to make people respect you," he says. "In 2018 dancers work so hard and are so prepared by the time they get to New York or L.A., they don't need to be crushed. Who are we to break them down?"

He has developed this approach over his career as a commercial dancer in New York City (his credits include "Saturday Night Live"; New York Spectacular, Starring the Radio City Rockettes; "The Tonight Show, Starring Jimmy Fallon" and more) not only for the emotional well-being of his dancers, but as a more constructive way to help them improve. He says that on one job he worked, the choreographer shouted "Wrong!" so many times in rehearsal, it felt like the dancers were being waterboarded with it. "I have never met a dancer who wasn't dying to give the choreographer what they want," he says. "So, if someone doesn't get your correction right the first time, say it in a new way. Different dancers have different incentives to learn, but nobody needs to be scared into being amazing."

Photo by James Jin, courtesy of Palmquist

His two favorite tactics for communicating corrections are using metaphors to help dancers understand what he's looking for and giving specific praise. "Be excited to tell people what you love about their dancing. Don't just tell them they did good. Be expressive with your feedback so they can discover their skills and build from them confidently."

Ultimately, he aims to create a space in which all can feel welcome to take class. "There is no consequence if you're having an off night when you come here," he says. "Whether you're at your best or at your worst, by the end of class we are all cheering each other on."

GO-TO BREAKFAST: "My favorite breakfast is anything my fiancé [dancer Marcelo Gomes] makes me. I have no culinary inclination at all, but he makes amazing smoothies and salads."

AFTERNOON ENERGY BOOSTER: "I eat a lot of tuna. It's cheap, easy and great protein. I also live on Clif bars and protein shakes because I am constantly in transit."

FAVORITE BOOKS: "The Harry Potter series will always have my heart. Such beautiful words, amazing structure and completely original story. The Velvet Rage had a tremendous effect on me when I was coming out three years ago, and it really helped me work through a lot of emotions and questions."

ITEMS HE NEVER LEAVES HOME WITHOUT: "A bottle of water and headphones. If I have music in my ears, I don't need too much of anything else."

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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