With serpentine fluidity, Nijawwon Matthews gives his intermediate contemporary jazz class at New York City's Broadway Dance Center a rundown of his warm-up sequence. His spinal undulations, spider-like finger articulations and seemingly infinite wingspan transform a relatively standard array of pliés, roll-downs, head rolls and stretches into something soulful. "Warming up is like being in a meditative state of mind," he says. "You're working from an internal place out to the external."






His teen and adult students love the way his class gets them to move—full-bodied and dynamic, transitioning swiftly between spatial levels and textures. But his style is more than just the dramatic phrasing and flashy moves typical of contemporary choreography. At its core is a rock-solid ballet foundation—tendus, piqués and a particularly arduous sustained relevé combination are essential components of his warm-up—and influences as varied as modern, classic jazz and hip hop. During dégagés in second position, he brings the dancers' awareness to healthy alignment. "We've got to work from an honest place," says Matthews, "and for most of us, that's on the diagonal."

When it's time to move through the space, Matthews directs the class to improvise across the floor while thinking about undulation, spirals and circulation. “It's about using the whole body," he says, as the dancers dive, slide, roll, twist and turn. After everyone has completed one pass, he offers valuable feedback: “You have to emotionally connect to the music," he says. “Get lost in it." His students are eager to impress, but Matthews encourages them to dance for themselves. “Don't look to me for approval. Explore what you do as an artist," he says.

Matthews constantly moves around the room, watching the class and cueing his students. “Open the heart. Feel that power. Beautiful dancers!" he offers with an energy and enthusiasm that he hopes will rub off on his students. Later, as they casually shuffle onto the floor to perform the center combination in groups, he issues a verbal wake-up call. “If you come on like you need a cup of coffee, you're going to dance like that. However, if you come on like this…" he says, as he bounds onto the floor with a spring in his step. The dancers clearly get the message; the energy in the room dials up several notches.

As the class gears up for a final round of the combination, Matthews provides some final words of wisdom about confidence. “Make a decision and stick to it," he tells the class. “That's what's going to transform your life."

Nijawwon Matthews, 30, trained as a gymnast and in jiujitsu before beginning his dance training at age 16 in ballet, jazz, modern and hip hop at Absolute Dance in Auburn, New York. He has performed with companies across the country, including Philadanco, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble and Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. In addition to teaching at Broadway Dance Center, he is currently a resident teacher and choreographer at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City and has taught at Steps on Broadway, Peridance Capezio Center and Harlem School of the Arts. Matthews performs, choreographs and directs his own company, XY Dance Project.

Brooklyn Bass is a dancer with XY Dance Project.

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"Music is magical," says Black. "It just transforms kids." Photo courtesy of Black

After 31 years of teaching, Kim Black has mastered how to reach young dancers. Between a studio and private school, she teaches 34 classes per week in Burlington, North Carolina: That's 238 kids from ages 2 to 6 years old. "You have to make them fall in love with dance," says Black. The music, she says, cues this engagement.

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Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of PNB School

Naomi Glass, teacher at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, knows firsthand the advantages and challenges of hypermobility. As a young dancer, she was told to keep her hyperextended knees in a straight position far from her full range of motion. "It felt too bent to me," she says. "But once I was able to access my inner thighs and rotators, I found strength and stability and could still use the line that I wanted."

Hypermobility occurs when joints exceed the normal range of motion. Dancers can have hypermobility in specific joints, like their knees, or they can have generalized laxity throughout their bodies (which is often measured using the Beighton system—see below). While this condition may enable students to create beautiful aesthetic lines, it can also increase risk for injury. Help dancers gain the strength they need to stay healthy while making the most of their hypermobility.

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I love this level. I see it as the true origin of a student's dance journey. Intermediate students have bought in, caught the fever, chosen to move beyond inquiry about dance to investment in dance. They are yearning to advance past their beginner training and label.

As teachers, we begin to set more stringent expectations for them to commit to class, take ownership of their learning, and comprehend more terminology and skills. Yet, they are still a bit disheveled in their movement and engagement. They still sometimes forget their dance pants and confuse upstage with downstage. Some of them are still, well, terrified.

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2019's movies featured some truly fantastic dancing, thanks to the hard work of many talented choreographers. But you won't see any of those brilliant artists recognized at the Academy Awards. And we're (still) not OK with that.

So we're taking matters into our own jazz hands.

On February 7—just before the Oscars ceremony—we'll present a Dance Spirit award for the best movie choreography of 2019. With your help, we've narrowed the field to seven choreographers, artists whose moves electrified some of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year.

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Kathryn Alter (left). Photo by Alexis Ziemski

In every class Kathryn Alter teaches, two things are immediately evident: how thoughtfully she chooses her words, and how much glee she gets from dancing the movement and style of modern choreographer José Limón. At the 2019 Limón summer workshop at Kent State University, Alter demonstrated a turning triplet with her arms fully outstretched, a smile stretching easily across her face. "It should be as if…" She paused to think of the perfect analogy that would help the dancers find the necessary circularity of the movement. "As if you live in a doughnut!" she finished, grinning broadly. The dancers gathered around her laughed—her smile and love for something as foundational as a triplet was contagious.

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Dance Teacher Tips
Melanie George (right). Photo by Grace Corapi, courtesy of George

Teachers from coast to coast are pushing students to move outside the constraints of popular music. There is a consensus that the earlier you introduce varied musical forms, the more adept and adaptable a dancer's musicality will be.

New York–based jazz scholar and teacher Melanie George notices that many students' relationships to music can be reductive: They may think exclusively about lyrics or accents. But jazz, for example, is about swinging: an embodied comprehension of instrumentation that only comes with musical acuity. "Students are ready for this specificity, even if we aren't giving it to them," she says. When her students understand that there is a technique to listening, it becomes less about going forward, and more about going deeper into the sound and into their bodies.

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Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in a scene from An American in Paris. Courtesy Fathom Events.

If you loved Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris on Broadway, you can now see the 1951 Oscar-winning movie it's based on in all its Technicolor glory. Fathom Events will present MGM's An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly and French ballerina Leslie Caron, and with music by George and Ira Gershwin, in select theaters nationwide January 19 and 22.

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Photo by Rachel Papo

Alicia Graf Mack's journey to become director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division—the youngest person to hold the position, and the first woman of color—was anything but a straight line. Yes, she's danced with prestigious companies: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But Mack also has a BA in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis; she pursued both degrees during breaks in her performing career, taken to recover from injuries and autoimmune disease flare-ups.

As an undergrad, she briefly interned at JPMorgan Chase in marketing and philanthropic giving, and she later made arts administration central to her graduate work, assuming that she'd eventually take an administrative role with a dance organization.

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Morrissey (left). Photo courtesy of Interlochen Center for the Arts

When Joseph Morrissey first took the helm of the dance division at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a boarding high school in Interlochen, Michigan, he found a fully established pre-professional program with space to grow. And his vision was big, with plans to stage the kind of ambitious repertory he'd experienced during his dance career. But the realities quickly set in. During his first year in 2015, the department was denied by the George Balanchine Trust to license any Balanchine ballets—the dancers were not quite ready.

This early disappointment didn't derail Morrissey. In just four years, he has not only raised Interlochen's training standards, he's staged ambitious full-length ballets and been granted the rights to works by Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille and, yes, Balanchine. Guest artists regularly visit, and he's initiated major plans to expand the dance department building. Morrissey is only 37, but it should come as no surprise that he's done so much so fast—his entire life's journey has prepared him to be an artistic leader.

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Valerie Amiss with students. Photo by Tracie Van Auken, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet

Jared Nelson, artistic director of California Ballet, demonstrates a tight fifth position as he talks to his class about the importance of rotating from the hips. "Having a visual image helped me as a dancer, so I try to demonstrate as much as possible," he says. "But I am also very conscious of word choice. Every dancer is different, and you have to phrase things in a language they will understand."

Teachers should always be aware of how they communicate with their students, including how they choose language for different individuals, classes or situations. Using the right terminology in early stages of training will ensure that students learn the proper names of steps. This foundation is crucial, particularly when so much of the classical vocabulary has been substituted by nicknames and phrases. (Think "lame duck" or "step-up turn" in place of piqué en dehors.) But good use of language also means using imagery and positive reinforcement to ensure the right kind of messaging. What teachers say in the studio could make the difference between dancers who listen—and ones who really hear.

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Dance Theatre of Harlem's Derek Brockington and Da'Von Doane in Claudia Schreier's Passage. Photo by Brian Callan, courtesy of DTH

Back to your routine after the holidays, but still looking for something to watch? Then this new PBS documentary titled Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants is for you. The hour-long film tracks the creation of two dance pieces: Claudia Schreier's Passage for Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Sir Richard Alston's Arrived featuring students of Norfolk's Governor's School for the Arts. Both works were co-commissioned by the American Evolution 2019 Commemoration and the Virginia Arts Festival last May, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Africans to English North America and the history of slavery that followed.

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Q: My tween is begging me to go to a faraway summer intensive, claiming "all my friends are going." How do I know if she's ready?

A: It can feel like a rite of passage for serious dancers to attend an intensive at a major ballet school. They dance all day and often explore the area's surroundings or attend performances on weekends. But living away from home, having a roommate and living the "dorm life" can be a challenge.

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