One Class Fits All

Tips for designing classes for mixed levels

Students from The Chicago High School for the Arts

"Honey, you’re in the wrong room!” This was how Judy Rice, now associate professor at the University of Michigan, greeted one of her first students at the Joffrey Ballet School: a retired New York City Ballet dancer who, after electing to take Rice’s beginning ballet for adults, gently insisted on staying put.

How often do teachers work with advanced and novice dancers in the same class? “From master classes to auditions, it happens a lot,” says Gerri Houlihan, dean of the American Dance Festival and a dance professor at Florida State University. Or, a teacher might be out at the last minute, making it necessary to combine levels. This prompted Sarah Ford Thompson, dance department head at The Chicago High School for the Arts, to improvise a joint class for Level-A Horton and Level-D Contemporary.

Since no two dancers are alike, the need for differentiation is ongoing. However, running a smooth, well-paced class while challenging dancers on an individual basis is its own balancing act. Here are some simple and effective strategies for accommodating diverse groups.

Progressive Stacking

Layering more detailed, nuanced technique onto basic steps—or progressive stacking—allows teachers to challenge a mixture of abilities using the same combination. Working at a slower tempo, novice dancers can learn the combination while the more advanced work on movement origination, dynamics or extra turns, beats and direction changes. Both Houlihan and Tom Ralabate, a dance professor at University at Buffalo/SUNY and faculty member for Dance Masters of America, agree that this method is effective. For example, in ballet, adding a relevé, a pirouette or beats can quickly make a step more difficult.

For Rice, the ability to add these layers comes from gradually honing your class design and having a solid outline from which to work. She designs a very simple first movement across the floor to ensure “everyone will look brilliant” before making the steps progressively more difficult.

Adjusting Speed

Pacing is another powerful tool, ranging from the tempo of individual combinations to the pacing of class itself. During her impromptu joint-level class, Ford Thompson used progressive stacking to teach the combination at a slow tempo. Then, she repeatedly increased the tempo “until everyone had to invest fully to keep the movement clear and on the music.”

Houlihan sees equal value in slowing down the tempo, which challenges the most advanced dancers to move with control and transition seamlessly between steps. Another option is to divide the room into groups: Rice uses grouping to teach a petit allégro, breaking down the initial steps with less experienced students while more advanced dancers rehearse the combination right and left.

Building Self-Awareness

Tom Ralabate teaching class at the University of Buffalo/SUNY

Naturally, it becomes easier to accommodate diverse groups if students can make adjustments for themselves. However, many novice dancers need to be explicitly taught how to take class, as they take class. In master class settings, Ralabate finds it useful to focus on artistry, allowing students to “glimpse their own dance identity.” To create an atmosphere of artistic experimentation, he might make the combination a canon, placing dancers several counts apart, or ask them to improvise on top of the original steps.

Another method is to teach students to embrace their body type and build body awareness. For example, Ralabate—who notes that master classes often mean “teaching 100 women and a handful of men”—makes a point of giving male dancers alternate arms and corrections to encourage stylistic choices that balance masculinity and lyricism. In ballet, Rice asks her dancers to repeat anatomy terms and verbally explain their mistakes. For example, if a student falls out of a pirouette, can they identify which direction they fell, articulate why and determine how to fix it?

With high school students, Ford Thompson places more emphasis on kinesthetic understanding. Her most challenging students, she says, “intellectually understand immediately, but have to work very hard to create in the physical body what they see in their mind.” She relies on modeling (dancing the combination incorrectly alongside a student who dances it correctly, then asking students to identify the differences) to build self-awareness.

Honesty vs. Complexity

Perhaps the most direct way to challenge a diverse group of dancers—while refining your class design—is to return to the basics, focusing on quality of movement. Rice emphasizes the universal appeal of a class that is less about choreography and more about “function, alignment and honesty.” Houlihan recalls attending Maggie Black’s advanced class, then very popular with professionals, many years ago in New York City. “I was struck by how pithy, simple and straightforward [it] was,” she says. She notes that, paradoxically, most advanced dancers tend to appreciate the value of a basic class more than their less experienced counterparts, because they possess the self-awareness to continually and independently refine their movement.

Rice agrees. Early in her tenure at University of Michigan, she worked to separate the combined Level-1 and Level-2 ballet class, and she remembers not being very popular. “They fought it as freshmen,” she says of the Level-1 students. But they eventually changed their tune over the years, perhaps demonstrating how much they had grown. “As juniors and seniors, they wanted to come back.” DT

Ginger Davis O’Donnell is on faculty at The Chicago High School for the Arts.

Photo by Mark Ballogg, courtesy of The Chicago High School for the Arts; opposite page: by T.J. Crehan, courtesy of Tom Ralabat

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Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

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Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Ford Foundation; Christian Peacock; Nathan James, Courtesy Gibson; David Gonsier, courtesy Marshall; Bill Zemanek, courtesy King; Josefina Santos, courtesy Brown; Jayme Thornton; Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

Since 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards have celebrated the living legends of our field—from Martha Graham to Misty Copeland to Alvin Ailey to Gene Kelly.

This year is no different. But for the first time ever, the Dance Magazine Awards will be presented virtually—which is good news for aspiring dancers (and their teachers!) everywhere. (Plus, there's a special student rate of $25.)

The Dance Magazine Awards aren't just a celebration of the people who shape the dance field—they're a unique educational opportunity and a chance for dancers to see their idols up close.


Here's why your dancers (and you!) should tune in:

They'll see dance history in the making.

Carlos Acosta. Debbie Allen. Camille A. Brown. Laurieann Gibson. Alonzo King.

If you haven't already taught your students about these esteemed awardees, odds are you'll be adding them to your curriculum before long.

Not only will your students get to hear from each of them at a pivotal moment in their careers (and Dance Magazine Awards acceptance speeches are famously chock-full of inspiration), they'll also hear from presenters like William Forsythe and Theresa Ruth Howard.

This year, all the Dance Magazine Awards are going to Black artists, as a step towards repairing the history of honoring primarily white artists.

And meet tomorrow's dance legends.

Dance Magazine's Harkness Promise Awards, this year going to Kyle Marshall and Marjani Forté-Saunders, offer funding, rehearsal space and mentorship to innovative young choreographers in their first decade of presenting work—a powerful reminder to your students that major success in the dance world doesn't happen overnight.

They'll get a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes.

Solely teaching your students how to be a great dancer doesn't give them the full picture. A complete dance education produces artists who are savvy about what happens behind the scenes, too.

In 2018, Dance Media launched the Chairman's Award to honor those behind-the-scenes leaders who keep our field moving. Each year's recipient is chosen by our CEO, Frederic M. Seegal. This year's award goes to Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, who is using philanthropy to make the performing arts—and the world at large—more just.

And, of course, see dozens of great dance works.

Where else could your students see selections from Alonzo King's contemporary ballet classics next to Camille A. Brown's boundary-pushing dance theater works? Or see both Carlos Acosta and Laurieann Gibson in action in the same evening? Excerpts from the awardees' works will show your students what it is exactly that makes these artists so special.

So gather your class (virtually!) and join us next Monday, December 7, at 6 pm. To receive the special student rate, please email dmawards@dancemedia.com.

See you there!

Leap! Executive Director Drew Vamosi (Courtesy Leap!)

Since its inaugural season in 2012, Leap! National Dance Competition has been all about the little things.

"I wanted to have a 'boutique' competition. One where we went out to only one city every weekend, so I could be there myself, and we could really get to know the teachers and watch their kids progress from year to year," says Leap! executive director Drew Vamosi. According to Vamosi, thoughtful details make all the difference, especially during a global pandemic that's thrown many dancers' typical comp-season schedules for a loop. That's why Leap! prides itself on features like its professional-quality set design, as well as its one-of-a-kind leaping competition, where dancers can show off their best tricks for special cash and merchandise prizes.

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