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

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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Higher Ed
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As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?


The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
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."


Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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