Pedagogical Partners

Angie Riepensell (on floor) and Judy Kurjan model the concept of support.

About 40 sixth-grade girls gather in the gym at P.S. 71 for their dance class with instructor Angie Riepensell. After a warm-up and series of exercises, Riepensell explains the final activity. She will move and they will follow. She hits play on her iPod and the music is immediately recognizable: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” She starts walking, crouched, hands held zombie-like in front of her. The students trail behind, mimicking. Then she does a shoulder isolation. They get that, too. Every 15 seconds or so, Riepensell performs a different movement, guiding the students without vocal cues. By the end of the song the class is performing Jackson’s famous choreography in unison.

This sort of non-verbal communication is one way that Riepensell teaches the discipline and respect that are the bedrock of P.S. 71’s dance curriculum. Now in her second year at the school, which has an enrollment of about 1,600 K–8 students in the Bronx, Riepensell launched the dance program last year with her friend and colleague, Judy Kurjan. Unlike most public school dance teachers who must go it alone in their first year, these two young women—and their students—benefited from the strength of their partnership.

Riepensell and Kurjan met in 2006, when both began the graduate program in dance education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. In their first year, they roomed together during a study abroad trip. The following year, they shared a tiny apartment in Manhattan’s East Village. A couple of months before graduation, the roommates attended a job fair for beginning arts teachers. “Two assistant principals”—both from P.S. 71—“walked up to us, saw that our nametags said ‘Dance,’ and set up an interview,” says Riepensell.

P.S. 71 had experimented with after-school dance classes, and principal Lance Cooper was now ready to add dance to the curriculum. He had discovered the benefits of hiring in pairs when he had added new programming in music and visual arts.

“We don’t have arts expertise,” Cooper says, “so if those teachers have questions, they can go to each other. When we hired two at once, it clicked.” Even though they each received other offers, Riepensell and Kurjan couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work together.

For the 2008–09 school year, they each taught about 25 classes a week. Kurjan spent most of her time in the dance room with the elementary school students, while Riepensell taught middle school students in the gym. But that didn’t keep them apart. They observed and sometimes assisted in each other’s classes. And each day, they spent over an hour together traveling from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to the Bronx, which provided plenty of time to discuss challenges and develop and refine strategies.

Kurjan and Riepensell graduated from the NYU Steinhardt School in May 2008.

The two teachers approached their classes with similar educational goals. “Once we got to meet the kids, which is something we like to do before getting too set on any specific course, we decided that classroom management was a big issue,” says Riepensell. “We wanted to make sure they understood the etiquette of dance class and what we expected of them.” They built a curriculum based on their work at NYU and the New York City Department of Education Blueprint for Dance Education. They used creative movement to teach values like respect and discipline. For instance, young students play games with skipping and galloping. By being careful not to bump into each other, they gain spatial awareness. Older students mirror each other’s movements, focusing on non-verbal communication and body control. Throughout the dance program, students are encouraged to work non-verbally and learn with their bodies. This practice reinforces lessons on respect and etiquette and focuses students’ attention on dance’s fundamental physicality.

Students of all grade levels at P.S. 71 take dance, but not necessarily in the same school year. It depends on scheduling—and this fall, the schedule took a big hit when Kurjan left to take a teaching job closer to her family. Without time for the school to replace her, Riepensell is now on her own.

But distance hasn’t severed the partnership. Because Kurjan knows many of Riepensell’s students, she offers insights about approaches and strategies that worked last year during their frequent phone conversations

For Kurjan, who is developing new dance programs at two schools in Baltimore, her experiences at P.S. 71 continue to give her strength. “Angie’s always in my head,” she says. “It’s ingrained. Each of us has the other one on her shoulder.” DT

Katie Rolnick is assistant editor at Dance Spirit and has an MA in cultural reporting and criticism from NYU.

Photo by Chianan Yen for NYU Steinhardt

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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