Performance Planner: The Best of Both Worlds

Jina Yelton Motts, owner and director of Motion Dance Studio, needed a recital theme that would work for her students from not one, but two locations, in Cornelius and Concord, North Carolina. She found a winner with “A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock ’n’ Roll.” Motts was able to cover everything from hip hop and tap to lyrical and acro-gym, featuring dancers ages 8 to 18. (Her younger students and ballet classes performed in separate shows.)

Costs were kept under $3,000 with the help of volunteers, who built 10-foot-high cowboy boots, guitars and musical notes, as well as bales of hay and scarecrows. “This year, especially, we had to cut costs,” says teacher Angel Wilkes. “I had our studio’s name airbrushed on T-shirts for hip-hop numbers as an alternative to pricier options.” Read on for details on several of Motts’ numbers.

n Song: “She’s a Butterfly,” by Martina McBride

n Genre/Level: lyrical; intermediate to advanced

This number had an ethereal aesthetic, with dancers partnering to the country ballad. They completed complicated formation changes and a variety of turns including arabesques, chaînés and pirouettes. Motts suggests subdued lighting in blues and reds and even using a fog machine for dramatic effect.

n Song: “School’s Out,” by Alice Cooper; “Lip Gloss” and “G-Slide,” by Lil Mama; “Playground,” by Another Bad Creation

n Genre/Level: hip hop and acro-gym; intermediate (at least one year of tumbling)

“Hip hop and rock go well together!” says Wilkes of the rock-hop medley that opened with a school bell ringing and dancers erupting into a flurry of walkovers, cartwheels, roundoffs, rolls and toe touches. For hip-hop transitions, try Wilkes’ favorite, “basketballs” (just imagine bouncing an invisible basketball).

n  Song: “Short Shorts,” by The Royal Teens; “Dazzey Duks,” by Duice

n Genre/Level: jazz and hip hop; intermediate to advanced (competition group); 8- to 9-year-olds and 11- to 12-year-olds

This medley allowed two classes to dance together. The group, costumed as cowgirls in denim boy shorts, gingham shirts and bandanas, evoked sassiness and Southern charm, combining pas de bourrées, jazz pirouettes and grand jetés with toe touches, locks, pops and kicks. The number ended with all the dancers lunging, posing and lifting each other onto their shoulders.

n Song: “Elevator,” by Flo Rida; “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” by Britney Spears; “Bring it Back,” by Jae Millz

n Genre/Level: hip hop; advanced (12- to 18-year-olds)

This rock-heavy number opened with dancers wearing “straitjackets” as they crawled, rolled and clawed across the stage, imitating escapees from a psych ward. (Wilkes made the costumes by cutting collars off men’s button-down shirts and fastening the sleeves with Velcro.) As dancers convulsed their jackets off, they transitioned into the next song.

n Song: “Old Time Rock ’n’ Roll,” by Medicine Hat

n Genre/Level: tap; beginner (7- to 8-year-olds)

Motts chose this song because it’s light and fun. It also helps beginning tappers find the downbeat needed to smoothly perform basic steps, such as flap ball changes, traveling time steps and maxi-fords, as well as patterns like diagonal lines, circles and two-by-twos.

n Song: “Me and My Gang,” by Rascal Flatts

n Genre/Level: jazz; 14- to 15-year-olds (“junior elite”) 

Dancers wore sequined tops, studded pants and pink cowboy hats as they entered from opposite sides of the stage and made use of a prop box decorated with a bridle and saddle. They climbed on and off it during various intervals to transition into fouetté turns, slides and lots of leaps. The twangy country song has an electronic rocker edge that spices up jazz routines perfectly.

n Song: “Beautiful Goodbye,” by Jennifer Hanson

n Genre/Level: modern/lyrical; advanced

This number was choreographed and performed by two alumni and best friends who still take technique class and teach at the studios. Their dance used extensions and balances, complementary leaps, turns and weight-sharing work to tell the song’s story of friendship.  DT

Lee Erica Elder is a writer in New York City.

Music
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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