Please Don’t Tap on the Glass

Studio directors share viewing policies that work.

Viewing windows let young students watch older dancers in action. But parents constantly peering in can cause a distraction.

 

Crafting a class observation policy that makes students, teachers and parents happy is no easy feat. After all, shows like “Dance Moms” make it seem normal for parents to watch—and often interrupt—every class. But depending on your studio’s layout and your parents’ behavior, this is often infeasible. How can you keep parents abreast of students’ progress without distracting your dancers? Dance Teacher got the inside scoop from six studios with methods that work.

Watch all you want, but do not disturb

At Prestige Dance Studio in Federal Way, Washington, director Stephanie Cox has found more visibility is better. Parents are always welcome to watch class through viewing windows, plus, on three to four scheduled observation days, they can sit inside the classroom. Cox explains that the windows have mesh curtains in case of an extremely distracting family member, but that they’re still thin enough for parents to see through. “I like the curtains to be open, because the little kids love watching the big kids,” she adds. “They get to know the older dancers, and it gives them inspiration for when they’re in class.”

Kim Semmel, director of Dance With Kim in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, gives parents the option to see without being seen. She equips her studio with closed-circuit TVs in the waiting room in addition to viewing windows. “If little ones are distracted, their parents can step over to the monitors and watch there,” says Semmel, who focuses on keeping her students so busy that they don’t feel the need to look over at their parents in the window. “I like that parents can see what their child is doing in the classroom,” she says. “I want them to see the progress we’re making.”

Sneak a peek, within reason

Sometimes, giving parents permission to watch is enough to make them not need to. The Cypress Elite Dance Studio website states that, although parents are allowed to watch through viewing windows, teachers “encourage parents not to watch their child every week.” Owner Kimberley Davis says most parents at her Tomball, Texas, studio like to watch their kids at the beginning of the year, but that over time, they’d usually rather read or run errands. And, since she’s installed one-way glass in her viewing windows, she doesn’t worry about kids getting distracted during those first weeks when crowds of parents form. “The parents can see the dancers, but the dancers can’t see their parents,” she says. “As a mom myself, I like to be able to check in on my kid. These parents are paying me money, so they deserve to keep track of what their kids are doing if they want to.”

Michelle Bernard, director at Jill Listi Dance Studio in Lafayette, Louisiana, faces a traffic issue in her studio. Though she appreciates that parents want to watch their children, she says their four-studio space, which usually has four classes going on at once, just doesn’t hold that many people. So she makes class observations a carefully scheduled occasion. The school has developed a rotating system so that only one studio’s windows are open to parents for viewing each week. Teachers hand out schedules to parents at the beginning of the year, and Bernard posts them in the studio lobby and online, as well. “Logistically, if we have every student’s parent watching at the same time, it’s a nightmare, both in the parking lot and in the lobby,” she says. “We also feel that parents see more improvement if they’re not watching every week. It’s like watching a child grow. When you’re with them every day, you don’t notice it, but if you see them after a month, they look so much taller.”

The studio also uses one-way mirrors to lessen student distraction—although Bernard says it doesn’t stop some parents from trying to communicate with their kids. “We’ve had the occasional parent knock on the window to try to make their kids pay attention if they see that they’re distracted,” says Bernard. “Of course, that just distracts them more.” In these cases, it’s the individual teacher’s responsibility to take the parent aside and assure them that the teacher is the only authority figure needed in the room.

Closed-circuit TVs in the lobby mean zero distractions for little ones in the studio.

No parents allowed

Your studio parents may not be as bad as the “Dance Moms” crew, but that doesn’t mean you want them lingering, critiquing your teaching or distracting your dancers. That’s why some studio owners, like Dena Kay Botticelli, forbid parents from viewing almost entirely. At her DK Dance Studio in Webster, New York, studio doors for younger dancers are closed, unless a dancer is having a hard time transitioning to taking class independently. Parents are invited to watch twice a year. “We want the kids to develop independence, and we know they don’t act the same when Mom or Dad is watching,” she says. “I explain to parents that we don’t have them watch, because we want their kids to focus on the task at hand instead of focusing on what Mom’s doing.” Botticelli stresses that the most important step in getting parents to understand her policy is implementing it from the start of the year, so parents know what to expect.

Xpressions Dance Academy in Nampa, Idaho, also discourages parents from watching classes. Office manager Chantal Bleier says that scheduling “Watch Weeks” three times a year gets parents excited about the privilege instead of upset over the policy. “We make it a big deal. We have cookies in the lobby, and we really showcase what the kids have learned in the last two months,” Bleier says. “The parents love it, and the kids can’t wait for Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa to come watch.”

Of course, telling a stubborn mom that she can’t do something can get you some pushback. But Bleier says she only hears concerns from the occasional nervous mother of a very young child who has never been left alone. To quell her fears, Xpressions will allow the mother to come back about 10 minutes before the end of class, once the child is already settled, and watch through the darkly tinted window on the studio door. “She’ll just be able to see a little bit, but it’s enough to see that her child is doing just fine,” Bleier says. “I think a lot of parents worry that their kid won’t participate in class if they’re not there, but actually the exact opposite happens, since they can focus 100 percent of their attention on learning.” DT

Rachel Zar is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.

 

Photo (top) courtesy of The Cypress Elite Dance Studio; courtesy of Kim Semmel

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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