Progress Report

For many dance studio owners, the idea of conducting staff evaluations is daunting. Many teachers are former students, and owners take pride in maintaining the “family atmosphere” of their studio. So to actually sit down and formally assess an employee, whom you may have known since the age of 5, seems awfully corporate. But according to Sylvia Hepler, owner of Launching Lives, an executive coaching firm, businesses that give short shrift to appraisals miss an essential opportunity to garner  feedback necessary to maintain goals and enhance employee performance.

Kathy Blake of Kathy Blake Dance Studios in Amherst, New Hampshire, initiated a performance review process two years ago. “It was extraordinary,” she says. “The entire culture of my studio shifted.” So to help you use staff evaluations to your studio’s advantage, we asked several veteran studio owners to share their experiences.

Ease employees into the process.

It’s a good idea to hold staff reviews twice per year—at the beginning of the season to set goals and expectations and again at the end to measure progress and update goals for the next evaluation period. Consider scheduling an extra review mid-season if an employee seems to be having difficulty meeting expectations. Each performance appraisal should last between 45 minutes to an hour and be held somewhere neutral, like a staff meeting room or a local coffee shop, especially if your office might seem intimidating to some. But don’t forget to inform staff members about their upcoming evaluation with enough notice for them to plan—you don’t want to make them feel uneasy, or even worse, ambushed.

Give credit where credit is due.

Before the meeting, both employer and employee should fill out an evaluation form. Begin the meeting by exchanging and reading each other’s form. “The beauty of this is that it provides the springboard for your conversation,” says Hepler. “You can ask, ‘What are your observations about the similarities in our answers? What about the differences?’” A few questions Blake likes to ask are: What worked for you this school year? What didn’t work and how did that impact your performance? How were your talents recognized? How did you solve problems that arose? What would you do to improve for next year? And when giving feedback, make sure to balance the positives with the negatives. Start by focusing on the contributions the employee has made, then coolly discuss the areas he or she needs to improve on—this is no time for heated debates.

“I’ll put it in their boat,” says Bonnie Schuetz, owner of Boni’s Dance and Performing Arts Studio in The Woodlands, Texas. “I’ll ask a teacher, ‘How would you like to see yourself grow? For example, to be more patient or more creative?’ And often that will bring out points for discussion.” Schuetz also takes notes during the review, which she keeps in each individual’s file, and she refers to any parent e-mails received during their time of employment. “Of course, I deal with anything that comes up as it arises,” says Schuetz. “But at the end of the year they may have forgotten all about it, so we can discuss any new concerns then, as well.”

Ask for feedback.

The simple act of sitting down with each employee can be enlightening. For example, Blake noticed that one of her front desk workers seemed to be increasingly disgruntled. “During the evaluation, I realized that she didn’t want the extra responsibility I was pushing on her,” Blake recalls. “She simply preferred to do the basics. We adjusted her job description and her pay grade and then she was happy. I might have fired her otherwise.”
Nancy Giles, owner of The Southern Strutt in Irmo, South Carolina, turned the tables on her staff and asked them to evaluate her for the first time this past September. “I said to them, ‘Tell me what you need from me to make this better,’” she says. “I asked them what they expect out of me that’s not happening, as well as what I can do to make their job easier and help them feel supported. That’s hard to do, but I want to get it right.”

Just last year, as a result of staff feedback, Blake realized that her employees wanted more in-house education, and she quickly initiated a teacher-training program. “Before, I would have thought I was imposing it on them,” she says. “I think directors make a big mistake if they don’t evaluate themselves.”

Although you may feel that your “open-door” policy works just fine, performance reviews provide an official forum for discussions that might not take place any other time. “My faculty and staff look forward to evaluations now, and they’re more forthcoming with problems as they arise,” says Blake. “They feel listened to, praised and supported, and it makes them more willing to come forward.” DT

Conducting the Conversation

Be prepared. Know what you’re going to ask and how you will phrase it.
2. Give honest feedback. Don’t skip over difficult issues for fear it will be upsetting. Likewise, don’t inflate praise. Employees will learn to trust you.
3. Lead with the positive, then suggest areas where you would like to see improvement. 
4. Keep criticism constructive. Restrict comments to observed job behavior and back each up with specific examples. Don’t say: “You’re sloppy.” Do say: “I’d like you to keep your filing up-to-date. It looks bad to have personal student information on your desktop where it can be lost or seen by others.”
5. Make it a two-way conversation. Invite the employee to suggest goals, listen to their feedback and make good eye contact.
6. Be consistent. Your process should be the same for all.
7. Avoid surprises. Performance review is a year-round process. Give immediate feedback, both compliments and criticism, so that an employee has the chance to make adjustments before the official review.

Fiona Kirk is a freelance journalist whose work has also appeared in Pointe, Dance Spirit and Dance Retailer News.

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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