Providing Context

How three faculty members teach dance history

As trained dancers, we embody history. Every jump, contraction and tendu reveals lineage—an evolution of movement over time through culture. It also gives form to the politics and social values that have inspired several dance movements.

The study of dance history is vital to training, but course content can span many time periods, genres and methods. The difficulty lies in squeezing hundreds of years of an art into a short amount of class time. At what point in history should professors begin and what is the most effective way for students to learn?

DT talked to three college dance faculty members about their approaches. We found that though many have discovered creative ways to teach, they are constantly reevaluating how to improve student engagement.

Rose Anne Thom

Sarah Lawrence College

American Dance History

Undergraduate and graduate dance requirement; open to other performing arts students

Rose Anne Thom’s course is a survey of American concert dance from the 20th century to the present, starting with Isadora Duncan. She spends most of her class discussing contemporary choreographers, who have unique movement vocabularies, because she wants to challenge the way her students label dance. “I try to break down the barrier between ballet and modern,” she says. For instance, she will show Millicent Hodson’s reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring early on in the course to confuse students. “They all look at me and go, ‘Oh my gosh, is that ballet or modern?’ I just try to shake up their preconceptions.”

Thom also focuses on current dance because she wants students to be able to decipher how their work fits into today’s scene. “I’m asking students to develop a vocabulary for talking about dance,” she says. “We really want the students to understand their work in the context of what’s going on right now.” The structure of the course emphasizes discussion, and she requires students to keep class notes in journals, which she tracks. If her lectures don’t line up with her students’ notes, she knows that she hasn’t been explaining the history effectively.

Philip Johnston

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Dance History I; Intro to Contemporary Dance

Undergraduate requirement; for non-majors

Philip Johnston’s Dance History I surveys Western and non-Western forms to show that dance is integral to all cultures. He offers as many entry points into the material as possible, whether he’s teaching dancers or those with little movement knowledge. He provides many ways for his students to connect dance to other artforms and the outside world, assigning NPR segments and live performances as homework and taking students to a museum to view art. “Every week there’s a topic of discussion. What’s going on in the world?” he says. “I don’t want them to find history boring.”

After seeing Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings, for example, students understood firsthand how his work inspired Martha Graham’s Diversion of Angels. “Graham talks about Kandinsky’s paintings and the first time she saw them, and the students are all sitting there nodding their heads saying, ‘Oh yes, we know what that means!’” he says. “They’re sponges. They take it all in.”

Harmony Bench

Ohio State University

20th Century Ballet and Modern Dance History

Undergraduate and graduate dance requirement

As times change, Harmony Bench’s course has come to rely more on technology and other modes of instruction instead of traditional lecturing. Rather than beginning with European court dances, she starts at the 1900s, which enables her to use video. She also makes regular use of OSU’s online course management system to communicate and assign work outside of class (including open-book quizzes and discussion-board posts). This allows her to use in-class time most effectively, with movement exercises and choreography discussion. “My class started as pure lecture. Then I threw in contact improvisation when I was at a school that didn’t have that in their curriculum,” she says. “In short, my classes look nothing like when I first started.”

Bench’s assignments at Ohio State take many forms. One of her favorites is asking students to imagine a conversation between culture-shifting choreographers and scholars at a cocktail party, having dancers Rudolf Laban and Ted Shawn, for example, interact with present-day historians like Susan Manning and Marion Kant.

In the coming year, Bench is planning a more substantial digital media component for her history courses, including students preparing “Fakebook” pages (an educational tool designed to mimic Facebook) for choreographers they’re studying. “The students will generate the profile, significant events, list of friends and wall posts, and will find relevant images and videos to post on their choreographer’s page,” she says. It will allow Bench to guide research-heavy learning with a light-hearted, interactive approach in a course that could easily be weighed down by textbook assignments. “I want them to understand how dance responds to its current moment and how it can shed light on the histories of ideas and cultures,” she says. “Dance gives physical form to the politics, social values, conflict, fears and hopes of a people.” DT

Lea Marshall is the interim chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Dance and Choreography, and co-founder of Ground Zero Dance.

Photo by Catherine Proctor, courtesy of The Ohio State University

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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