Q & A: Ask the Experts

Q: I just lost the Nutcracker venue that I’ve booked eight years in a row. What do I do? 



A: This is a problem that’s happening more and more. For 15 years, I [held my recitals] at a performing arts high school, and then the board of education voted four years ago that you had to be from the township of the venue that you were renting. It was the scariest time of my life—what are you going to tell the parents? I picked up the phone book and began calling different boards of education. I also asked all my dance teacher friends who had studios where they rent in the hopes that there would be a free weekend.


    I was looking at high schools and colleges, any theater with a raked floor. But we’re a nuisance to the schools, because they don’t see the money we’re spending; it goes to the general board of education and is divvied among all the schools. Privately owned theaters, on the other hand, are few and far between. Also, most are union houses, so you’re talking about a major investment. You don’t have control of the ticket sales, and you can’t move sets without union workers. And when you have a [limited] budget, little kids and fathers who want to volunteer backstage, that doesn’t work. The performing arts high school is the best of both worlds because you have the professional as well as the [lower-cost] aspect.


The high school theater I ended up getting actually turned out to be a better venue than our original space. The stage is a lot, but the parents are even happier because it’s closer to the studio. Also, the old place had only 800 seats, so I had to have five shows. The new place has 1,200 seats, so I have four.


Hedy Perna is the director of Perna Dance Center in Jazlet, New Jersey.



Q: My former studio manager was a nightmare. She had a sloppy work ethic and poor attitude. It was awful, seeing her everyday and wondering how to let her go. Thankfully, she quit, but now I need to hire someone else and I’m nervous about it. How do I prevent this from happening again, and if it does, how can I protect myself?



A: You’ve got good reason to be nervous. According to a recent National Small Business Poll conducted by the NFIB Research Foundation, more than 14 percent of business owners sued in liability cases within the last five years were sued by an employee. And more than 18 percent of businesses threatened with lawsuits received the threat from an employee.


Unlike large corporations, which have defined hierarchies, human resource departments and well-documented procedures, small-business owners often don’t have the resources in place to deal with problem employees effectively. So what can you do? The best solution is nipping poor performance in the bud.


Explain the obvious. Employees must understand what is expected of them, so outline what is acceptable—and what is not. You can use that as a framework to evaluate on-the-job performance (or provide discipline, if necessary). Also, provide a documented discipline policy and code of conduct, and make sure you and your managers follow procedures.


Evaluate your employees regularly. Written documentation of specific misbehavior (like absence or tardiness) is the best defense against discrimination claims. Include employees’ feedback as part of the evaluation, and use the process as an opportunity to set goals and specify deadlines for improvement.


Don’t wait to address problems; intervene early to give the employee a chance to improve. Not only does this help protect you against potentially costly litigation, you may see enhanced performance and increased employee morale. Then, if termination becomes necessary, it won’t come as a surprise; rather, it will be a culmination of progressive discipline that was clearly necessitated by the employee’s failure to meet the stated expectations.


Elizabeth Gaudio is a senior executive counsel for the national Federation of independent Business Legal Foundation (www.nfib.com/legaloundation). The NFIB Legal Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization created to protect the rights of America's small-business owners by providing advisory material on legal issues and by ensuring that the voice of small business is heard in the nation's courts. NFIB represents the consensus views of its 600,000 members in Washington and all 50 state capitals.



Q: My classes are huge this year. The smallest class has 35 students, the largest has 43, and I teach five classes a day. Trying to learn their names is getting really tricky, since they’re all in gym uniforms with their hair in ponytails. Do you have any tips? 



A: Learning the names of the hundreds of students in your dance program can be quite a challenge, but here are a few tried and true ideas:


Take attendance at the beginning of each class. While you’re learning names, the students will have a chance to get focused, quiet and ready to learn.


Play a “name game” in which each student makes up a move or pose and then says their name as they strike it. After a few rounds, you’ll be able to associate the dancer with his or her individual move.


Having students end the class with a solo jump or freeze center stage while shouting their name is another helpful strategy.


Enlist the aid of a digital camera. Take group shots and label them, then do your homework! You can also make “contact sheets” of your classes for your records.


The folks at New York City-based Rosie’s Broadway Kids, who work with almost 600 students each week in different schools, do. It’s an investment, but you’ll use them for years to come. Plastic pin-style badges with thick paper inserts can be found at most office supply stores like Staples and Office Max.


Ask students to help out by telling you their names when they see you around the building or in the schoolyard.



Remind everyone that their names are really important to you, but since you have so many to remember, it might take a little time. Just like dancing, it takes practice, practice, practice!



Lorelei Coutts is a public school teacher in New York City.

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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