Lisa Mara gives nonprofessional adult dancers a place to perform.

Lisa Mara (left) has founded DanceWorks adult performance and choreography groups in Boston and New York City.

Just four days before opening night, upwards of 150 dancers of all shapes and sizes spill into the aisles of The Boston Conservatory Theater, generating an animated buzz of excitement as they catch up after the holiday break. Onstage, dancers pop and lock with sharp-edged precision and attitude, or sail through jetés and whip out impressive chaîné turns in final preparation for their upcoming show.

But these dancers aren’t 17- to 21-year-old conservatory students in training for professional careers in the arts. These performers are lawyers, investors, nurse practitioners, graphic designers, teachers, even a few mothers, and they range in age from 20 to 35. They’re all part of DanceWorks, an innovative company designed by Lisa Mara specifically to give serious dancers who are pursuing nondance careers a fun and flexible yet high-level postgraduate performance and choreographic outlet.

For Mara, who began her career in public relations before founding DanceWorks, the company is also dedicated to fostering social connections. “Dance has always been part of my life,” she says. “That and sports taught me the rules of life and how to be part of a team and work together. That’s what I try to bring to DanceWorks. It’s not just a dance program, it’s a community. The friendships that are formed here carry the program into the next season.”

Like Mara, the majority of company members danced from childhood through college, many on their schools’ dance teams, others in programs ranging from recreational to pre-professional. Most are reconnecting with an artistic passion they thought they would have to relinquish after graduation. While open classes at area studios offer opportunities to practice dance, DanceWorks provides a venue to perform.

“I never thought I’d be able to perform onstage again,” says 29-year-old attorney Giselle Asuncion. “It’s not always easy to go to rehearsal after a long day at work, but we do it because we love it. And I don’t take that for granted. It’s just so much fun.”

Mara, also 29, agrees. DanceWorks is not just her full-time job, but a creative and social outlet. In addition to directing every show, she choreographs and dances in several pieces. She took dance classes as a child, but it wasn’t until college at Syracuse University that she prioritized dance, focusing on hip hop and co-directing the student-run dance club. “I found the marriage of my natural talent and leadership skills,” she says.

After college, she worked for a high-end entertainment public relations agency in New York City, but says, “I was miserable. I didn’t want to work 16-hour days and red-carpet events.” So she moved back to Boston and auditioned in 2009 to be a Boston Celtics dancer, becoming one of 38 finalists.

Above: performers of DanceWorks Boston; below: Mara leading rehearsal.

It was a three-day-long process and such a fun experience, she recalls. “I got to know all these dancers. Only 16 made the team, but any one of us could have, so I said, ‘Where are these people going to go dance?’” She answered the question by creating DanceWorks the following year, with an initial troupe of 15. “It started mostly through word of mouth, with dancers who had some connection to me or one of the other dancers,” Mara says. They spread the word via social media and put out a call through area colleges.

The business model for DanceWorks focuses on performances rather than classes, and Mara set the bar high from the very beginning. “I took that leap of faith to say we only wanted advanced and technically trained dancers to audition for the program,” she says. Far from being a deterrent, that model made the program distinctive, attracting talented movers from all over the Greater Boston area. The last round of DanceWorks Boston auditions drew 178 dancers, with 158 accepted into the company.

The tremendous growth of the Boston program inspired Mara to develop a DanceWorks in New York City as well, drawing on her large network of Syracuse University alums in the city to help get the word out. While interest was keen, the largest drawback was rehearsal space. During each four-month season, the group holds as many as 24 to 27 rehearsals a week. Ultimately Mara found a home for the troupe at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens. DanceWorks New York City launched in June 2011 and currently has 100 dancers.

Dancers have to be technically advanced to perform with DanceWorks, but most have day jobs outside the dance world.

Mara now splits her time between the two cities, though she is training a new hire, Jackie Arcy, to direct the NYC branch. Mara says a typical day can involve nearly every facet of the business: scheduling, website maintenance, apparel branding, photography scouting, coordinating with choreographers on all program/print materials and lighting, video editing, dancer reminders, accounting/budgeting for the season. “I try to work about a month to two months ahead of schedule so everyone knows what’s coming down the pipeline,” she says.

Both companies present two performance seasons a year, in spring and fall, with auditions during the winter and summer. DanceWorks doesn’t offer classes. Instead, it hosts a series of $1 workshops before auditions to give dancers a sense of the skill level required and stylistic range. Tuition is $275 per season, plus a $50 registration fee for dancers ($25 for those who contribute choreography).

Dancers who want to choreograph audition first. They have 10 minutes to put forth their vision for a group piece to a panel of judges (comprised of Mara and choreographers from previous seasons). For these unpaid young dancemakers, choreography is not a career choice, but an opportunity to stretch. “We attract a handful who work at the mom and pop studios who want to choreograph for their peers instead of 5-year-olds,” Mara says. “But mostly our choreographers are average Joes who go to work every day.”

Each dancer may audition for up to four pieces. Mara’s goal is to find a good stylistic fit for everyone. The commitment can be as little as one rehearsal per week for one piece for the four months of show preparation, though many dancers opt to be in multiple pieces.

One of the biggest challenges is to make the show both entertaining and manageable, given the huge number of participants. Mara’s rule is that choreographers include 14 to 25 dancers in each work and wrap it up in three minutes or less. “I don’t want to turn people away, but I don’t want to have a show longer than two hours.”

Dancers sign an injury waiver, and Mara has company liability insurance, but she says, “It’s really no different than going out to play a pick-up basketball game.” Attrition is due less to injuries than moves, marriages and babies. “It’s that next phase,” she says. “In the past six months, we’ve had eight dancers get engaged.” Even so, Mara says more than 30 dancers have stayed with the company since its second season.

Marie Torto is one of them. She commutes nearly an hour each way from New Hampshire. “The night I get to dance for four hours is the best night of the week,” she says. “And I get to see friends I’ve been growing with for the past four years.” DT

Karen Campbell is a cultural correspondent and dance critic for The Boston Globe.

Photos from top (5): Matthew Ziegler Photo, courtesy of DanceWorks; by Lisa Mara, courtesy of DanceWorks

Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine

When choosing music for tap, Jason Samuels Smith encourages teachers to start with classic jazz music. Improvisation, call and response, and syncopated rhythms embedded in the genre and its history, in general, help students to understand the structure of tap, which is different than other styles of dance. "Tap dancers have the responsibility to be more than just a visual artist," he says. "They're an instrument and a sound."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo by Sarah Ash, courtesy of Larkin Dance

Ask Michele Larkin-Wagner and Molly Larkin-Symanietz what sets them and Maplewood, Minnesota–based Larkin Dance Studio apart, and they immediately give the credit to their mom. Shirley Larkin founded the school in 1950 and continued to oversee the growing business until she passed away in 2011. "She put Minnesota on the map for dance training and made other local studios step up to the plate to become as strong as we are," Michele says. "A lot of people's lives are better because of Shirley Larkin."

For Michele and Molly, following in their mom's footsteps was a no-brainer. "I knew I was going to be a choreographer and take over the studio," Michele says. To Molly, seven years Michele's junior and the baby out of six siblings, the studio was always a second home. The two sisters trained across genres but had distinct specialties: Michele found her niche in jazz, musical theater and lyrical, while Molly excelled in tap. In the summers, they'd travel for workshops in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. While Michele was in class with jazz legends like Gus Giordano, JoJo Smith, Luigi and Frank Hatchett, Molly was taking tap classes with the likes of Brenda Bufalino and Phil Black.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Gandarillas

In Macarena Gandarillas' jazz class at California State University, Fullerton, a sign in the studio reads, "Never underestimate the power of determination." This simple mantra embodies what has made this self-described "danceaholic" such an impactful teacher.

When Gandarillas came to Los Angeles at age 6 with her family from Santiago, Chile, the language barrier was beyond overwhelming—until her mom enrolled her in ballet classes. Gandarillas found an instant love. "There were no Spanish-speaking kids at my school," she says. "But with dance I could communicate with my body. I'd finally found my voice."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Is teaching for an after-school program a good way to find a job in K–12?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Inspire School of Arts and Sciences

It was the morning of November 8, 2018, and Jarrah Myles' first-period choreography students were in last-minute rehearsals for their fall dance concert that evening. "All of a sudden my students' phones started ringing like crazy," says Myles, a teacher at Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, a Chico, California, high school whose dance and theater programs Myles helped establish in 2010. "And once they answered, I saw these tragic faces staring back at me."

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network

abezikus/Getty Images

"Dancers can do everything these days," I announced to whoever was in earshot at the Jacob's Pillow Archives during a recent summer. I had just been dazzled by footage of a ballet dancer performing hip hop, remarkably well. But my very next thought was, What if that isn't always a good thing? What if what one can't do is the very thing that lends character?

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Courtney Schwartz and Jake Mcauley perform a Talia Favia combination at Radix Dance Convention Nationals. Via Instagram

Summer intensives and Nationals make June, July and August some of the richest dance-video months of the year. There is so much fabulous content out there, we can hardly contain our excitement!

We have spent hours down the rabbit hole of class videos this week and thought you should see some of our favorite findings.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Infinite Flow

While taking class in 2006, Marisa Hamamoto felt a tingling sensation in her elbows, then suddenly collapsed to the floor. She was hospitalized and diagnosed with spinal cord infarction, a rare spinal stroke that left her paralyzed from the neck down. Despite being told by her doctor that she may never walk again, let alone dance, Hamamoto miraculously walked out of the hospital two months later.

Since her stroke, Hamamoto has found a new lease on life. She has channeled her indomitable will to overcome adversity into a dance company that marries her love of ballroom dance with her passion for social activism. Los Angeles–based Infinite Flow is the first professional wheelchair ballroom dance company in the U.S. Over the past four years it has become a torchbearer for social change, performing worldwide and offering workshops and school assemblies to educate audiences about accessibility and inclusion.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox