Seen and Heard at the Dance Teacher Summit: Mandy Moore

You can catch this lady teaching at this weekend's Dance Teacher Summit in NYC! We hope to see you there. Check out Mandy Moore's thoughts on tricks, "floppy anger dancing" and more in her interview with DT:

Moore (right) teaching at JUMP

To her fans, Mandy Moore is a pioneer of contemporary dance. But the “So You Think You Can Dance” choreographer doesn’t think her work belongs under that heading, and she’s not sure anyone knows what does. She says the popularity of dance on TV has created bad habits among dancers when it comes to the trendy but nebulous genre. Between commitments on the convention and competition circuit and her latest gig—creating opening numbers on “Dancing with the Stars”—the outspoken DT Summit faculty member spoke about the contemporary style conundrum and how to create meaningful dance, no matter what you label it.

Dance Teacher: What style best describes your work on “So You Think You Can Dance”?

Mandy Moore: Most of what I do on that show is lyrical. We could debate contemporary versus lyrical, but I was taught lyrical was a mix between ballet and jazz. It has jazz principles—the shapes, the quick direction changes—with beautiful ballet lines. When contemporary came, it was this mixture of shapes that couldn’t really be jazz and weren’t ballet. It became an umbrella for everything you can’t define.

So many people don’t understand what’s going on with contemporary, and rightfully so. We don’t even know, and we’re the people doing it! I feel like a lot of teachers get so confused, thinking, “What am I doing with my kids? Are we just doing a new version of lyrical and calling it contemporary?”

DT: Whatever we call it, what’s the harm in imitating the style?

MM: When people don’t have knowledge about something, they go to what’s easiest. Just because it’s easier to stand in parallel with no muscles engaged and flop your arms around in the air doesn’t mean that’s dance.

Dancers are hypermobile in their hips because of what they see on YouTube and TV—they think dance is about throwing your leg up in the air. They’re soft in their cores because there’s a lack of traditional jazz technique. They don’t have texture or a grounded feeling in their bodies. It feels surface-y, like they’re ice-skating.

Contestents on “SYTYCD” perform a Moore routine to “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

DT: How can teachers end this trend?

MM: Kids think emoting is floppy anger dancing. I’ve done that, and I understand why it would feel good. But as teachers, we need to explain that’s just one piece of the pie. There are so many other ways to move. And if students could learn to move from a place that’s connected in their centers, when they did movement like that it would have a whole new meaning.

DT: As a competition judge, how do you suggest a teacher create a so-called contemporary number that’s evocative without being “floppy anger dancing”?

MM: Think about what you are saying, and what I [the judge] am supposed to get from the number. If you pick a song that means something to you, why would you put a random fouetté section in the middle of it? Why have your dancers flopping to their knees doing something you saw on “So You Think You Can Dance” last week when there’s nothing that supports it musically or story

wise? I’m up for all of it as long as it’s done with tact, integrity and knowledge.

DT: But aren’t tricks required to score well in competition?

MM: I get it. You’re like, “I have to put 55 things in a number.” That happens on “So You Think” all the time. Our producers tell us we have to put in more tricks, so I try to find the best, most authentic way to do it, because I’ll feel like an idiot choreographer if I don’t at least give it a transition or a build. I’m often asked to do these ’80s love ballads on “So You Think,” so usually there’s a great build in the music. I try to match it and give [the trick] a good in and a good out, so it doesn’t feel like, “Abort the mission. Stop dancing and do a trick.” It’s a challenge to transition into and out of something spectacular. It takes a lot of thought.

Photos from top: courtesy of Break the Floor Productions; by Adam Rose/FOX

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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