Setting Boundaries

Relationships are the heart of dance training—after all, children who are nurtured and encouraged from a young age are often those who succeed. Yet what happens when this interaction goes beyond the studio? Should a line be drawn between personal and professional? Unsupervised one-on-one contact, including texting and social-media networking, can put a studio owner (and her staff) at risk for ethical misunderstandings. To avoid accusations of inappropriate behavior and to keep your studio’s credibility intact, it is recommended that you establish clear guidelines and practice them uniformly. DT spoke to four studio owners about their policies—and how they enforce the rules.


Linda Bernabei-Retter

Retter’s Academy of Dance

(350 students)

Agoura Hills, CA

“I could share 500 stories of where boundaries got blurred, and the result was loss of revenue, friendship or a student,” says Linda Bernabei-Retter, co-owner of Retter’s Academy of Dance. She remembers one situation where a teacher was waiving the private lesson fee for students without telling the directors: “Suddenly she’s the nice guy and the studio is the bad guy,” she says. “Things like that are immediate grounds for dismissal.”

Bernabei-Retter has a clear discipline policy in place for teachers who overstep the boundaries. For the first offense, she has a sit-down conversation to review studio policies, which state that all outside contact must go through the front desk and that attending functions is not allowed without permission. If a second offense occurs, the employee is given a written warning, and if it happens again, the employee could be dismissed. The studio also forbids teachers from “friending” students on Facebook. Instead, co-owner Darryl Retter created a Facebook page for the academy as a central place for online interaction and studio updates. Though Bernabei-Retter’s rules might seem strict, her teachers are relieved to have an excuse to keep a clear line drawn, she says.

Diane Kelley

Diane Kelley Dance Studio

(350 students)

West Boylston, MA

Diane Kelley recalls one former employee who was notorious for asking parents to run errands for her while she taught their children private lessons. “I had to pull her aside and explain that this is my business and I expect professionalism,” she says. Other instances include an instructor who used Facebook to tell students she was choreographing a piece, rather than following company policy and waiting for the studio to issue a formal announcement. Another teacher frequently text-messaged students.

Instances like these have helped Kelley refine her code of conduct, which she reviews annually with her 13 staffers. The code states that contact with students (social networking, cell, online chat or phone calls) is prohibited outside of class without studio consent. But some flexibility is allowed: “The majority of our clientele sign up at age 3 and stay through high school, so our teachers do develop relationships. If staff is invited to a graduation party, I don’t frown upon that type of thing.”

Sally Taylor Reyes

Greater Austin Dance Academy

(450 students)

Austin, TX

At Greater Austin Dance Academy, owner Sally Taylor Reyes facilitates almost all contact between families and teachers, including phone number and e-mail address exchanges. “It’s a formal process that prevents a lot of unnecessary outside conversation,” she says. Doing so can also be beneficial on other fronts, as she learned while working at a different studio. “We had a teacher leave and take several students with her,” she says. “For that reason, I don’t allow employees access to personal information, not only while working here, but for a number of years after they leave.”

Though she discourages Facebook contact between teachers and students, she hasn’t yet made social networking part of the formal policy. “My thought is that there should not be mixing of students or clientele on Facebook; it’s inviting them into a personal part of your life and opening up areas that do not need to be shared,” she says. As for face-to-face socializing, Taylor Reyes prefers that teachers decline invitations. If they do attend parties or other social functions, however, “they are expected to represent the school and must be on professional behavior at all times. It’s written in their contracts,” she says.

Kim DelGrosso

Center Stage Performing Arts Studio

(500–600 students)

Orem, UT

For Kim DelGrosso, the idea that families and teachers shouldn’t fraternize outside the studio is a foreign concept. From baby showers to graduations, members of the Center Stage community share their milestone moments and use the studio’s bulletin board to post invites, says DelGrosso, who employs 30 teachers. “One-third of my faculty were trained here,” she says. “We’re all so intertwined in each others’ lives that I wouldn’t even know where to begin making rules.”

That openness carries over to social networking as well. “I’m Facebook-connected with a lot of my students, and I actually see a long-term benefit to this,” she says. “As my students like Julianne [Hough], Derek [Hough] and Chelsie [Hightower] go on to professional careers, they don’t leave us. They inevitably call or come home and still seek that mentoring and closeness. It’s just worked for us.” DT

A former hip-hop, dance fitness and cheerleading instructor, Jen Jones is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer.

Photo: ©iStockphoto.com/Robert Simon

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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