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Shawl-Anderson Youth Ensemble Empowers Teens to Grow Into Their Own Skins

Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of SAYE

The Shawl-Anderson Youth Ensemble, a key component of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center's youth program in Berkeley, California, strives to develop the whole person, not just improve dance technique. And its caliber of performance has made SAYE visible and respected in the San Francisco Bay Area over the past 13 years.

As a pre-professional, audition-based, modern performance group for ages 14 to 18, SAYE has its dancers co-create at least six pieces with professional choreographers each year. These dances explore relevant topics for teens, like bullying, coming-of-age and claiming identity.


For La Riña (The Dispute), from the 2018–19 season, choreographer Rogelio Lopez asked the dancers to consider the experience of "inferiority" or "superiority" within an intimate relationship. The students magnified the process with conversations about bullying at school and wider-spread aggression toward women. (The piece was aptly made during the Kavanaugh hearings.)

"It started out with two dancers staring at each other menacingly. One hit the other and pushed her to the ground," says dancer Eláh Sordean (age 17). "Throughout the piece different people were lifted and thrown around. At the end, roles were reversed, and the other dancer did the pushing."

Making La Riña was one thing, but performing it (with rigor) was another—revealing to the dancers the scope and impact of their own emotions. "It really showed me how violence is a cycle," Sordean says. Odessa Newman (age 18) felt a mixture of satisfaction and alarm from just how heavily the piece landed. "The emotions were real in our bodies," she says. "I felt things I didn't know I could feel while 'acting.'"

Mo Miner directs SAYE, teaches its modern classes, selects each season's choreographers and makes work with the group. She guides the teens to "work hard, think critically, support one another, ask thoughtful questions, make decisions and treat their teachers/choreographers with respect," she says. She models professional behavior, and her standards are passed from leading veteran members to newcomers.

As for teaching technique, Miner's approach is stout. "I use the same phrase material that I use for my adult advanced classes," she says. "I sprinkle in other components of modern dance training, including improvisation, composition, anatomy, partnering, inversions and floor work, and somatic practices."

The choreographers Miner brings in don't tailor or simplify their processes either. Instead, they treat rehearsals with SAYE like they would with their own companies. "We were trusted with work that people are doing professionally. That's different from other youth performance programs," says Nina Gonzalez Silas (age 21), alumna. The ensemble has worked with world-class choreographers like Miriam Engel of Israel.

Yet, the effect of the ensemble goes deeper. "As much as it is an education in dance, it's also an education in how to build a community," says Eliza Gilligan (age 16). "We learn how to recognize and work with each other's boundaries." Miner fosters an environment where teens can feel safe and powerful in physical contact, and can generate new ideas and versions of themselves. When they have things to say, there is space to come forward. The dancers feel connected to one another and to Miner, even nicknaming her "Mo(m)."

Each cohort grows close as they witness and support one another's virtuosity and imperfection. "Last year I was learning a shoulder roll (I come from ballet), and everyone stopped to offer me helpful tips. We do that a lot," says Sordean. Recalling times when she was making tricky choreography, Gonzalez Silas says: "What I got from it all was a sense that doing weird stuff brings you closer to people. It's helpful to be in a place of vulnerability, not in a place of confidence at all times. We weren't showing off. We were figuring things out together."

Gonzalez Silas now studies at Barnard College, and her academic work is rooted in inquiry that began in SAYE—questions about the body and selfhood. Alumna Lucia Flexer-Marshall (age 20) is studying dance at UC Santa Cruz and says: "It has been a complete sense of continuity and congruency with my SAYE experience, especially with choreographers allowing for dancers' creative input. Some dancers here who come from commercial backgrounds are thrown into the deep end. I didn't feel that way at all."

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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