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Shirley Ballas Emphasizes Balance When Teaching Ballroom

Ballas, with dancers Matthew Bezzant and Abigail Werner. Photo by and courtesy of Deanna Werner

Shirley Ballas is known in the ballroom world as the Queen of Latin. In competition, she was a standout dancer, winning numerous titles with her partners, including British Open to the World Latin American champion (three times), United States Latin American champion (10 times) and British National champion (multiple times). In 1996, she stopped competing and focused her career on coaching couples and judging competitions internationally. In 2017 she became the head judge on the hit BBC show "Strictly Come Dancing."

"As a woman, I'm particularly grateful for the success I've had in this industry," she says. "The most powerful people in ballroom are predominantly men. So for a woman to get to where I have gotten to is huge." She admits it has taken a great deal of determination, an attitude she recommends all women adopt. "You have to go out there and take it," she says. "That has been the story of my life. Be an extremely focused person, and don't take no for an answer. Be a team player, a team leader and a positive presence. Surround yourself with people who want the same things for you."


Ballas has coached many dancers around the world, including her son, two-time "Dancing with the Stars" Mirrorball Trophy winner Mark Ballas. The most important element of technique she emphasizes in her teaching is balance. "Stand on your feet," she says. "You can't deliver anything without balance. Once you have that, you can focus on the quality of movement as you change from foot to foot, the coordination and synchronization of your arms, and, finally, the energy you use to deliver your message."

Because she spends half the year filming and half the year traveling as teacher and adjudicator, Ballas doesn't stay in one place for long. She approaches her master teaching as a sort of trickle-down group project. "I train dancers, who then become teachers who pass my lessons down to their students. I come in and work with each of them a couple times per year. They don't need to work with me every day because I've trained the next generation of teachers well. I just come in to oversee everything. It's a team effort. When I see my students next, they will be prepared to pick up right where we need to."

GO-TO TEACHING ATTIRE "I'm sponsored by Supadance, the international dance shoe company. They are comfortable and durable, and a good value for the money."

FAVORITE NONDANCE ACTIVITY "I like yoga and working out. I'm also just now finding a social life, which is something I've never had before, because I've always worked so much. We'll see where that goes in the next year or so."

ARTISTIC INSPIRATIONS "I'm inspired by the theater. I like to learn from other people's work within the arts. Lately, I've liked watching Kinky Boots and Jersey Boys. I think they both have great messages."

HER SECRET TO STAYING IN SHAPE "I don't believe in dieting. Eating healthy is a way of life. If it's green and it grows from the ground, it's good for me. I don't eat after 6 pm, and I try to keep everything in moderation. I want young girls to know that taking care of your body is really just about common sense."

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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