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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."

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Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

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Researchers at InsuranceProviders.com analyzed data from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), a national organization developed through support from the U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration, to determine the 20 most physically demanding jobs in the country. They analyzed the level of strength, stamina, flexibility and coordination required for a host of jobs, and each category was assigned

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Going upside down can be scary. It's spatially bewildering, and young students who have spent their lives upright often lack the strength required to feel confident putting their weight on their hands. But, don't fret! There are safe and pleasant ways to build the muscle and the might for dynamite inversions.

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I love this level. I see it as the true origin of a student's dance journey. Intermediate students have bought in, caught the fever, chosen to move beyond inquiry about dance to investment in dance. They are yearning to advance past their beginner training and label.

As teachers, we begin to set more stringent expectations for them to commit to class, take ownership of their learning, and comprehend more terminology and skills. Yet, they are still a bit disheveled in their movement and engagement. They still sometimes forget their dance pants and confuse upstage with downstage. Some of them are still, well, terrified.

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2019's movies featured some truly fantastic dancing, thanks to the hard work of many talented choreographers. But you won't see any of those brilliant artists recognized at the Academy Awards. And we're (still) not OK with that.

So we're taking matters into our own jazz hands.

On February 7—just before the Oscars ceremony—we'll present a Dance Spirit award for the best movie choreography of 2019. With your help, we've narrowed the field to seven choreographers, artists whose moves electrified some of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year.

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Kathryn Alter (left). Photo by Alexis Ziemski

In every class Kathryn Alter teaches, two things are immediately evident: how thoughtfully she chooses her words, and how much glee she gets from dancing the movement and style of modern choreographer José Limón. At the 2019 Limón summer workshop at Kent State University, Alter demonstrated a turning triplet with her arms fully outstretched, a smile stretching easily across her face. "It should be as if…" She paused to think of the perfect analogy that would help the dancers find the necessary circularity of the movement. "As if you live in a doughnut!" she finished, grinning broadly. The dancers gathered around her laughed—her smile and love for something as foundational as a triplet was contagious.

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Teachers from coast to coast are pushing students to move outside the constraints of popular music. There is a consensus that the earlier you introduce varied musical forms, the more adept and adaptable a dancer's musicality will be.

New York–based jazz scholar and teacher Melanie George notices that many students' relationships to music can be reductive: They may think exclusively about lyrics or accents. But jazz, for example, is about swinging: an embodied comprehension of instrumentation that only comes with musical acuity. "Students are ready for this specificity, even if we aren't giving it to them," she says. When her students understand that there is a technique to listening, it becomes less about going forward, and more about going deeper into the sound and into their bodies.

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Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in a scene from An American in Paris. Courtesy Fathom Events.

If you loved Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris on Broadway, you can now see the 1951 Oscar-winning movie it's based on in all its Technicolor glory. Fathom Events will present MGM's An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly and French ballerina Leslie Caron, and with music by George and Ira Gershwin, in select theaters nationwide January 19 and 22.

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Photo by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of PNB School

Naomi Glass, teacher at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, knows firsthand the advantages and challenges of hypermobility. As a young dancer, she was told to keep her hyperextended knees in a straight position far from her full range of motion. "It felt too bent to me," she says. "But once I was able to access my inner thighs and rotators, I found strength and stability and could still use the line that I wanted."

Hypermobility occurs when joints exceed the normal range of motion. Dancers can have hypermobility in specific joints, like their knees, or they can have generalized laxity throughout their bodies (which is often measured using the Beighton system—see below). While this condition may enable students to create beautiful aesthetic lines, it can also increase risk for injury. Help dancers gain the strength they need to stay healthy while making the most of their hypermobility.

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Alicia Graf Mack's journey to become director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division—the youngest person to hold the position, and the first woman of color—was anything but a straight line. Yes, she's danced with prestigious companies: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But Mack also has a BA in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis; she pursued both degrees during breaks in her performing career, taken to recover from injuries and autoimmune disease flare-ups.

As an undergrad, she briefly interned at JPMorgan Chase in marketing and philanthropic giving, and she later made arts administration central to her graduate work, assuming that she'd eventually take an administrative role with a dance organization.

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