Spotlight: Growing Dancers


The young hopefuls who study with Ellen Robbins, the resident dance educator at New York City’s Dance Theater Workshop, learn more sophisticated facets of the artform than many dance majors do in college. Robbins not only teaches flawless technique, but leads structured improvisations and encourages choreographic explorations. When DT caught up with her one morning in mid-June, she was especially busy, having just run the weeklong teacher intensive, “Growing a Dancer,” sponsored by the 92nd Street Y.  

More than an educator, Robbins is an artist whose medium is children. She says she intends to give her students, primarily ages 5 to 18, “a close connection to the aesthetic experience of art.” Some of her alumni, such as Julia Stiles and Claire Danes, go on to illustrious careers in other artforms, but many others become appreciators of art. “I want students to learn to enjoy doing something well, and understand that art takes time and that it has to grow,” Robbins explains. “I think that’s invaluable to any life experience.” 

History Lesson

Robbins’ commitment to music and dance started as a child. “Dance was always important to me. I danced with my sisters in the living room,” she says. Her father, who went to Columbia University and The Juilliard School simultaneously, was a mathematician and violinist in the New York Philharmonic. Though an artist himself, he tried to talk her out of being a dancer because he thought it too hard a life. The tactic almost worked. After studying at The Juilliard Preparatory Division with Pearl Lang from ages 12 to 18, Robbins attended New York University on a full science scholarship and eventually transferred to Brandeis University, where she graduated with a degree in psychology. 

It was while taking science courses at Brandeis, however, that Robbins’ love for teaching emerged. To satisfy a physical education requirement, she joined the dance club. The instructor agreed to let her teach, and due to popular demand, she taught the next year as well. 

After graduation, she set out to craft a teaching style of her own. She became a member of Mary Anthony’s dance company and taught a pre-beginner class for adults at her studio. “These were pedestrians, real beginners,” Robbins explains. “I had to have language for someone who had no preconceived ideas.”

Soon, Robbins got a second job teaching both adult and children’s classes at a small studio on Long Island. She quickly realized that she needed to tweak her approach in order to reach the children. “I started making up poems and ways of bringing the same kind of technical interest to their level,” she says. During this time, the birth of her nephew, Paul Sanchez, had a profound impact on her educational approach. By trying out teaching techniques on him, she developed a deeper sense of how children learn.

Robbins was also entrenched in the NYC dance scene, attending workshops and substitute teaching at the then brand-new DTW, which was established by three friends in 1965 as a choreographers’ collective. When DTW moved to its current location on 19th Street in the mid 1970s, Robbins was asked to teach on a more regular basis. “My life changed because I was able to be in one place instead of moving around,” she says. DTW embraced her program for children from the get-go. 

Choreography 101

Robbins, who has no children of her own, admits that if she were a mother, it would be difficult to devote so much time and energy to her work. In addition to teaching 13 classes a week, she meets during off-hours with students who want individual help with dance- making projects. “In terms of choreography, she’ll say it’s not so important that you have a good idea but that you have an idea, and then you can polish it,” explains Brynn Rosen, who was in the first class Robbins taught at DTW and is now her teaching assistant.

At the beginning of her tenure at DTW, Robbins rebelled against producing an annual recital, opting instead for end-of-year technique demonstrations. “I was all about process,” she says. Now, her 5-, 6- and 7-year-old classes each have a technique demonstration as well as a solo performed for parents in the studio. Students 8 and older choose their own music and perform solos in DTW’s massive theater. There’s a separate concert for each class, divided by age. 

Isabella Giovannini, 13, who has been dancing with Robbins since age 4, describes the process as very nurturing. “We’ve always made solos, but when we were younger she gave us music, and they would be much shorter and really guided.” 

Each 5-year-old class creates a dance (which they must also title) to Mozart’s “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Robbins guides them using the AABA structure. “B means ‘be different,’” she explains. “I tell them all I care about is that they have an idea for A that they can repeat, and B is different and that they end it.” To imprint this concept, she starts with across-the-floor work. First, it’s straightforward movements, such as skipping and galloping. “One day I’ll say, ‘Now we’ll do a dancing sentence. You can’t repeat one movement and you have to get from this corner to that one. Then I ask them to make a dancing sandwich.” The imagery is that the first third of the room that students travel across is bread. The center third is the filling —peanut butter, tuna fish, turkey, etc.— and the last, the bread again. “That’s how they learn A, B, A—bread, peanut butter, bread,” she explains. 

Even with the 5-year-olds, Robbins monitors class discussions on each student’s choreography. “I ask, ‘Does anybody have something they’d like to say? What would make this dance better? I don’t want to hear that you just like it,’” she says. “I teach them the language of ‘you could’ instead of ‘you should.’” 

Open Seams

Not all of the pieces performed by Robbins’ students are self-choreographed; she creates works on them as well. Much of her own dance-making, however, also includes improvisation and involves “seams that open so that there are parts that dancers have to do and there are parts that they create,” she explains. “Almost every single dance has areas of movement that are infused with the children’s own ideas and choreography.” 

In Garden Party, for instance, there are set sequences of steps, but each character has to create his or her own scenario upon entrance. “There’s a part where everything goes wrong and they argue and have fights, so they choreograph that,” says Robbins. “Then they all get a little tipsy with wine and choreograph a tipsy solo.” Rosen says having a narrative helps achieve the emotional and physical quality that Robbins is trying to achieve. “They know why they’re doing it,” Rosen explains. 

Indeed, structured improvisation plays a huge role in the development of Robbins’ students, and this is one reason each class is divided by age. “They’re improvising about whatever they feel like,” she explains. “You can’t talk to a 5-year-old the way you talk to a 7-year-old.” 

The Halloween dance, which students perform during the last 15 minutes of one class each year until age 8, is a standard structured improvisation in her program. The piece is based on a Halloween poem. “I tell them where to go but not how to go,” she says. Each year, the students get a little more detail and direction. By the second year the black cats aren’t just walking, they’re walking in profile, and the wind isn’t merely blowing, it’s blowing into a whirlpool. No technical moves are wasted in her composition; there has to be a specific reason for a character to do every move so there’s a reason to learn it.

Technique Matters

Not only are students who rise through the ranks of Robbins’ program able to make choreographically sound dances, they have solid technique, as well. “I feel like Ellen has given me such a good technical sense,” Rosen says. “I can pick up anything.” 

Robbins is acutely attuned to the kinesthetic sense of movement, and the word kinesthesia quickly becomes a part of her students’ vocabulary. “If it feels good, it probably is good and probably looks good, too,” Robbins says. She even has them do movements in the wrong way so they feel the difference. “My whole point is to not teach a style but to teach principles of movement and attention to music, dynamics and phrasing,” she says. 

Her use of imagery in explaining technique resonates with her young dancers. Before attending Robbins’ classes, Giovannini took ballet from another teacher. “I remember hating pliés,” she says. “Now I don’t. In ballet we did them in a circle and it was like making a diamond,” she explains. “Then Ellen said, ‘You zip your legs back up,’ and it was just so much more interesting.” 

Other exercises include “toast,” which is about connecting images and movement. “The idea is that my kids can distinguish between being in the air on the beat and being on the ground on the beat or landing on the beat,” Robbins says. “I’m starting to teach them that they can play with the accents.” Toast starts with students sitting on the ground, legs outstretched and feet relaxed. On her count they all flex their feet. This evolves into a full-body movement in which the students start in a low crouch and, on Robbins’ count, individually jump in the air and create shapes according to different themes such as weather, holidays and eggs. Robbins also introduces the concept of jumping on the beat in accordance with the personality of a shape. For example, a raw egg would jump before the beat, whereas a 100-year-old egg would jump after the beat. 

Even when it comes to music selection, Robbins incorporates fun into the classroom. Take the “mystery records game,” for instance. “She has a cart with different CDs that she wheels out, and someone closes their eyes and randomly picks a CD and then randomly picks a track,” explains Giovannini. “Then she plays it and we all dance. It’s good practice if you’ve just gone across the floor. You can use what you’ve learned.”

Most importantly, Robbins’ teaching technique is incredibly holistic. “The improvisation brings the passion, the musicality, the dynamic feel and a compositional sense out of the students,” Rosen explains. The way in which Robbins treats kids as actual artists is arguably the most impressive part of her program—and getting professional results out of pint-sized performers is the perfect encore. DT

Sara Jarrett is a freelance writer based in New York City. 


Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

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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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