Spotlight On: Katy Spreadbury

Seen & Heard At the Dance Teacher Summit

An active commercial dancer, Katy Spreadbury is renowned for teaching 4- to 7-year-old dancers on the JUMP Dance Convention circuit. She’s spent over a decade honing her craft, and the results are visible to anyone who pokes their head into one of her baby ballerina classes. Beyond her chipper enthusiasm, Spreadbury has a unique ability for engaging kids as young as 3. Here, she shares a few of her teaching tips with DT. See her in person this month at the Dance Teacher Summit.

Katy Spreadbury at JUMP Dance Convention (above) and Dance Teacher Summit

Dance Teacher: What is the most important thing to keep in mind when teaching young children?

Katy Spreadbury: One of my early mistakes was coming into a room of 3- to 5-year-olds using dance language as though they already knew it. It wasn’t fair, not only because it was a foreign language, but at that age they’re just coming into their own bodies.

Now I use imagery to put them in the proper position without talking to them in a way they don’t understand. For instance, we pretend we’re balancing a glass of milk on top of our heads. You ask them how they would do that, and they all sit up nice and tall to the point where they’re using their muscles to separate their vertebrae as much as they can. And then the girls pretend to put on earrings, and I ask them to show every inch of those earrings that dangle all the way down to their shoulders. That gets them to press their shoulders away from their ears.

So you can get their bodies generally in the right position, and the kids are having fun because they’re playing pretend. They don’t know that they’re working; they’re just stretching their brains and playing with their bodies. The idea is to eventually wean them off this imagery and wean them off these games, but at that age they aren’t prone to work. You can’t push them like a drill sergeant, because they’ll just leave or cry!

DT: What about the boys?

KS: I adjust the imagery so they don’t need to pretend they’re wearing earrings. The boys imagine balancing pencils under their ears instead. Sometimes I’ll ask them to move something for me, like a book bag, because they’re “strong boys,” so they’ll move it over to the side of the room and feel very proud. Or if the girls are working on splits at age 5 or 6, I’ll have boys do jumps or something that feels a little more gender-appropriate to them.

It’s funny to use this word at age 5, but you don’t want to emasculate a little boy. You don’t want them to feel that they’ve traded in soccer or football for dance, that they’ve given up something masculine for something less so. The more you can make the classroom appropriate for masculine behavior, the better. Ignoring them and treating them just like the girls is not a great idea, and it’s usually the reason they leave.

DT: How do you attend to a crying child without derailing the whole class?

KS: It depends on the level of emotion you’re seeing. Sometimes you can see the tears start to come or the lip quiver, and all it takes is a moment to help them to feel safe again. I’ll just go sit next to them and compliment them on something they’re doing well. And usually a hand on them is helpful, because it reminds them of their mom, of whatever comfort comes from home. So if it’s just a hand on their shoulder saying, “Wow! Your earrings look amazing!” and then asking them for a high five, that takes them out of their own emotions and brings them back into the room and into that feeling of fun. So if I catch it early enough, the tears won’t come at all.

If I miss that moment, and they’re at the next stage of feeling upset or vulnerable, I might tell them I need them to be my special helper. They’ll sort of start to nod, and then I say that I need that special helper to be smiling, and they’ll start to muster up a smile. Or I’ll ask them to come sit next to me in the front of the room, and I’ll figure out a way to create the next exercise around them, meaning they get to demonstrate. Then they’re excited, and hopefully they forget about the tears. —Andrea Marks

Photos from top: courtesy of Break the Floor Productions; by Mia Stringer, courtesy of Katy Spreadbury

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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