Since its inception in 2002, Compton Dance Theatre has inhabited various spaces, but one element has always persisted: flowers—and more importantly, their growth. From colorful orchids to carefully planted gardens, the sweet smell of success is never far for the kids who flock to CDT from all over southern Los Angeles. “My kids have come to know me as the teacher who always has fresh flowers in the studio,” says founder and Artistic Director Carol Bristol-Henry. “They are responsible for taking care of the garden—and they do.”

Such earnest dedication on the part of the dancers is surprising to some who view Compton, California, as a hotbed of violence, crime and corruption. From a dance standpoint, the city has typically been associated with hip hop, gangster rap and krumping (as spotlighted in the 2005 documentary Rize). Yet Bristol-Henry’s ballet-centric efforts are beginning to change the face of dance there.

“For more than a decade, I watched as urban cities like Compton became known for glorifying criminal acts, ultimately leading to the neglect of our youth,” says Bristol-Henry. “What has been most intriguing to me about this travesty is how young people in the area survived by dancing their way through those turbulent times. I did not intend to have ballet strike a chord with young street dancers; I simply wanted them to experience dance outside their zip code.”

But strike a chord it has. According to CDT Board Vice President Adrienne Malka, parents and students alike are devoted to keeping the studio’s efforts alive. “Carol has a huge following; the parents will do anything to get the girls to class and provide whatever Carol needs to continue with the program,” says Malka. “The idea of classical dance in the inner city sounds like trying to mix oil and water, but [CDT] has truly been a breath of fresh air.”

Planting the Seeds

If asked 10 years ago where her career would be now, Bristol-Henry never would have imagined she’d be teaching in an inner city. Raised in New York City, Bristol-Henry trained at such institutions as Dance Theatre of Harlem, LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and later earned a master’s degree in dance education from New York University.

At the onset of her career, Bristol-Henry’s focus was performance, with credits such as “Bill Cosby’s Salute to Alvin Ailey” and Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity.” She became a seasoned choreographer, earning nods from the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts and the NAACP.

But it was while involved with numerous touring projects that Bristol-Henry discovered her true calling as a dance teacher. “Leaving New York City, I noticed how hungry people were for the opportunity to receive technical training,” she recalls. “They were eager to be in a professional studio environment and share what so many of us in New York take for granted. I realized it was my duty to help the arts survive and thrive.”

Her opportunity to do so came in 2000 when she moved to Los Angeles. Although initially hesitant, she accepted a position teaching dance at Compton High School. Prior to that, she had always opted to work with conservatory and college dance programs. “Knowing that most public schools contend with greater challenges than not having access to regularly scheduled dance classes, I refused to believe at that time that I could make any sort of difference,” she explains. She took the job as something to do until her next performance gig.

Once ensconced in her new position, she became disturbed by the violence she saw on the school grounds every day. So, in addition to her existing classes, the new teacher began offering after-school lessons to a small group of three students—which quickly blossomed into a much larger group of friends, relatives and young dancers from the surrounding communities of Watts and Carson.

“Several students confided in me about not having alternative activities to gangs and other risky behavior, and that dance was their only reason for showing up to school every day,” says Bristol-Henry, who incorporated the program in 2002 as the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Compton Dance Theatre Foundation to gain more funding.

Since then, the program’s rapid growth has necessitated several moves, from the high school auditorium to a tiny commercial space to a private charter school. Though larger in size, that space was still far from ideal, with a tile floor, a pillar square in the middle of the room and a long desk acting as the ballet barre. “Coming from The Ailey School, it was a humbling experience,” says Bristol-Henry. “Yet the kids had a commitment I hadn’t seen in a really long time; I learned later that it was because they didn’t know the difference. It was one of the purest moments I’ve experienced because it was just about dance.”

The Magical Garden

Several years later, CDT is in full bloom and thriving inside a brand-new dance studio gifted by the city of Compton, replete with maple floors, wall-to-wall mirrors, dressing rooms and lockers. “It’s amazing to see the pride the dancers feel when they walk in, especially those who have stuck it out from the shoebox to the charter school and now to this beautiful space,” says Bristol-Henry.

Ballet serves as the centerpiece of the program, although classes are also offered in tap, jazz, hip hop, modern, African and Latin dance. In 2006, the program staged its first original ballet, Ms. Bristol’s Magical Garden. “I didn’t think it was fair to ask them to perform one of the standards, so we made up a ballet,” she remembers. “I didn’t want to ask them to do something they couldn’t identify with.”

The 17-minute piece was a hit, with dancers dressed as flowers (representing promise and hope), butterflies (representing innocence) and ladybugs (representing good fortune). “There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” says Bristol-Henry. “We wanted to use the garden as a dance metaphor that meant something [for the kids] other than the Bloods and Crips.”

Along with the after-school program and community dance classes, CDT now houses a professional company for dancers ages 19 and up. In 2004, Bristol-Henry hired additional teachers, some of whom now teach on behalf of CDT at various schools throughout the Los Angeles and Compton School Districts, which act as “feeders” for the after-school program. Bristol-Henry has also forged a relationship with the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles, which now offers free and reduced tickets to performances for CDT participants. From that partnership, Bristol-Henry’s students had an opportunity to audition for American Ballet Theatre’s 2008 summer intensive in Los Angeles. The company hosted an on-site workshop and selected a CDT student to attend.

In March, Bristol-Henry’s efforts were rewarded when she received the Addie Patterson Award for Outstanding Service in Community Development from the city of Compton. At the ceremony, she and CDT were also bestowed with certificates of recognition from the U.S. House of Representatives and the California State Assembly. Though the tangible awards are well-deserved and appreciated, Bristol-Henry says the real reward lies in seeing her students accept dance as a means of self-discipline, direction and fulfillment.

“I can’t get enough of this; I’m driven by what I do,” she says. “Every day, I think about preparing the young people in my program to discover their personal genius and how it will factor into the world that awaits them.” Thanks to Bristol-Henry, their world now blooms with possibility. DT

Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified BalleCore instructor in Los Angeles. Her website is www.creative-groove.com.

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Dance teachers are just as apt to fall into the trap of perfectionism and self-criticism as the students they teach. The high-pressure environment that is the dance world today makes it difficult to endure while keeping a healthy perspective on who we truly are.

To help you quiet your inner critic, and by extension set an example of self-love for your students, we caught up with sports psychologist Caroline Silby. Here she shares strategies for managing what she calls "neurotic perfectionism." "Self-attacking puts teachers and athletes in a constant state of stress, often making them rigid, inflexible and ultimately fueling high anxiety rather than high levels of performance," Silby says. "Perfectionistic teachers, dancers and athletes can learn to set emotional boundaries. They can use doubt, frustration and worry about missing expectations as cues to take actions that align with what they do when teaching/performing well and feeling in-control. Being relentless about applying a solution-oriented approach can help the perfectionist move through intense emotional states more efficiently."

Check out those strategies below!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox