Teachers Trending

Stephanie Miracle Is Preserving—and Challenging—Tradition at University of Iowa

Zhenya Plyasunova, courtesy Miracle

When I first interviewed Stephanie Miracle, the University of Iowa visiting professor was headed into spring break—which quickly became a Zoom crash course, as the university migrated all of its classes online. The key parts of Miracle's teaching philosophy—establishing community and relationships, building awareness of the space around you—suddenly needed brand-new consideration and planning. "Taking that part of my curriculum into online teaching was really challenging," said Miracle, in a follow-up interview conducted after the spring semester's end. What she eventually came up with was characteristically thoughtful: She paired students with accountability partners each week, so that they might work on assignments together; asked dancers to journal about their experiences however they preferred—from bullet points to vlogs; and recorded audio lessons, so that students could take their class experiences outside. "Teaching on Zoom often felt like being in a cave—spatial memories were hard to create," says Miracle. "This brought a different kind of humanity to the experience."


During high school, Stephanie Miracle and her family moved to Germany for two years. She was thrown into German school, despite not knowing the language. "I failed all of my classes that first year," she says. But by year two, her immersion and commitment to learning German began to pay off: "I started to become fluent in German," she says. "It ended up being a triumphant experience. It was hugely rewarding, to feel that I could go through hardship and emerge with this new set of skills and insight into a culture."

Fifteen years later, Miracle found herself in Germany once again—this time as a Fulbright research fellow in dance, studying Pina Bausch's history and lineage at Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen. Miracle assimilated quickly into the nearly 100-year-old institution, going quickly from taking classes to being offered a spot in The Folkwang Tanzstudio, the international touring company associated with the school.

At Folkwang, Miracle saw firsthand how older traditions battled with and sometimes gave way to newer methods in higher ed pedagogy. As an educator interested in questioning older approaches to dance curriculum, she knew her time at the university would be a valuable learning experience.

Four dancers in bright patterns and colors fall to the floor in gradual stages. One is mid-hand stand

Miracle performing with Folkwang Tanzstudio

Isabelle Wenzel, courtesy Miracle

"One of my motivations for studying there was a real interest in how traditions can be preserved without becoming stale," she says. "Those older forms come with some politics and ways of viewing the body that need to be evaluated, definitely. But there's also something in the power they've accumulated. If it's already stood the test of time, it's something strong. What is that, and how do we use that, and not let it just get buried in all the new ideas? How can we construct from that?"

Now, as a visiting professor at the University of Iowa, Miracle is able to translate what she learned at Folkwang to another institution with its own particular set of rules and traditions. She manages to straddle seemingly oppositional stances—she remains both respectful of tradition and unafraid to question long-held standards of dance in higher ed.

"I need a system of exchange with students."

Because she is a visiting professor, Miracle is uniquely positioned to both quietly observe and offer a fresh perspective. For Miracle, the time at Iowa is an opportunity to deepen her choreographic research and refine her teaching philosophy, which translates to spending a lot of time with the undergrads. "It feels mutually beneficial for me to offer them as much as I can, because that helps me better refine my craft," she says. "I don't think I have anything to lose in that, as long as I'm setting personal boundaries and not overloading myself."

Her contemporary technique classes often oppose typical dance studio etiquette—dancing with a group but acting as if you're a soloist, for example—and encourage students to question norms. "I've seen a trend in university dance department technique classes to pretend like you're alone in your own little box," says Miracle. "I like to think of technique studio time as research toward how we are in relationship to others and to space—differentiating between dancing as soloists who happen to be next to each other and when we dance truly together."

She frequently incorporates partnering, touch and floorwork into her classes. "I make use of different passageways in space—circles, for example—as opposed to just standing in the center of the room," says Miracle. "I'm interested in giving the space different attributes, playing with conjuring, a sorcery of manipulating space so it affects the other bodies in the room. I find that it changes how you train your body and also prepares you for performance."

Miracle, wearing a forest green dress, dances in tall grass, a vast landscape behind her

Pat Berrett, courtesy Miracle

"My approach is about hooking in to the material—and then being able to play."

Another opportunity for Miracle to compare and contrast her time in the German university system is in teaching composition. "In Germany, the approach to choreography was, 'Get in the studio and just start working, and let's see if you come up with anything good,'" she says. "It was a little bit severe. I remember watching the adjudication process for some students and thinking, 'Oh my gosh, is there any room to fail?'"

Such high expectations, coupled with little pedagogical direction, could be daunting. "And while I do have issues with that approach," says Miracle, "I recognize that it did drive some students to work really hard. My approach, on the other hand, is about hooking in to the material and then being able to play." She gives her students space and time to reflect on their choreographic choices as they go. "I like to give students the chance to test those choices to see if they work, both in how the dance is being received by viewers and also if it elicits pleasure in the maker," she says.

It's thrilling when undergrads discover a penchant for choreography. "Some of these students have no idea they're choreographers," she says, "and it's as if their whole world is exploding—it's exciting!"

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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