Study Science, Dance for Fun

Pursuing an academic degree doesn’t mean students have to leave dance behind.

Danza members can perform in eight works a semester and choreograph their own.

Kellie Drexl approached the end of high school with trepidation. “I’d been training at a studio and competing for 10 years,” she says, “and I knew I couldn’t give that up.” Though she didn’t want to pursue a dance major, she couldn’t bear cutting dance out completely. So during her freshman year at the University of Florida, she auditioned for Danza, a student-run performing group. Now a senior and Danza’s president, Drexl performs in seven pieces per show and choreographs. “It’s replaced my studio life,” she says.

Most colleges offer ways for students to stay involved with dance, whether via dance teams or student-run organizations like UF’s Danza. Some schools, like Harvard University (which doesn’t offer a dance major), encourage interested students to take advantage of noncredit classes and guest-artist opportunities. Don’t let your high school students assume that forgoing a dance major or minor will mean the end of their dancing days—they just need to find the right extracurricular.

Join the Club

Drexl, a health education major, was drawn to the flexibility that Danza offered her as a member. Monday nights are mandatory, when the group either rehearses the show’s opening or closing number or a member teaches a technique class. Otherwise, team members can dance as much (or as little) as they want.

The company holds open auditions each semester. Choreography for Danza’s semester-end showcase is largely jazz and contemporary and is screened by the whole company. Most members perform in three or four pieces each semester. But Drexl says a third of the group dances in the maximum number of pieces—eight.

University of Florida

Fellow student Noelle Cummins joined another UF dance club, the Dancin’ Gators. The criminology major needed a break from the rigorous schedule of her high school dance team and hometown studio and felt she could moderate her participation in this student-run group. The Dancin’ Gators doesn’t have auditions and accommodates students who just want a weekly technique class, as well as those who want to dance in or choreograph for the semester-end showcase. Members can also participate in the club’s performance team, which will travel to Disney World this year. “If you take advantage of all the opportunities,” says Cummins, who is now president of the club, “it’s about 6–10 hours per week.”

Another plus is the club’s versatility, which has reinvigorated Cummins’ love for dance. “We have every level and style,” she says. “We do mostly contemporary, hip hop and jazz, but we also have hula, swing, salsa and Irish. It’s changed my outlook and given me back my drive.”

Team Spirit

Ellen Eubanks is a finance major at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, where she spends 15–20 hours a week each fall semester practicing with the Dixie Darlings, a precision dance team that has performed at Southern Miss’ football games since 1954. Teammates practice Monday through Friday, for two to three hours each day (for which they receive two class credits). They must also put in three hours of outside conditioning to prepare for the high-energy game-day shows. Like Eubanks, about 90 percent of the Dixie Darlings are studio-trained dancers. “I look for that training,” says coach Tracy Smith, “because a technical background allows them to pick up the team’s jazz routines quickly.”

Things slow down in the spring: Daily rehearsals are over, though team members can take technique classes (taught by Smith) or join the team’s new competition group and perform at community events.

Despite the dance team’s hefty fall commitment, Eubanks finds time to be a sorority member. “I have to schedule my time out to the hour,” she says, “but on game day, when I think about being part of this team’s tradition, I just get chills.”

Nina Shevzov-Zebrun has ample opportunity to take ballet and work with guest artists at Harvard.

Study with the Masters

Nina Shevzov-Zebrun trained for a ballet career until the end of high school, when she decided to enter Harvard’s chemistry program. She takes class from renowned modern choreographers, made available through the dance program.

Despite the lack of a dance major, the program provides a range of for-credit and extracurricular opportunities. For instance, director Jill Johnson (DT, August 2011) brings guest artists to campus each semester (Dwight Rhoden last spring and Andrea Miller in 2013) to teach open master classes. These classes may also serve as an audition—each artist chooses a cast for an original work created for the semester-end showcase. When Shevzov-Zebrun was cast by Pontus Lidberg in spring 2013, she had to come back early from winter break to rehearse about eight hours a day for two weeks. “Then we rehearsed six hours a week until the show,” she says. “I’m not sure I’d have time to do it again, but it was an incredible experience.”

Interested students can also apply for the Emerging Choreographer program: Two or three are selected each semester and given work space and guidance from Johnson and current artists in residence.

Shevzov-Zebrun also takes advantage of noncredit technique classes, open to all and offered in conditioning, contemporary and ballet. Classes meet either once ($55) or twice ($75) per week or can be taken on a drop-in basis ($7 per class). DT

Julie Schechter is a dancer and New York City–based freelance writer.

Photos from top: by Jordan Albright, courtesy of Drexl; courtesy of Cummins; by Thomas Earle, courtesy of Shevzov-Zebrun 

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."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
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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