Sue Samuels' Classic Jazz Is a New York City Staple

Photo by Amber Veltri, courtesy of Broadway Dance Center

We're privileged to honor four extraordinary educators with this year's Dance Teacher Awards in August at our New York Dance Teacher Summit. The awardees include Julie Kent, Djana Bell, Rhonda Miller, Sue Samuels and Stephanie Kersten.

Sue Samuels arrived in New York City as a tall teenager, encouraged by her ballet teachers back home in Florida to join the Rockettes. But she fell in love with jazz, studying with greats like Luigi, Nat Horne, Phil Black and, most significantly, JoJo Smith. "With JoJo," she says, "I learned a lot of musicality, how to contract and release, and how to get the jazz conversation into my body."

Since then, Samuels has been a jazz staple on the New York dance scene—teaching, performing and choreographing for 40 years. As a longtime faculty member at Broadway Dance Center, she works hard to keep this beloved American form of dance alive, infusing it with a strong ballet foundation.

In the '70s, Samuels helped Smith open JoJo's Dance Factory, one of the first big dance centers in New York (and a precursor to BDC), welcoming teachers like jazz master Frank Hatchett, Kirov-trained Madame Gabriela Darvash and hoofer Judy Ann Bassing. Eventually, Samuels and Smith married and had two children, both of whom went on to have careers in the dance world—Jason Samuels Smith, renowned tapper, and Elka Samuels Smith, co-founder of the artist management company Divine Rhythm Productions. Both know what a special teacher their mother is: "She cares about her students and the experience that's taking place," says Jason. "Her constant engaging of the individual is one of her main strengths." Says Elka, "My mom has dedicated her entire life to the development and success of others, not only as dancers, but as people."

Samuels has been a mainstay of BDC's faculty since its opening in 1984. "Sue's style is classic," says Diane King, executive director of BDC, "which contributes to her staying power." Unique to her classes are a jazz barre warm-up and live percussion—Samuels plays a conga drum. Over the years, her students have included stage, film and TV stars, like Brooke Shields and Irene Cara. In 2009, she formed her own company, Jazz Roots Dance.

For Samuels, what happens in the studio is what determines what will happen onstage. "The way that dancers train is the way they're going to dance," she says. Despite her legendary status in New York, her approach remains simple and unassuming: "Don't focus on leaving lasting impressions," she says. "Just train people individually in the way that they need it."

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.

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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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