Back-to-school can be a nerve-racking time for male dance students—especially as they approach middle or high school—and for their parents. Fears of bullying, isolation and low self-esteem are valid worry points, and, as parents, we want to do our best to help our kids feel supported and loved—especially in uncertain times. For a first-person account from a boy whose mom did a lot of the right stuff, we spoke with Alex Clayton, a professional modern dancer who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and is now a third-year member of Paul Taylor Dance Company:
Tiare Keeno successfully straddles the worlds of concert and commercial dance. She began her training at one of the country's premier competition studios, Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, Utah, before eventually transitioning to a top-notch classical conservatory, Classical Ballet Academy. All the while, she kept a close relationship with the razzle-dazzle of conventions, attending many each year before joining Nevada Ballet Theatre in 2012. "I've always said I wanted to stay open and try new things," Keeno says. After graduating from The Juilliard School in 2016, she moved to Macau, China, to work on the creation of a new Cirque du Soleil show, and performed in Al Blackstone's Freddie Falls in Love at The Joyce Theater in 2019, before landing her current position with BODYTRAFFIC for the 2019–20 season.
In a spacious upstairs room in his San Francisco home, ballet teacher Christopher Lam gently holds on to an ironing board as he pliés, tendus and dégagés in his socks on the wood floor. He is leading students in a virtual ballet class on Zoom in light of the San Francisco Bay Area's shelter-in-place order that has closed the doors of every dance studio where Lam normally teaches. After a particularly speedy and challenging frappé exercise with fondus, he steps up to the camera and says, laughing, "Dancers, I think that one was a bit ambitious for home—juggling the slippery floor and ironing board."
In Aiano Nakagawa's creative-dance class at Acorn Woodland Child Development Center in Oakland, California, a student wanted to run really fast instead of exploring shapes as planned. Nakagawa didn't dismiss or correct the desire. Instead, she yelled, "Yeah! And can you try a sharp shape at the end?" Another time, teachers were asking students not to go underneath tables in the room, but students wanted to anyway. So, Nakagawa's next lesson involved a theme for dancing under things.
Nakagawa teaches ages 0 to 7 at Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley and has founded a publication and platform for QTBIPOC (queer/trans/black/indigenous/people of color) creatives to empower themselves and others through art, called Art for Ourselves. In this work with adults and teens, she says that "it's really about undoing internalized oppression. But young children have an innate sense of freedom, a deep connection to sensation." By promoting that autonomy, she believes that we can collectively dismantle oppressive systems from the ground up. For her, teaching dance is not just about students being creative or physically active, but a way of fostering critical thinking and social justice.
Just when young dancers need oxygen the most—during a challenging balance or speedy petit allégro—it often seems they instinctively hold their breaths. Sometimes this happens as a reaction to stress; other times it might simply result from a constant sucking in of the waistline. No matter, it is an important habit for dance teachers to break.
"Dancers do not want their bellies sticking out, so most of them never breathe deeply enough and only take very shallow breaths into their upper rib cage," explains Marika Molnar, founder of Westside Dance Physical Therapy. "This reduces the amount of oxygen that gets into the blood to nourish the working muscles." Limiting the breath can also bring aesthetic and functional issues, from appearing stiff or uncoordinated to experiencing fatigue and exhaustion from not getting enough oxygen to your working muscles. In order to start coaching a deeper breath or diaphragmatic breath, it is necessary to help students understand the muscles at work with every inhale and exhale. While much time is spent having dancers work on their core, most often the abdominals are the focus and the topmost muscle is ignored: the diaphragm. The diaphragm is best described as a thin, dome-like muscle that acts as a partition separating the thoracic cavity, or chest, from the abdomen.
"I think visualization helps a lot," says Molnar. "If you have a round, blown-up balloon, and you put your flat hand on top and press down, you will see that the balloon increases in circumference as the pressure on it increases. This is what happens when you inhale: The diaphragm descends and flattens out, the rib cage expands while the abdominal contents get pushed down and outward, and air rushes into the lungs." When you actively release the diaphragm through an exhale, it returns to its starting position and allows the abdominal muscles to contract.
"Using a correct breathing technique can help to stabilize the lumbar spine and distribute the forces of gravity more equally around the lumbopelvic spinal muscles through their fascial connection to the psoas muscles," says Molnar. Other benefits of diaphragmatic breath include slowing down the heartbeat, stabilizing blood pressure and encouraging a sense of calm by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Along with visualization, Molnar recommends palpating students' back ribs and explaining that they should direct the breath into that area, allowing the abdomen to rise and fall as needed. "Dancers tend to pick this up very easily, because they are very kinesthetic," she says.
Breath as a Practice
Though we conceive of breathing as a natural skill, many experiences as we grow tend to stifle our innate ability to breathe deeply. Molnar prefers to teach dancers to think of breathing as a practice: "Do it every day, just like your barre," she says. While there are many ways to improve your lung capacity through specific breathing exercises, here are a two of her favorites that can be practiced anywhere at any time, in 5 to 10 minutes.
Counting the Breath
1. Start by exhaling through your mouth. "Purse your lips to really call in the deep abdominals," says Molnar. You can place your hands on your abdomen to feel your abdominals contract.
2. Inhale through your nose, with your mouth closed and your tongue resting on the roof of your mouth, its tip behind the front teeth. Move the back of one of your hands to your back ribs and feel them expand (don't be concerned with keeping the belly tight; allow it to expand naturally).
3. Begin to count to four in each direction of the breath.
4. See if you can increase the length of each inhale and exhale by one or two counts. Eventually, you might increase the exhale to a count of eight.
5. Then add a one-count pause at the end of each inhale and at the end of every exhale. Slowly increase that pause to four counts as you get more proficient.
"In a group class the teacher could give a combination like this: Four counts to inhale through the nose, four counts to hold, eight counts to exhale through pursed lips," says Molnar.
Breathing and Walking
"One of my favorite exercises is to combine breathing and walking," says Molnar. "Let's say you can walk three steps on your inhale and three on your exhale to start; after a while you may be able to walk five or six steps on each inhale and exhale."
This exercise is a great way to bring mindfulness to the breath and encourage coordination of breath and movement. Use the same tactile cues as above if they are helpful.
Tip: If you get lightheaded doing this exercise in a standing position, try it sitting or lying on your back.
After treating professional dancers and students for many years, Molnar developed the Parasetter, a patented roller that includes an elastic wrap for the waist, to assist in three-dimensional breathing exercises. "I love using the Parasetter," she says, "because it gives you great feedback from the posterior rib cage as you take deep inhales, and if you wear the rib wrap, you can get the sensation of the whole rib cage in motion."
Marika Molnar founded Westside Dance Physical Therapy in NYC. Photo by Rachel Papo
I recently spent a Saturday night with my husband and my 17-year-old dancing daughter, who sobbed at the foot of our bed. My daughter revealed her experiences with implicit bias and overt racism in school, and especially in the dance studio.
For six years, she has danced at a classical ballet school tied to the city's ballet company. The previous six years were spent at a mid-sized recreational/competition studio. I want to recount a few examples of the racism that my daughter shared that night.
Every dance educator owns some version of this story.
In the first two months of 2020, I managed to create and stage 80 minutes of choreography for the debut of my new troupe, Movement Headquarters Ballet Company. I also traveled to Colorado and Mississippi to judge for Youth America Grand Prix and Dance Teachers United. I did this all while maintaining a rigorous weekly schedule teaching at Broadway Dance Center and a tuition-based program in Connecticut.
As well-trained as pre-professional students are, how many are ready to move into a company environment at 17 or 18 years old—and succeed? Runqiao Du, artistic director of the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC, has seen many dancers struggle as apprentices and first-year corps members and notes that some don't make it beyond that. "Physically and mentally, they're just through," he says. That's why Du has instituted a weekly career development seminar to "prepare young dancers for their transition from a student mind-set to a professional mind-set," he says.
Born and trained in Shanghai, Du recalls his own challenges joining The Washington Ballet at age 18. Beyond a new country and language, he says, "my attitude in general toward rehearsal and toward class was different. I had to learn."
Du wants his 12 Kirov seniors to be ready. His career preparation course, which meets every Friday afternoon, covers different aspects of professional life, from the job-search process to interacting with colleagues and artistic staff. Here are a few takeaways.
Preparing for Auditions
Du's course begins where the students must: preparing for the job hunt. "There are so many prodigies," he says. "But companies are careful about hiring. Just because a dancer can do a brilliant solo doesn't mean they can cope in long-term company life."
Du walks his dancers through the process of conducting a focused job search, crafting a resumé and video reel, and scheduling auditions. He encourages them to research the organization's history, style, social-media accounts and artistic staff to better understand the type of work the company does, and prepare themselves accordingly. Interviews also matter, so dancers learn how to ask perceptive questions to demonstrate their intelligence and interest.
Du also covers the aftermath of audition season: signing a contract—and fully understanding the legal language and obligations of both parties—and handling rejection. (His advice? If your A-list company doesn't hire you, move on to plan B—even if that means expanding options, like college.)
"Mr. Du told us even little details about how to communicate with the company," says Andrea Sandoval, an 18-year-old student from Mexico City. "He makes you realize how important these things are."
Knowing Where You Stand
Once hired, navigating the complexities of company life can make or break a dancer's career. Du even lectures on something as seemingly innocuous as stepping into the first company class, noting that a newcomer shouldn't encroach on a senior dancer's position at the barre.
Du also wants dancers to understand that a company's focus is on the bigger picture. Artistic staff are concerned about the company's entire look, but they won't spend much time working on individual dancers' technique, strength and stamina. "In ballet school, your teachers look at everything—your fingers, your hair, your placement," says Du. "In a company, you're responsible for that. You're on your own."
He also emphasizes that many first-year hires have a less rigorous schedule than they did during their preparatory training, and they lose technique and stamina. "I was surprised to hear that, and that company teachers and coaches may not pay much attention," says Ariadne Fernandez, an 18-year-old student from Laguna Beach, California. "Here, they correct us on every little thing."
Thriving in a Company
Dancers may only be teenagers when they start their careers, but they are expected to present themselves professionally in class and rehearsals, at fundraising events and even on social media. "Stay out of company politics and avoid gossip," Du tells his dancers. And like a Boy Scout, he adds, always be prepared. That means showing up with a fully packed dance bag—bringing their own food and water to work and packing extra supplies and a second set of dance clothes.
Elena Karaviti, a 20-year-old student from Greece, says the seminar has helped her understand that keeping a dance job is about more than her technique, which is a given. "It's important how we act with our colleagues," she says, adding, "I was surprised that artistic directors look at our social media."
Du also alerts dancers to company life's faster pace. In a conservatory, he says, students might work on a 90-second solo for six months. A professional must learn complete ballets or new works in a few weeks or even days. Rehearsals, he says, are challenging for new dancers who may be cast as understudies and must learn a part from the back or even by a video. Du also emphasizes that the company is a business, so arriving mentally prepared for rehearsals is key—if the répétiteur has to repeat material, that wastes time and money.
Du's students diligently take notes and ask questions throughout his course. "It's been helpful to get to know about company life before I get there, and I can hear it from someone who had professional experience," says Kuan-Lun Li, 18, a third-year Kirov student from Taiwan.
"I want the students to have this education," says Du. "It's about the duration of your company life—you have to last season after season. We see some dancers who are brilliant, but after one season, they're done." He wants his students prepared for the long run.