For 10 years, Anthony Morigerato judged competitions using almost the same score sheets he got when he was a comp kid. "I thought to myself, 'Why haven't they changed at all? Why are they so general?'" As a tap dancer, Morigerato found that only one word ("feet") on the judge's sheet applied to him. "It's not useful to tell a person to go work on their arms, feet or legs. The competition should be as educational as possible," says Morigerato, executive producer and artistic director of AM Dance Productions.
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.
Getty Images<p><strong></strong><strong>Tip:</strong> If you get lightheaded doing this exercise in a standing position, try it sitting or lying on your back.</p>
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.