Because the chassé is often neglected during the execution of this traveling step, Judy Rice asks her students to do a minimum of a six-inch chassé before transitioning into the pas de bourrée. She encourages dancers to pay close attention to their shoulders and hips in effacé, too. "Kids tend to open it up. They look like they're fencing," she says. "You don't want that." Both shoulders and hip bones should be facing the corner.
Dance Teacher asked nine respected instructors to identify the most common technique mistakes they see when addressing a group of students for the first time. Here, they discuss the origins of these problems and offer their best solutions.
Seen and Heard at the Dance Teacher Summit
As a longtime teacher on the convention circuit, Judy Rice works with ballet students of all ages and levels. Currently she also teaches master classes in Los Angeles, helping professional dancers solidify and maintain their technique. Here, she shares some advice for teaching a successful barre.
Dance Teacher: How do you keep students motivated during barre work?
Judy Rice: When I see young students start to get a little glazed over, I have them step away from the barre and skip around. I have skipping music on my kids’ album, and I’ll say “OK, everybody step away,” and they know that it’s time and they laugh and do their little ballet skips. I make the older ones do jumping jacks. It just gets the blood going, and then you can go back and start working again.
It’s all about your own excitement. I’m thrilled when things get done accurately at the barre. I get my students eager to move slowly and make corrections, then when I see them make a correction, I’m immediately really psyched about it, which makes them want to keep doing it the right way.
DT: What’s the best way to plan barre exercises?
JR: I build my whole class backward. I start with grand allégro and work back to the beginning. If you know what you’re going to be doing in the center, you can incorporate those things into the barre. I repeat set exercises, and when students start to really get the hang of them, I’ll add something new. If they start getting sloppy and aren’t giving me the clarity that I want, I have them go back to the original exercise so they can get that technical accuracy. They always have that home base to return to.
DT: How has your approach to teaching barre changed over the years?
JR: When I was a younger teacher, I gave a lot more material, because I felt like I had to. Then I realized they were just getting an overview of information without really retaining anything. Today, my barre isn’t overly choreographic; it’s functional. Don’t feel like you have to make barre exercises too long, complicated and choreographic. Less is more. It’s a logical progression. Let them get the accuracy of the movement so they aren’t just imitating it; they’re actually calculating and understanding how to do it.
Photo by Jimmy Peters, courtesy of AD Temecula Dance Company
In the December issue, DT staff reflects on their favorite covers of the year. Assistant editor Rachel Rizzuto's pick was September.
"I really loved our cover story on Judy Rice. I enjoyed her frankness about how inept she felt, starting out as a ballet teacher. And her willingness to start from scratch in the field, coupled with her work ethic, has brought her full circle—now she’s a beloved faculty member and in-demand on the competition scene. Meeting her at our DT Summit was icing on the cake! She was just as bubbly, witty and knowledgeable in person as she was on the page."
Judy Rice bridges the disparate realms of competition and college dance; modern dance and ballet.
After only two seasons performing with the Joffrey Ballet, Judy Rice fell and tore a tendon in her ankle. This came on the heels of being denied a contract with The National Ballet of Canada after training most of her young life with its affiliated school. Even for Rice, a petite spitfire who usually sports a beaming smile, the weight of those setbacks was heavy. She feared she was too far behind her peers, who had all nabbed jobs years before she had even dipped her highly arched feet into a career. “I started studying for my SATs,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to have to do the college thing.’”
At the time, Rice could not have foreseen that the “college thing” would become a significant part of her life. Since 1990, she has been an associate professor of performing arts, teaching ballet at the University of Michigan. She now splits her time between Ann Arbor and Los Angeles. Weekends and summers, she teaches on the competition and convention circuit, acting unofficially as a recruiter for the U-M dance department. In other words, this devout ballet classicist spends the better part of her time teaching, counseling and advocating for modern dancers and comp kids who would never dream of becoming bunheads.
Leading a classroom wasn’t really part of Rice’s life plan, especially not in a university setting. Her first teaching gig was at the Joffrey Ballet School. “I remember walking into the room to teach, looking at the pianist and saying, ‘Look, I have no idea what I’m doing,’” she says. And though she had studied for those SATs some years ago, Rice never enrolled in college. It’s almost unprecedented that an applicant without a master’s degree, let alone a bachelor’s, would be green-lighted to teach in higher ed.
“There were some kinks to work out in terms of how the university evaluated her for the job,” says Peter Sparling, who was department chair when Rice came to U-M as an adjunct to fill in for a faculty member on maternity leave. “But the department was able to hire her based on her professional expertise.”
Teaching ballet to modern dancers was a bit shocking at first for Rice, who until then had been immersed almost solely in the ballet world. “I just didn’t get modern dance. It’s a really different animal,” she says. But it didn’t take long to come to appreciate the students she was working with, even if their goals didn’t include pink tights and pointe shoes. “If people are interested in making themselves stronger and more aware of their bodies, then I’m interested in teaching them.”
The competition exposure came when she was asked to sub one weekend as a judge. She soon found regional jobs at several dance competitions. In 2003, Co. Dance asked her to teach a handful of regional convention classes on weekends. Five trips with Co. Dance snowballed into an annual tour of 17 cities, flying from Michigan on Fridays and making it back on the red-eye just in time to start the new week of classes. At first, she was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the conventions—150 students crammed like sardines into a room with teachers shouting counts into microphones. But she soon realized she could really influence these dancers’ futures, not just by raising their excitement for ballet, but by advocating for a college degree. “I don’t want any kid to end up in the position I had been in,” says Rice. “I’m very grateful for what good things came to me, but my career opportunities are limited without a degree.” She often goes as far as to single out kids in class and encourage them to apply to U-M. She didn’t realize the impact she was having until the U-M admissions team called her one day to tell her how many dance department hopefuls had indicated they heard about the program through her.
That’s not to say she hasn’t gotten any flack from her university colleagues who thought her work with commercial dancers was beneath her expertise. “I remember when I first started out in this world, someone scolded me for being a judge, like I had sold out,” says Rice. “But where do people think we get great dancers from—the Martha Graham School of Idaho?” It’s this kind of open-mindedness that Sparling says is one of Rice’s greatest strengths: She is able to see the bottom-line potential of each student. What her colleagues sometimes dismiss as mugging and tricks, she views as raw potential. “Judy is very quick to turn to us and say, ‘OK, remember that this kid is from competition and that’s all she knows, but we can work with her,’” he says. “It has actually become a running joke—can Judy fix this kid? She taught us that it’s about working with talented dancers who need to be tuned.”
In fact, Rice prefers to keep quiet about her recruits until the other faculty members see them audition. She wants their talent to speak for itself. “Judy is prescreening for us,” says Sparling. “It’s an unexpected benefit: We have an ‘in’ in the competition world. And that’s extraordinary in terms of mining an amazing resource of talent. Whatever she does outside the department circles back, and it’s essential to the success of the department.”
Katie Muth, a senior BFA candidate at U-M, is one of the many Rice scooped up off the convention floor. At the time, Muth was considering moving to L.A. after high school to work in commercial dance. Rice picked her out of the crowd and urged her to apply to U-M, even though the deadline was the next day. “I spent all of Monday morning writing my essays and overnighted my application,” says Muth. “Without Judy, I wouldn’t be here.”
“When she walks into the room she seems seven feet tall,” says Muth describing the 5' 2" Rice. “Her energy and personality completely fill the room, and that makes everyone ready for class.”
Sparling says that’s what initially struck him about Rice as well. “I remember her first few classes. I was so impressed with the animation and joy of teaching. The students looked like they had been jolted by an electric shock. She’s brought a new level of excitement and engagement to ballet in the department.”
Between her full-time work in Michigan, her weekends at conventions and summers in L.A., Rice’s routine sounds exhausting. But she says this frenetic lifestyle gives her much more peace than she felt when she was a performer. “I’ve tried several times to be ‘normal.’ I’ve never had a personal life—can you buy one at Target?” she quips. “There was a time when I didn’t want my life to be all about dance.” She’s referring to a period when she was married and tried working in real estate. “But the force of dance was greater than me, and I finally let it take me on this path.”
She goes on to say, “I’ve always felt a little bit like an outsider in the university family town, but I can’t imagine giving up this job. Yet, I feel so at home in California.” She slows down a little in what has been a rapid-fire nonstop conversation. With a bit of a sigh she muses, “I have a funny feeling life will just fall into place.” DT
Associate editor Kristin Schwab is a member of Summation Dance Company in New York City.
Photography by Peter Smith