Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of New York Live Arts

Ellen Robbins' modern dance classes for kids and teens are legendary in New York City. Robbins, who has been teaching kids how to dance since the 1970s (and whose pupils included the actresses Claire Danes and Julia Stiles), takes the standard recital model and turns it on its head. Her students—ranging in age from 8 to 18—are the choreographers for the annual concert she produces at esteemed NYC venue New York Live Arts.

If that approach sounds borderline insane to you (we know you're all deep in the throes of recital season right now), consider Robbins' unique teaching philosophy: Improvisation is present in every aspect of class, for every age group. Here are four ways she shapes her youngest dancers into choreographers—almost without their realizing it!

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Photo by Rachel Neville, courtesy of Donna Salgao

Donna Salgado knew she wanted to be a choreographer as early as her preteen days in the Nutcracker snow corps. "I'd be standing there, in B-plus, thinking about how it might be better if the teacher put us in a circle here," she says. After eking out a career as a freelance dancer in New York City for a few years, she finally made good on that dream and founded her project-based contemporary ballet company, CONTINUUM. "I started my company to give opportunities to great dancers who weren't getting seen," says Salgado (who still performs as a freelance dancer). "I felt this responsibility." Now, seven years later, she's still providing opportunities—this time, to emerging choreographers. Salgado is curating the contemporary ballet portion of Bryant Park's Contemporary Dance Festival this month. "My curatorial focus is independently produced dance," she says. "There's a rich community of artists in New York who are so dedicated to their craft, and I want to give them exposure at this awesome space in the dance capital of the world."

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Ailey II in Bridget L. Moore's Sketches of Flames. Photo by Kyle Froman, courtesy of Ailey

Ailey II will make its NYU Skirball Center debut March 29–April 2. The program will include two programs of premieres and returning favorites from established and up-and-coming choreographers, including Leila Da Rocha, Jean Emile, Jae Man Joo, Ray Mercer, Bridget L. Moore, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater member Jamar Roberts and former Ailey dancer Marcus Jarrell Willis.

“We are thrilled to return to New York for our annual engagement, and to present our first season at NYU Skirball Center for the Arts," says Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell. “The two programs include diverse and powerful works that showcase the strength, grace and versatility of these gifted young dancers."

For ticket information, visit here and enter DT's Win It! to win tickets.


Seen & Heard At the Dance Teacher Summit

Donna Aravena

Co-owner, Seven Star School of Performing Arts

Brewster, NY

550 students

Donna Aravena Seven Star students performing in The Nutcracker

Donna Aravena has run the Seven Star School of Performing Arts studio with her daughter Nicole since 2002, and she has learned some important lessons in delegating along the way. In her fourth year as an ambassador, Aravena spoke at the 2012 Dance Teacher Summit on hiring a studio’s front desk manager.

Dance Teacher: Does every dance studio need a front desk manager?

Donna Aravena: My immediate reaction is yes, because our building has five studios going all the time, seven days a week. I’m a bit of a control freak—I used to be the only one running the front desk, but I’ve realized I can’t do it seven days a week and still do the job effectively.

I chatted with a woman at the DT Summit, though, who doesn’t have a front desk person, and it turns out she is the only teacher at her one-classroom studio. So maybe she doesn’t need a front desk, but she needs to build in time between classes to deal with problems. And there’s still the concern of an emergency happening in the waiting room. I think when she starts growing and teaching more hours, she’s going to want to delegate some of this. It’s very difficult to do all by yourself.

DT: What are the responsibilities of your studio’s front desk manager?

DA: In addition to keeping the lobby clean and dealing with any issues that arise in the waiting area, the front desk manager is the go-to person for all studio information. That person needs to know what each class entails, the dress codes and the calendar of events. All of that info may be on your website, but when clients come up and ask, “Are you closed on Rosh Hashanah?” the answer can’t be, “Well, it’s on the website.” They need to hear, “No, we’re open that day,” from a person they consider to be knowledgeable.

As part of the training, we have our front desk manager do a lot of reading on the studio’s background. We also keep all studio info in a book we call “The Bible,” so the front desk person can access it even if the internet is down.

DT: What qualities do you look for in a front desk manager?

DA: You have to have a compassionate person, someone who can do seven things at one time, from dealing with a clogged toilet to entertaining a child whose parent gets stuck in traffic, all without letting people know you’re flustered. In that sense a mom is a good person, because she is used to multitasking. You want someone who’s going to be self-motivated. If she sees that a shelf needs to be reorganized, she does it and doesn’t need to be told.

Your front desk person is the first person who meets with your clients. You can’t have a grumpy person or someone who’s just putting in hours. You need someone with a passion for children and the arts. —Andrea Marks

Photos courtesy of Donna Aravena

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