Teaching Tips
Aiano Nakagawa leads creative-dance class. Photo courtesy of Nakagawa

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.

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Teaching Tips
Runqiao Du teaches his career preparation course at the Kirov Academy of Ballet. Photo by Matteo Galli, courtesy of Kirov Academy of Ballet

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.

Teaching Tips
Dana Wilson teaching from her studio. Photo courtesy of Wilson

A lot goes into crafting a successful Zoom class. You can't simply download the app and launch into your usual syllabus. Is your teaching space set up properly? Are you wearing an outfit that will pop on-screen? These and other factors can make or break your students' experience.

Commercial performer, choreographer and master teacher Dana Wilson recently produced a video aimed at helping dance teachers effectively use Zoom. Wilson herself was a Zoom early-adopter, using the app for nondance meetings, and was quick to transition to it as an educator, hosting invite-only classes for studios she'd worked with in the past. (Wilson has also been teaching for New York City Dance Alliance's Virtual Dance Experience during the pandemic.) Within weeks of her first Zoom sessions, she says, "I started getting asks from studio owners to teach their teachers." Wilson's 21-minute video is chock-full of words of wisdom for educators making the jump to online training. Here are a few takeaways.


Set Up Smart

Position your camera somewhere that allows for a full-body view as you show combinations. Also, make sure the camera is mounted or placed on a stable surface—something that won't jiggle as you jump around. Connect all of your devices to outlets before class to avoid battery snafus. And don't forget to clean up any household clutter that's in the frame.

Dress for Success

In a Zoom class, your body is only as big as your students' screens. Make the most of your limited pixels by wearing formfitting, solid-color clothing that contrasts with your background and your natural skin tone. "Your outline needs to be visible. It will be doing the primary communication," Wilson explains.

Practice Your Angles

Are you lucky enough to have a mirror in your home dance space? You may want to teach facing it, with the camera behind you. Without a physical mirror, you might prefer to face the camera and mirror your pupils. Zoom also offers a setting where you can flip your video. Try each option to see what feels most natural to you and what gets through to your dancers.

Put Students in the Spotlight

Zoom's "spotlight" feature allows hosts to display a participant's video on everyone else's screens. This is useful when you require a demonstrator—or, Wilson says, when you want to keep dancers on their toes. "When I spotlight a student, all they can see is themselves," she says. "This means they can't rely on their neighboring squares for cues. This is a great test and great training for real-world dance."

Nail Your Audio

"Audio is the most challenging Zoom issue for me," Wilson says. "I test audio every time I teach, and I always get feedback that guides me to make tiny changes." While she does offer a list of preferred audio equipment in her video, she also has general advice. For instance, keep your microphone and speaker volume set at 90 percent and use Zoom's "share computer audio" feature rather than playing music through an external device.

Find a New Language

Establish clear gestures so students (whose devices should be on mute) can communicate with you. For example, a thumbs-up to the camera can mean they have the combo, while arms crossed in an X can mean they don't. Specific questions can be typed into Zoom's chat box, or you can have students wave a hand and unmute when called upon. Check in frequently, both out loud and by peeking at the grid to see if anyone is trying to get your attention.

Wilson's video has many more tips, and she's happy to consult with teachers who have follow-up questions. "I love sharing information!" she says. It's not just about getting through the current crisis. "I absolutely see this type of technology sticking around (but not replacing in-person events) post-COVID," Wilson says. "If dance is a universal language, Zoom is a universal ballroom."

Teaching Tips
Mark Yonally at home teaching. Photo courtesy of Yonally

Like most educators, I have been teaching online since early March. My undergraduate Dance and Culture course was relatively easy to deliver remotely (as long as I could pre-record lectures while my son was taking a nap), but my tap classes? Not so much.

This is because tap is a percussive dance form. Sound matters. You can't just mute your students and hope for the best, as you can in many other dance techniques. And so I sat down (virtually, of course) with three seasoned pros to get the lowdown on teaching tap in the age of social distancing.


Anthony Morigerato, Operation Tap

Since co-founding Operation: Tap in 2014, Anthony Morigerato (perhaps best known for his choreography on "SYTYCD") has been teaching tap online to provide supplemental training for students who don't have access to the types of classes offered in New York, Chicago or L.A. He does this primarily through pre-recorded content and has learned how to keep his students on their toes, even when real-time interaction isn't possible. "When I'm recording a video, I'll stop and say, 'I know you're not counting right now.' The students will say to themselves, 'Wait! How did he know that?'"

When teaching in real time, Morigerato prefers Facebook Live because "you're broadcasting out so you don't have the delay on the other side of the camera." Interaction is limited, of course, but dancers can ask questions through the comments field. When giving feedback, Morigerato often relies on his wife Lorri Leonardi, who owns Class Act Dance in Gansevoort, New York. If she's not busy teaching online classes herself, she'll read the questions aloud to Morigerato, so he doesn't have to stop what he's doing.

For pre-recorded videos, Morigerato recommends purchasing a relatively inexpensive microphone kit: one for recording taps and one for vocal instructions. Pre-pandemic, he recorded in a studio using ring lights to enhance visibility, but now he's working in his basement on an O'Mara sprung floor. "People are in their houses right now and don't have the space to move," he says. "Working within these parameters helps me to be sensitive to this fact when I'm livestreaming."

Tamera Dallam, Parkside Academy of Music and Dance

Philadelphia-based Tamera Dallam is a professional tap dancer and instructor at Parkside Academy of Music and Dance. To keep up with her technique, she's been taking virtual classes from two of her favorite master teachers, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Jason Samuels Smith. "I ask questions. I engage in conversation. I advocate for my learning," she says. Unfortunately her students don't always have that same confidence, especially when they're lacking face-to-face interaction.

Dallam was excited that her studio wanted to continue offering classes through Zoom, but her first experience with the videoconferencing platform was difficult. "There was a horrible lag with the music," she says, "and most of the kids were tapping in socks on carpet." Dallam had to continually remind her students to mute themselves and to adjust their camera screens so she could see their feet. "I had to keep telling them, 'I don't need to see your whole body!'"

Now, several weeks in, she's using a Bluetooth speaker to amplify the music for her students and has set up a tap board in a spare bedroom. Dallam uses both a chair and a box to position her camera at different angles (and teaches mainly when her husband isn't home). Because audio delays make it difficult to rehearse recital routines in unison, she spends most of her class time working on technique and teaching new combinations to keep students engaged. "I don't want them to get frustrated or sad that we haven't been able to have their recital yet, so I am trusting them to continue rehearsing on their own, outside of class."

Mark Yonally, Chicago Tap Theatre

In addition to generating innovative social-media content (from tap tutorials to weekly Tea on Tap interviews), Chicago Tap Theatre's Mark Yonally now teaches weekly intermediate- and professional-level tap classes through Zoom. I managed to sneak away from my toddler long enough to take one of CTT's professional-level classes during the early weeks of the pandemic, and it's clear that Yonally has been reflecting on and fine-tuning his approach ever since.

"Our setup is intense," he says with a laugh. His living-room recording studio now includes a white maple roll-out floor, two camera lights, a "social-media toolkit" he bought online (which includes an additional ring light and an attachment to hold his phone), and two laptops: one on the floor that gives students a rear view from his hips down, and one on a bench that shows his face. Like Morigerato, he has come to rely heavily on support from his wife, fellow tap dancer and CTT's business manager Jennifer Yonally. Her prep work begins at least 30 minutes before programming goes live.

For his children's classes, Yonally asks his students to download their recital song and take turns "hosting" on Zoom. Running the sound from their personal computer or device eliminates the audio delay for that particular student, allowing Yonally to focus on their timing and musicality. For his adult classes, he keeps everyone on mute, but will occasionally "spotlight" a student (which allows them to be both seen and heard by the entire class) or "pin" them (which highlights the student on the host's screen only), to allow for additional individual listening and feedback.

"You have to give up being able to watch people dance in unison," Yonally explains, "and students have to appreciate the experience whether or not they are dancing together." All the same, Yonally says he has "never felt quite as privileged to be a dance teacher" as he has during these difficult times.

Teaching Tips
Photo by Bruce Zinger

In fond memory of a legendary teacher, we wanted to revive some timeless wisdom David Howard shared with us back in 2001.

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1. Turn their backs to the mirror. When students face away from the mirror, they have to remember the dance without watching each other. Kasey Cosentino, Silicon Valley Dance Academy, Cupertino, California

2. Introduce improvisation exercises. Not only does it warm up their bodies, but also their ears—to hear and feel the music—and their imaginations. Cat Cogliandro, EDGE Performing Arts Center, Los Angeles

3. Change the order. Try the movements in retrograde (performed backward, like a rewind video) and in reverse order. Kim Alexander-Camandona, North Broward Preparatory School, Coconut Creek, Florida

4. Perform an expansive movement phrase in a small, taped-off space. This engages problem-solving skills, which can later be useful when performing repertory in different-sized venues. Nicole Benson, Benson Academy of Dance, Ocala, Florida

5. Ask your students to make up their own exercises, with correct terminology and counts. Melinda Pendleton, Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, Narberth, Pennsylvania

6. Don’t answer questions—at least, not right away. Instead, demonstrate the step again and give them the chance to answer themselves. Leah Silva, McCoy Rigby Conservatory of the Arts, Yorba Linda, California

7. After having students do a combination multiple times, suddenly change to an unexpected piece of music. This requires dancers to make choices about dynamics in the moment and shows whether they really know the combination. Lizzie MacKenzie, Extensions Dance Center, Chicago

Photo: Thinkstock

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