Talli Jackson: How I Teach Contemporary

Talli Jackson is inverted into a shoulder stand, talking. “The swinging of the torso displaces the left toes,” he matter-of-factly explains to a group of students, his legs helicoptering effortlessly from one side to the other. His ease with the intricate, twisting floor phrase he has just demonstrated is what draws a mix of pre-professionals and pros to his classes here at the Gibney Dance Center in New York. As a member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company for the past eight years, the tall, stately dancer is known for his malleable clarity. He renders the tricky combination, with its unexpected directional changes and complicated unfurling of limbs on the floor, into something doable, patiently workshopping sticky passages and answering questions before they’re even asked.

Over the course of a class, Jackson says, he hopes to inspire the joy he feels when dancing. But first he must address a common mind-set. “The thing that kills play and learning is the belief that we can’t, that we’ll never get to that place where we’ll be satisfied,” he says. “When you can release those thoughts, people learn and dance and experience themselves differently.”

Jackson has honed his calming presence and easy rapport while teaching Jones’ full-bodied repertory and style during company residencies and workshops. He constantly checks in (“How’s that?” he asks the dancers, or “Slower tempo, or no?”) and troubleshoots tricky weight shifts and other problem spots. To a student struggling with an inversion, he offers the tip, “I keep my left hand close to my pelvis.”

Each time an exercise is finished, he has everyone take a walk around the space to reactivate awareness and clear any frustration before beginning anew with a clean slate. And he’s quick to laugh at himself: When he accidentally stumbles out of a swift weight transfer and takes an unexpected dive to the floor, Jackson quips, “We won’t add that in, only because I don’t think we have time for it in the music. Otherwise…”

As the class nears the end, it’s clear the dancers are simply enjoying the movement without second-guessing themselves or their abilities. When one student manages to sustain a difficult tilt position, she jokes, head upside down, “I like this place!” Jackson smiles: “Yeah? You can stay there.” DT

Before joining the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 2009, Talli Jackson (at left) studied at The Ailey School. He began studying dance under Livia Vanaver at The Vanaver Caravan Dance Institute (now the CaravanKids Project) in upstate New York and attended the American Dance Festival and the Bates Dance Festival on scholarship. In 2013, he was nominated for the Clive Barnes Award and was honored with a Princess Grace Award.

Ainesh Madan and Rebecca Lubart are professional modern dancers in New York City.


Photography by Kyle Froman

Don’t miss a single issue of Dance Teacher.

Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy TUPAC

When legendary Black ballet dancer Kabby Mitchell III died unexpectedly in 2017, two months before opening his Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, his friend and business partner Klair Ethridge wasn't sure she had what it took to carry his legacy. Ethridge had been working with Mitchell to co-found TUPAC and planned to serve as its executive director, but she had never envisioned being the face of the school.

Now, Ethridge is heading into her fourth year of leading TUPAC, which she has grown from a fledgling program in an unheated building to a serious ballet school in its own sprung-floor studios, reaching hundreds of students across the Tacoma, Washington, area. The nonprofit has become a case study for what it looks like to carry out the vision of a founder who never had the chance to see his school open—and to take an unapologetically mission-driven approach.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.