Teaching Tips

How Tammi Shamblin Teaches Ballet

Shamblin with her fifth-grade boys' class at Ballet Tech. Photo by Kyle Froman

“Let's build our houses together, gentlemen. Shall we?" Tammi Shamblin asks 20 fifth-grade boys at the top of ballet class, during the final week of Ballet Tech's summer program in New York City. “Is your body square, dragon tails down? Are your eyes looking out your vacation windows? Where do you want to go today?" Every boy stands at attention, ready to begin a series of pliés facing the barre. As they lift their heels and stretch their knees, Shamblin offers corrections like a modern-day Mary Poppins, brightly singing out images like “Sip your slurpee legs up!" and “Squish marshmallows under your heels!" to the rhythm of the accompanist.


For the next 90 minutes, her goal is twofold: She will train dancers as she develops young men. For its year-round program, Ballet Tech auditions NYC school children, selecting the most naturally talented youngsters—many of whom would not otherwise be exposed to ballet. The school currently enrolls 180 students in grades 4 through 10, and nearly half are boys. Elementary- and middle-schoolers take their academic courses in classrooms located at the Ballet Tech School, downtown on Broadway. (Another 400-plus youngsters are bussed in from their schools for a free, six-week introductory program each semester.) To allow for their different learning styles and energies, boys don't take dance classes with girls until sixth grade.

Shamblin's role is not just to teach steps but to instill a love for an artform that most of her students didn't know existed. “They aren't here out of an intrinsic desire to dance. They're all picked for their bodies and potential," she says. “I'm hoping to develop a love of dancing." She also understands what ballet can teach them about life: self-esteem, discipline, learning from mistakes, working in a group and pursuing goals. To that end, she uses terms such as “dancers" or “gentlemen"—never “boys"—to establish mutual respect and a formal tone. And she knows the value of specificity and surprise. “I use a coda with a fast beat when I want them to hold a tendu, so they aren't bored," she says.


Photo by Kyle Froman

She sticks by her few rules religiously: no leaving (which means no water or bathroom breaks during class); no talking (unless called upon); and always do your best. That last rule, she says, is the number-one reason most kids are dismissed from class. “When I have to send a kid out, I always ask, 'Do you know why?'" says Shamblin. “It's important for them to understand the cause-and-effect relationship of their conduct."

Photo by Kyle Froman

Eliot Feld—Ballet Tech's founder and artistic director—was immediately impressed with Shamblin, who started out as a substitute teacher in fall 2004. At his request, a permanent position was created for her. “Beyond the task of introducing young boys to the vocabulary and grammar of classic dance, there's the issue of concentrating their intellect, imagination and physical appetites," says Feld. “Tammi accomplishes this with a magic of her own invention."

Those magical inventions include a series of interactive “learning stations," aimed at understanding ballet technique on an anatomical level. This gives her a chance to break up the flow of class and the strictures of ballet barre to go over the details of a given movement or body position. Today, Shamblin calls out, “Study Group! Gather around Marquis," and the boys flock around the named boy to deconstruct rond de jambe.

Photo by Kyle Froman

“What do you love about rond de jambe? What are we practicing here?" Shamblin asks. The students' observations are astute: “Straight legs." “Turnout." “Straight back." Still, she demands closer scrutiny: “Some of you seem to have ordered a small pizza," she says, regarding the semicircular outline of the boys' ronds de jambe. “How can we fix the size of that circle?"

Often it is in Study Group that Shamblin first introduces students to palpating their own bodies to locate and understand muscles, tendons and joints—taking advantage of their interest in anatomy and biomechanics. After she has worked with a class for at least nine months, and students have become used to manipulating their own bodies, she will offer another interactive break and an early introduction to partnering: Operation Station. “You're the ballet doctor now," she jokes, as she lies down on the floor, asking them to point out what she's doing right and wrong in a particular posture. After a couple of students tap her lower ribs to get her to drop them and another points at her belly button (to get what they've learned to call a “TNT stomach"—a bundle of dynamite sticks), they all find their place in the room and resume adagio with a deeper respect for the core strength involved. It is a testament to Shamblin's well-honed teaching style that the boys focus on Study Group and Operation Station with a maturity beyond their years.

Shamblin breaks up the barre portion of class with Study Groups, where students gather to deconstruct a particular step. Photo by Kyle Froman

Shamblin herself exhibited an unusually focused demeanor as a child. After begging her mother for ballet lessons to no avail, she eventually found a phone book, chose a nearby studio and insisted on being taken there. (She was 8.) She trained with Kathy Milo and Kirk Derby at the Roseville School of Dance in California before graduating from the University of Utah, where she majored in ballet with an emphasis on both pedagogy and performing. Though she danced professionally for Sacramento Ballet and Capitol Ballet Company prior to moving to New York City (where she performed with Frank Ohman and Deborah Lohse's ad hoc Ballet), her first love was teaching. Capitol Ballet Company's Stuart Carroll remains the master teacher she still thinks of when she is leading a class. “I loved the expectations of excellence at CBC," she says.

It's apparent she is instilling that same excellence—with a good dose of fun—in these young gentlemen as class nears its end. She somehow finds time before révérence to fit in a traveling skipping competition, a round of freeze dance and a question about how best to count a polonaise. Like Poppins, there's no end to the tricks in her imaginary carpet bag.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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