Dance Teacher 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.

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At the start of last night's episode of "So You Think You Can Dance," 41 dancers remained. An hour later, we had a Top 20. And then there was a BIG FAT TWIST. (We'll get to that.)

The 41 still-standing Academy dancers showed up at the Dolby Theater in L.A. ready to tackle three rounds: contemporary choreography with seven-time Emmy nominee and one-time "SYTYCD" contestant Travis Wall; an "epic group routine" with jazz choreographer and La La Land she-ro Mandy Moore; and a last-chance solo showdown. Here's what happened.

The Contemporary Competition

"I'm not looking for robots," SuperTrav immediately explained. He gave the dancers shapes, but from there, each was expected to make the choreography his or her own. Everyone got sweaty and exhausted, and after 90 minutes, it was time to perform in groups of three for Nigel, Mary, Vanessa, and Travis.


Allen Genkin

The ballroom babe struggled during hip hop last week, but (naturally) crushed the ballroom choreography. This time around, the judges still couldn't resist Allen's charm, and he got to stay—though, Nigel said, "We need more."

Cole Mills

Cole has stood out during each round of choreography thus far, and not just because of his full-back tattoo. Travis called him absolutely beautiful. "I don't know where you came from or where you've trained, but I am very excited for you," TWall said. And he made it through.

Tessa Dalke

The pressure was on for this early favorite—and the judges weren't feeling her contemporary performance. Vanessa was expecting more, Travis didn't think she commanded the space with her energy, and Nigel said she needed to step up. But they weren't ready to give up on her, so she stayed for jazz.

Sydney Moss

She stood out, Nigel said, simply. She got to stick around, too.

Hannahlei Cabanilla

All the judges agreed that they couldn't take their eyes off her. Hannahlei made it on to jazz as well.

David Greenberg

The ballet dancer didn't totally crush Travis's choreography, so the judges decided to send him home. "I hate this part," Travis said through gritted teach. (We hate it, too.)

Eddie Hoyt

The judges needed to make cuts, and despite Eddie's awesome personality, the tapper's "SYT" journey ended here. Tear!

Evan DeBenedetto

The other tapping standout in the competition killed this choreo. Vanessa said he rose to the occasion, and he made it to the jazz round.

Bridget Derville-Teer

Nigel told Bridget she lost him today, and Mary didn't connect with the performance. Bridget was sent home—but Nigel hopes to see her again. (Season 16, girl! Be ready to crush it!)

Genessy Castillo

Genessy seemed to lose confidence halfway through the performance, but the judges still adored her, so she made it through.

Emily Carr

Emily was totally captivating in this round. Her jumps were the highest, her expression the fullest, her performance the boldest. Travis thought the competition was hers to lose: "Girl, I can't wait for you to get on the show so I can work with you," he said. Holy ultimate compliment, TravMan!

The Group Production Number

With 33 dancers left, it was time to bring in Mandy Moore for the final round of choreography. Her jazzy group routine featured all the dancers shining in their individual styles, plus a grand finale where everyone came together. "If they can't hang in the group routine, then it is cutsville, buh bye," Mandy said. STONE. COLD.



This routine looked so fun. (Was anyone else standing up, trying to learn it at home? No? Just us? OK.) The high-energy choreography was fairly simple, but there was a LOT of it. Each group got just an hour to perfect their portion of the routine—and to choreograph two eight-counts of the performance themselves. Intense much?

There were so many wonderful moments during the enthusiastic performance. Emily Carr was a standout again. The tappers looked awesome, and Jensen Arnold had undeniable presence. (The entire ballroom group is looking super strong this year, TBH.) The exhausting routine earned a standing O from the four judges, whom we were not envying at that point.



But cuts had to be made, and Tessa Dalke, sadly, was one of them. Other favorites—Alexis Gilbert, Jay Jackson, Gaevin Bernales—were sent home, too.

The Last-Chance Solo Round

The remaining 27 dancers got to perform one final solo before the judges chose the Top 20. Jay Jay Dixonbey's number was powerful, precise, and pretty darn perfect. Chelsea Hough rocked heels for hers. Hannahlei Cabanilla earned a "love. her." from Mary. And Allen Genkin wrapped things up with a booty wiggle, a big smile, and a Magic Mike-esque shirt toss that Nigel called "a little desperate." (AGREE TO DISAGREE, NIGEL.)

Without further ado...

The "So You Think You Can Dance" Season 15 Top 20

THE GUYS

Jay Jay Dixonbey

Cole Mills

Justin Pham

Slavik Pustovoytov

Peyton Albrecht

Dustin Payne

Evan DeBenedetto

Darius Hickman

Kyle Bennett, Jr.

Allen Genkin

THE GIRLS

Genessy Castillo

Magda Fialek

Jensen Arnold

Stephanie Sosa

Dayna Madison

Sydney Moss

Brianna Penrose

Chelsea Hough

Emily Carr

Hannahlei Cabanilla

BUT WAIT. After the reveal, there was another reveal: Turns out only 10 dancers will continue on to the live shows. What is happening?!

Next week, each of the Top 20 dancers will be paired with an All Star and a choreographer. See you then for more madness!

Dance Teacher Tips
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AinslieWear Limoncello Wrap Skirt

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If you can't spend your summer in the Mediterranean under actual lemon trees, this skirt is a solid backup. Plus, it gives us serious Beyonce "Lemonade" vibes, which will help you feel more fierce and less sweaty-mess in class (hopefully). ainsliewear.com, $50

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Oh, and you're welcome 💁♀️.

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