Drew Ellison Creates Leaders in the Classroom

"I am all about creating leaders in the classroom," says Ellison. "That's going to get them farther in life." Photo by Whitney McAnallen, courtesy of Ellison

As the director of the Centennial High School Sparklers drill team in suburban Fort Worth, Texas, Drew Ellison knows how to delegate. “We have 48 kids on the team, so it's hard for just me to give them feedback," she says. To solve this, she has her seven team officers work with groups of six or seven students, to go over choreography and offer corrections. “I am all about creating leaders in the classroom," she says. “That's going to get them farther in life." Ellison notes that many of her students discontinue dancing after high school, so helping them develop life skills like leadership and working well with others is her ultimate goal as a teacher.

On “Technique Tuesdays" Ellison gives the Sparklers a thorough technique class consisting of jazz, ballet and contemporary skills. Because roughly 75 percent of the team is new to dance when they start high school, Ellison sticks to ballet basics like pliés, tendus and dégagés and then moves on to across-the-floor and center combinations that prepare them for their performances at football games and during competition season. “We'll take the choreography in pieces across the floor so they can later translate it into their dances," she says.

One of her most successful teaching strategies appeals to the digital-age teens. “They like to get their phones out, so sometimes I'll have them videotape each other. They can see what their dancing looks like and get an extra perspective on what they need to work on," says Ellison. “When they see it, they realize, 'Oh, my leg isn't straight,' or 'I'm not lifting up when I leap.'"

Photo by Whitney McAnallen, courtesy of Ellison

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Securing the correct music licensing for your studio is an important step in creating a financially sound business. "Music licensing is something studio owners seem to either embrace or ignore completely," says Clint Salter, CEO and founder of the Dance Studio Owners Association. While it may seem like it's a situation in which it's easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission—that is, to wait until you're approached by a music-rights organization before purchasing a license—Salter disagrees, citing Peloton, the exercise company that produces streaming at-home workouts. In February, Peloton settled a music-licensing suit with the National Music Publishers' Association out-of-court for an undisclosed amount. Originally, NMPA had sought $300 million in damages from Peloton. "It can get extremely expensive," says Salter. "It's not worth it for a studio to get caught up in that."

As you continue to explore a hybrid online/in-person version of your class schedule, it's crucial that your music licenses include coverage for livestreamed instruction—which comes with its own particular requirements. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about music licensing—in both normal times and COVID times—as well as some safe music bets that won't pose any issues.

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Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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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.

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