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Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

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Finis Jhung teaching a virtual class. Photo courtesy Ruden

Looking back, it's hard to describe how terrifying the early days of the pandemic were in New York City. The sudden shutdown of our daily lives; the scarcity of toilet paper and reports of food shortages; the empty stillness of the streets of Manhattan and the sight of the USNS Comfort hospital ship from my bedroom window; the conflicting information on how to stay safe; and the daily press conferences with Governor Cuomo recounting intubations and the daily death toll.

I watched the hospital employees walking to Mount Sinai Hospital next door and marked the passing of time by the daily seven o'clock tribute to essential workers that broke the eerie silences.

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Teachers Trending
Break the Floor Productions, courtesy Meismer

Revered NUVO convention teacher Mark Meismer has made a career out of not compromising his values—and it's paid off.

Take Meismer's practically unheard-of NUVO convention schedule—a weekly Friday/Saturday shift that's allowed him to prioritize time with his daughter and attend church on Sundays.

Though today Meismer has the loyal following to justify such a schedule, his beginnings were humble. He auditioned for the Orange County School of the Arts at age 14, with just two years of dance classes under his belt. "I had passion coming out of my bones, but no technique to back it up," he says. The director of the school saw something in him, and he was accepted to train despite being, as Meismer says, the least technically proficient boy there.

Fast-forward to Meismer's signing with what is now MSA Talent Agency at age 17, when he was sent to an audition and booked his first professional job dancing in Kenny Ortega's '90s teen drama, "Hull High." "I never looked back and danced professionally until I was 30," Meismer says. For roughly 13 years Meismer had the kind of big career most dancers only dream of. (We're talking dancing-behind-Madonna-and-Celine-Dion big.) He filled the time he wasn't dancing with teaching on the LA Underground convention circuit (now known as LA Dance Magic.)

At 30, everything changed for Meismer when he adopted his now-16-year-old daughter Ryan. "I was ready, and made the choice to transition the direction of my life," he says. He quit performing and teaching at conventions and focused on choreographing at local studios so he could be at home more.

But when Ryan was 2 years old, Break The Floor's Gil Stroming approached Meismer with an offer he couldn't refuse. "He knew I had a daughter that I wanted to be present for, and that religion was also important to me, so he offered me a contract that would allow me to prioritize both," Meismer says. For the past 15 years Meismer has flown into cities around the country to teach Friday nights and Saturday days for NUVO before heading home to put his daughter to bed and attend church the following morning—a schedule that is practically unheard of in the convention world.

Recently, of course, most of his teaching has happened at home, virtually—sometimes with up to 650,000 students from all over the world for Break The Floor Live events. "I thought teaching virtually would be uninspiring, but it's actually been wonderful," he says.

Even when dancers are able to return to the studio, Meismer plans to continue with some virtual teaching. "I get to teach dancers I never would have been able to before, whether because of financial circumstances or because they live far away," he says. "I have to work a little harder through the screen, but I know there are people on the other side of that camera who are looking for motivation. I intend to continue to do just that."

Dance Teacher asked Meismer how he prepares his body to teach, the snack that gets him through long days, and the dance attire he can't live without.

His warm-up philosophy:

"I am a very big advocate of doing a full-stretch warm-up before teaching. I take a lot of time to let my hips open and get my hamstrings warm so I feel ready to do the choreography without getting hurt. Beyond flexibility, it's really important to engage the core, so I do some ab work, as well."

His must-have teaching attire:

"I always wear Lululemon bottoms—I especially like the Pace Breaker shorts. I wear Apolla Shocks or Nike or Adidas soft sneakers. I've had some knee injuries in the past and they're supportive of my joints. I also like to wear Adidas T-Shirts—something soft that breathes."

His go-to snack:

"Turkey Jerky, or a ONE protein bar (coconut and lemon are my favorite flavors)"

His guilty pleasure:

"Shopping! I work hard, play hard and spend money."

What he never leaves home without:

"My S'well water bottle gives me life. I hydrate all day and night."

His lifeline food:

"Chips and salsa."

His go-to relaxation show:

"I come home from teaching and unwind by watching 'Friends,' or something else that is easy and light for an hour or so. My brain keeps going after I teach and choreograph, so it's nice to have that time to focus on something simple."

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Christian Hopkins, courtesy Silverio

Commercial dance darling Nick Silverio has taken his talents to TikTok during the pandemic, and his videos (along with the rest of #DanceTikTok) are helping the dance industry laugh through the pain.

His content—which has garnered over 2 million likes—covers everything from stereotypical dance moms, mind-numbing-judging-days, dance-teacher-panic-cams, shameless-compkid-bragging and more. For dance teachers, there's nothing more #relatable.

Silverio grew up as a competitive dancer with Elite Academy of Dance in Shrewsbury, MA. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied business and commercial dance management. One year in, he decided to explore the professional dance world in NYC, and put his formal education on pause.

Silverio signed with Clear Talent Group and started working immediately on opportunities like "America's Got Talent" and Elf: The Musical. Then, in 2015, he returned to school and finished his degree. "It was the best decision ever," Silverio says. "Taking time off showed me I really could have a professional career, so when I returned I felt confident in working hard and having a wonderful collegiate experience. There is flexibility on everyone's path—you don't have to do what everyone else is doing."

Now, he works as a professional dancer (he's appeared on "Saturday Night Live" and "So You Think You Can Dance," and was in Billy Elliot: The Musical at the Goodspeed Opera House), a choreographer, a senior master coach at [solidcore] and a competition judge (at StarQuest International). Dance Teacher caught up with Silverio on going viral, the teacher who shaped his career, and the worst advice he's ever received.

On creating viral content:

"I lost my mind during the shutdown. I always said I would never get a TikTok, but I got one to make people laugh. The experience you have growing up as a dancer, whether it's rec or comp, is so unique. We go through these things that, if you take a step back, are absolutely hysterical. I love sitting in my living room and brainstorming what I did my junior year of high school that could be great on TikTok."

The worst advice he's ever received:

"Once, a teacher told me that if I wanted to work as a dancer I would need to be more strong and masculine. While that does ring true for a lot of gigs in the industry, there is huge power in embracing femininity and masculinity as an artist regardless of your gender. The same goes for body type. My body made me really insecure, and I compared myself to others for a long time. The second I started to balance [femininity and masculinity], I was so much more confident."

His dance education turning point:

"When I was 16 I grew 10 inches in one year. (I grew so quickly that I broke my pelvis.) Dancers and puberty have such a complex relationship—how we grow into our new frame is different for each person. After my growth spurt, I trained much more productively because I was finally in the body I'm supposed to have. That's when I could see results in the studio."

His most influential teacher:

"Lauren Mangano, the owner of Elite Academy of Dance. She is truly the reason why I have been able to pursue a professional dance career. She taught me technique and performance like every other studio owner, but she also taught me how to be a good person, how to take care of myself, professionalism and how to be responsible. I think of her whenever I am in an audition or class."

The most helpful correction he's ever received:

"When I was 16 I was getting really into contemporary and living for it. I would get very emotional and my mouth would open. I got a critique from a teacher to close it. It looked like I was catching flies or eating the air. I see that a lot in dancers as a judge now."

His advice for teachers in 2020:

"Teach your students to keep every option open. There is no set path for a professional dancer. Dancers have ownership of that and it should be exciting. Keep an open mind and go with your gut."

Teachers Trending
Tiler Peck teaching her Turn Out With Tiler class. Photo courtesy Peck

In March, most professional dancers suddenly lost the vast majority of their work. Left with lots of newfound free time—and, in many cases, a hole in their budgets—many took to Instagram, Zoom and other platforms to share their knowledge with summer intensive students, adult beginners, preschoolers and everyone in between.

For some, it was a chance to continue flexing teaching muscles they'd been developing over years. But for others, it was an unusual first-time teaching experience.

Dance Teacher talked to five pros about what it was like to go from dancing full-time to teaching virtually—and what they learned along the way.

Tiler Peck, New York City Ballet

Teaching has always been in NYCB principal Tiler Peck's blood—her mother put her to work at her dance studio when she was just 12.

But with her full NYCB schedule and her many guesting gigs and entrepreneurial projects, Peck typically doesn't have time to fit teaching into her professional life.

When the pandemic hit, though, Peck realized that she'd need to take class six days a week to stay in shape while quarantining in California. Since she was giving herself class anyway, it just made sense to start an Instagram Live series. "I also feel that exercise and movement are so important to our mental and physical well-being, so I wanted to help people feel connected in such a scary time, and motivate others to move," she says. Turn Out With Tiler was born, and soon Peck found herself teaching nearly every day on her Instagram, often bringing in guest stars like Josh Groban and Debbie Allen, in addition to giving private lessons and classes with CLI Studios, New York City Dance Alliance and more.

Thousands of people from dozens of countries tuned in to Turn Out With Tiler, and, suddenly, the starry dancer known for her clever musicality and sprightly footwork was becoming known on the internet as "Ms. Tiler."

"I get so many messages calling me 'Ms. Tiler,'" she says. "I feel like now most people know me as a teacher and not as a dancer, which is so funny to me because I'm definitely a dancer first. I'm happy that maybe it'll bring a new audience to watch NYCB."

Though Turn Out With Tiler is now just twice weekly, Peck says she wants to find a way to continue teaching, even once in-person performances begin again. "I would feel like if I just stopped it completely, so many of the people who have been so loyal and so touched by these classes would be left in the dust," she says.

Leslie Andrea Williams, Martha Graham Dance Company

Though Leslie Andrea Williams has been a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company for five years, she never felt comfortable teaching Graham because of the hyper-specificity of the technique.

But teaching virtually for the Graham summer intensive and to raise money for the company's GoFundMe gave Williams a teaching crash-course that she says will pay off in her dancing.

"The Graham technique is so specific, and going back to basics is always a great thing to do," she says. "You're thinking more anatomically, more simply about executing the technique. It's so easy to go into survival mode with Graham, but you don't necessarily have to do that. When you have the tools, you can actually do less, so that's something I'll incorporate into my performing."

Williams, who did hours of prep for each of her classes, also learned just how exhausting teaching—especially Graham—can be.

"I remember posting on my Instagram like, 'Hey, I'll be teaching for these dates,' and [master Graham teacher] Miki Orihara was like, 'That's a lot of classes!,'" says Williams. "I didn't realize how much it was until I was in it—I bow down to all the teachers who teach multiple Graham classes a day in person!"

Alexandra Hutchinson, Dance Theatre of Harlem

Before the pandemic, Dance Theatre of Harlem company member Alexandra Hutchinson had taught a few classes as part of her curriculum at Indiana University, as well as during DTH tours.

But in March, her teaching career exploded: Hutchinson found herself teaching for DTH, Brown Girls Do Ballet, Dance Dynamics, ARC Dance, City Dance and more, for students ages 4 to 18.

To boost her confidence, Hutchinson channeled her own favorite teachers—Robert Garland at DTH, Kee Juan Han at the Washington School of Ballet, Michael Vernon at IU. "All of my experiences come into this pot, and I choose what I want to share," she says.

Teaching so many students who looked like her was exciting for Hutchinson, who didn't have the same experience growing up. It also gave her a sense of her responsibility as a teacher. "You don't know who is going to actually make it," she says. "It could be the girl who is more shy in the back. So making sure you give everyone your attention, and making sure everything I say I really mean, because you never know what's going to stick with people, and what will influence them and motivate them."

Hutchinson feels a responsibility to be the best dancer she can be for her students, too. "In case they see me dance, I don't want them to be like, 'Hey, I thought she was good at this!'" she says with a laugh. "I want to dance like they're watching me, and apply my own corrections that I've been giving in class. I told them they have to do it, so I should probably do it, too."

Frances Samson, Limón Dance Company

Limón technique is known for being highly locomotive. So when the pandemic arrived, Limón company member Frances Samson was skeptical that it was even possible to teach it virtually.

But when Samson was encouraged to teach on the Limón Dance Foundation's Instagram page, she dove into research and preparation to ensure she could give a class she was proud of. "I was taking every virtual Limón class, taking notes of how they were managing this new platform, taking video tutorials," she says. "I videoed myself four times before I went online, I had discussions with former company members, and got feedback from my parents."

For Samson, who had only been teaching for around a year, this preparatory time gave her an opportunity to anticipate the needs of her students (whose identities were largely a mystery to her, being on Instagram). "I didn't know who my audience was, so I had to think of the corrections and feedback prior to class," she says. "I had to use different sources of inspiration and imagery because what resonates with certain people may not resonate with others."

Teaching virtually gave Samson new confidence as a teacher—and a desire to dive further into teaching once she can be in the studio again. "There's so many challenges you face online that you don't face in person," she says. "I'm excited to get back to the studio with that newfound knowledge and be inspired by the energy of the room. I don't think I realized how much we absorb from just being in the room with each other."

Luciana Paris, American Ballet Theatre

Over the years, ABT soloist Luciana Paris has developed a reputation for being an unofficial coach within the company.

"Sometimes, when I know the person isn't going to take it badly, I will go and be like, 'Try this!'" she says. "And most of the time, it will work!"

In recent years, Paris' keen eye has translated into success as an occasional teacher at summer intensives and as a private coach. But this past spring, with performances canceled for both herself and her freelance-dancer husband, Jonatan Luján, Paris found herself teaching more than ever, taking on a host of virtual coaching clients from her friend Amanda Cobb, a former ABT dancer and a faculty member at ABT William J. Gillespie School.

Soon, after seeing how the pandemic was negatively impacting so many students' training, an idea was born: This summer, Paris, Luján and Cobb launched Dance Compañía, a virtual intensive featuring star faculty like Isabella Boylston, Sascha Radetsky and James Whiteside.

For Paris, teaching virtually during the pandemic has taught her to be a better communicator—whether talking about technique or just life. "When you are not in the studio, you have to try so much harder," she says. "And also just to bring them hope, and to remind them that this is something that is going to pass. I always tell my students that we are so lucky that we can do what we love in these difficult times, even if it's in the kitchen. And as soon as I say that, they g 'Yeah…she's right…'"

And though Dance Compañía may have been a product of the pandemic, Paris plans for it to last far beyond—hopefully as an in-person intensive sooner rather than later.

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