Team Building

Strategies for starting new competition groups

Danzhouse company members ready to tap in Supersonic.

Starting a new competition team is a tricky business. It’s expensive, time-consuming and hard work for students, parents and teachers. Whether you’re adding a new division to your roster of teams, creating a young group to replace graduating students or starting fresh in a new studio with a competitive drive, knowing how and when to go for gold depends on your studio’s goals. Here, three owners share their strategies.

Kim Johnson-Spolitino

Stewart Johnson Dance Academy (450 students)

Hamilton Square, NJ

At Stewart Johnson Dance Academy, Kim Johnson-Spolitino and her mother, co-director Isobel Johnson, have about 60 members, ages 8–18, on their current competition team. Generally, they choose to add talented new dancers to existing groups of students, as opposed to starting a new team. (Johnson-Spolitino estimates that she creates a brand-new group every three to four years.) “If good kids come along, I just push them ahead onto the team,” she says. “It takes a couple years to get the number of students we want for each age group.”

Last year, she decided to start a new 10-member competition company of 7- and 8-year-old dancers. “We had some talented little students who looked like they were ready,” Johnson-Spolitino says. “We’ve been starting them younger and younger.” She says that waiting until they’re 10 or 11 will cost them opportunities, and they may fall behind their peers at other studios. She chose these students based on how they performed in class and in recitals, noting that their performance quality onstage is often the most important factor.

But this blossoming team won’t make its competition debut until this year. The kids spent their first season taking one extra class—focused on strengthening their technique, jumps and turns—and watching the older students compete.

Johnson-Spolitino waits until the team is ready to win, because the studio’s success in competition is a big draw for new students. “It’s one of the first things kids mention when they walk into the studio,” she says. “It motivates people to come to us, especially if the kids do well.”

Janine Walsh

Walker’s Gymnastics and Dance (300 dance students)

Lowell, MA

Janine Walsh starts a new group of entry-level competitors every season to keep growing the program. Her 5- and 6-year-old novices start small, taking only one ballet class per week, plus a one-hour company class, which combines technique and choreography. “We have a chance to introduce the experience slowly without overburdening the family,” she says. But they still compete just as often as older dancers—about four to five times per season.

As the students get older, she says, families come to understand the importance of additional training and added costs. By 8 years old, competing students take two ballet classes, one jazz and one tap class, if they’re interested. By age 10 they add a modern class. The 55-member company pays tuition based on the number of classes taken, just like recreational dancers (who average three classes per week). Intermediate and advanced competitors pay an extra choreography fee of $60 per routine. (Costumes are paid for separately.)

Since Walsh has played the dual role of studio owner and dance mom, she appreciates the importance of communicating up front with parents, especially when competition gets pricey. She asks parents to submit a request form at the start of every season, stating how many numbers they can commit to pay for, as well as a student “wish list” for solos, duos or trios (for an added fee). “If parents can learn up front what they’re going to get,” she says, “they’ll trust you more when decisions have to be made.”

Kathalene Taylor-White

DanzHouse (68 students)

Memphis, TN

When Kathalene Taylor-White opened her studio four years ago, she formed an eight-member competition group immediately, since parents had inquired about it when enrolling their kids. Initially, she thought the hardest part of running the team would be teaching the three routines she had planned. But she had not anticipated having to coach her 9-year-old students in handling the pressures of competing.

At their first competition, her students were inconsolable when they didn’t come out on top. “I had to teach them that the results are just someone’s opinion,” says Taylor-White. “It doesn’t mean that they’re bad dancers.”

And she made sure to explain this concept to her younger dancers the next year, when she had enough students enrolled to start a new minis group. “I tell new kids up front that it’s not just about winning a platinum,” she says. “But did you have fun? Did you learn? That’s been one of the hardest things to teach.”

To give her competition students an edge, Taylor-White upped their number of required classes. Instead of taking one ballet class a week, her oldest competition group must take three, while the others take two. She also added a hip-hop requirement, so they’d be more comfortable at conventions.

Last year, she started taking students to competitions outside of Memphis, to avoid continually going up against more established schools in her area. She rented a bus to take her 23-member team to St. Louis, but parents weren’t happy with the steep rental price, plus gas. This year, parents carpooled to bring down costs.

Taylor-White is very aware of the financial strain of competitions on students’ families. “They have to pay so much for costumes and competition entry fees,” she says. So she deliberately keeps her company fees low. Her competition students even get $10 off the regular monthly tuition of $150. This includes unlimited classes plus four group choreography numbers. Students pay additional choreography fees only for a solo, duo or trio, ranging from $150 to $180 each. Building enrollment takes priority over bringing in more money per student. Taylor-White says: “It’s worth it, because we really enjoy what we’re doing.” DT

 

Photo courtesy of Kathalene Taylor-White

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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