Technique: Raegan Wood

How I teach modern dance to children

Raegan Wood designed the children's modern dance curriculum at the Paul Taylor School in New York City.

Raegan Wood stands in front of 14 5-and 6-year-olds, huddled at one side of the large dance studio at The Taylor School. Spreading her hands widely, Wood signals the doors of an imaginary elevator opening, leading the students to the "ice-skating room." The petite dancers begin to glide across the floor: two boys imitate hockey players skating backwards, and all practice jumps and accidental on-ice spills before the magic elevator doors start to shut.

Students relish their trips on the magic elevator—they push imaginary buttons and mimic its rising (or lowering) to visit multiple rooms like the "windy room" and the "speedy machine room." But what they don't know is that this 10-minute game actually challenges them to explore elements of dance: dynamic energy range, shape, time and space. Adapted from an activity Wood's own children learned in a creative movement class years ago, Magic Elevator has become a fixture in her classes for children at The Taylor School in Lower Manhattan, where she designed the new youth program for ages 4–17, giving students a solid modern dance education with a Taylor-style twist.

A dance educator for over 25 years, Wood's DNA practically contains a gene for teaching: She was literally born at the American Dance Festival—her parents, two Graham dancers, were leading a class at the festival when her mother went into labor. And after attending University of California Berkeley, where her parents became the directors of the dance program, Wood danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company for seven years.

"Once I left Paul, I started teaching. It seemed like a natural thing to do, since both of my parents were educators," she says. "Every dinner conversation was surrounded by dance—I lived and breathed it from the time I was born." And when PTDC moved to a new, spacious location in 2010, Wood approached Taylor about starting a youth program. "I had just gone back to Temple University to get my master's in dance education, and it was the perfect opportunity to build a youth program that would service the community and beyond," she says.

When designing the program's curriculum, Wood felt it was most important to continue Taylor's creative legacy, "allowing the students in every class to develop their own creative voices," she says. The program starts with classes for ages 4–6, and along with creative movement activities, Wood incrementally introduces basic modern dance technique, drawing upon Taylor's aesthetic when she can. Students first learn Taylor’s arm positions: "Taylor scoop, double scoop and high-V"; and her 7- to 9-year-old students practice Taylor's “Aureole runs,” a traveling step incorporating arm coordination and torso opposition. By the time teen students reach advanced classes, they have a solid technical modern dance foundation and begin to learn Taylor repertory and investigate and analyze his choreographic style.

The program emphasizes dance-making and creative exploration. "I introduce the concepts of space, time and energy, and how those elements can be manipulated by choreographers. But I don't sit and lecture my kids; I'll think of inventive ways to get them to explore those concepts," she says. The creative play activities (like Magic Elevator) allow students to move freely and at the same time make choreographic choices in order to express themselves.

Though she teaches all levels at The Taylor School, Wood's real knack is with the youngest students. Using imagery for every exercise and step, she gets kids to stretch and strengthen their bodies and helps improve their coordination. Sitting or standing in good posture is referred to as one's "bright star shining"; contractions take the shape of "big hugs"; and a series that resembles a yoga sun-salutation includes animal imagery like "tiny, little bugs," "angry cat backs," "puppy-dog tails," "grasshoppers," "snakes" and "jaguar tails."

Wood's students learn to not be afraid of falling or using the floor, and they develop a modern dancer's sensibilities from a young age. "Modern dance, and certainly Taylor dancers, are in and out of the floor all the time," she says. "I'm trying to help them gently develop strength and confidence to go in and out of the floor with ease, power and grace."

Here, Wood and students Stella Nakada and Zachary Basile demonstrate a "bottom roll" into a "push-off," two basic elements of modern dance floor-work, and Taylor's Aureole runs.

 

A native of Berkeley, California, Raegan Wood trained with her parents, David and Marni Wood. She received a BFA from Montclair State University and a master's degree from Temple University. A member of Paul Taylor Dance Company from 1982 to 1989, she has also performed with David Parsons, Christopher Gillis and her sister's dance company, Ellis Wood Dance. She has taught at the university level, including Barnard and Juilliard, and she has designed curricula for dance programs in K–5 schools in New Jersey. Apart from teaching 11 classes weekly at The Taylor School, Wood is currently a faculty member of the dance department at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University and an administrator at the Peridance/ Capezio Center in New York.

Stella Nakada, 6, and Zachary Basile, 9, both live in New York City and are students at The Taylor School.

 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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