Technique: Vicky Shick Teaches a Contemporary Warm-Up Sequence

Photo by Kyle Froman

Vicky Shick's voice echoes in the cavernous dance space of St. Mark's Church in New York City's East Village. A sinking plié gets a heavy "uhhhhh," while a swing-and-recover movement is accompanied by a joyous "whoo!" It doesn't take long for the students to join in with deep sighs and sharp yelps of their own. This is the only soundtrack for an hour-long, continuous warm-up that Shick has designed to be a neutral entry point into "everything you need as a dancer: strength, flexibility, alignment, shifting of weight, getting on center, using momentum." Rather than walking around, offering corrections, Shick participates in the warm-up, mirroring the class. "I like to allow time for people to get information from their own bodies," she explains. "There needs to be room to listen."

A veteran of the Trisha Brown Dance Company who also worked with Sara Rudner, among others, Shick is a beloved fixture in the NYC downtown dance community. She leads regular open classes in her own style at Movement Research and occasionally teaches Trisha Brown repertory. She also often visits colleges and universities to teach Brown's movement and set repertory. At St. Mark's Church, her sessions tend to attract aspiring, working and former professional dancers, ranging from college-aged up to Shick's contemporaries.

Her time with TBDC helped to shape her own philosophy. "I'm a sucker for the rigor of dance work," she says, citing the loose-limbed, voluptuous movement she performed with Brown as an example of how something that looks spontaneous, free and easy may actually require a great deal of strength and focus. "I'm also very interested in specificity and nuance," she says. "At the same time, I want to see the dancers feeling and breathing—I want to see their personality inside the phrase. There can be an extravagance, a wildness. It's not rote."

The high-energy combination she offers after a brief interlude of improvisation reflects those opposing ideas, full of both expansive movements and precise details. She plays a different piece of music each time a new group takes the floor; selections range from classical to techno to Rufus Wainwright. "How can you support each other without losing your individuality?" she calls out. As the choreography begins to click and the students cut loose, she beams with delight.

It was during Shick's six-year tenure with TBDC that she was introduced to teaching. "Everyone in the company had to teach when we went on tour," she says. "I was nervous at first—I'm shy, so sometimes I get nervous even now—but it's been 37 years and I'm still at it!" She prefers to say that she's "leading" class, rather than "instructing." "I feel like I'm here with peers," she says. "We're in it together."

Whatever her students bring into the room, Shick hopes they leave "feeling like they moved, like they got to use their power and their clarity," she says. "I want them to have learned something—maybe from me, but also from their own bodies and from watching each other, from dancing together." Observing as this learning happens in real time is what keeps Shick invigorated. "When I feel an atmosphere of concentration," she says, "where everyone is working hard and working for themselves, that's when I'm most inspired."

Vicky Shick has been involved in the NYC dance community since the late 1970s as a performer, teacher and choreographer. During her years with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, she received a Bessie Award for performance. She has restaged Brown's dances in festivals and at universities. She has been making her own dances since the '80s and was honored with a second Bessie for her collaborations with artists Barbara Kilpatrick and Elise Kermani. She teaches regularly for Movement Research and the Trisha Brown Dance Company and taught for many years at Hunter College. She is a two-time Movement Research artist in residence, a 2006 grant recipient of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, a 2008–2009 Guggenheim Foundation Fellow and a 2018 Gibney DiP grantee.

Emily Climer is a dancer and writer based in Brooklyn. She has recently shown her choreography as part of Sundays on Broadway (NYC), Split Bill at Triskelion Arts (NYC) and The Third Barn (PA). As a performer, she has worked on projects by Mina Nishimura, Emma Rose Brown, Susan Sgorbati & Elliot Caplan, Tyler Rai, Tiny Trip and Tori Lawrence + Co.

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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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