Dance Teachers Trending

Tessandra Chavez Wants Teachers to Bring Back This Old-School Mentality

Chavez currently teaches at RADIX, a national dance convention. Photo courtesy of Chavez

Whether teaching or making dance, Tessandra Chavez delivers one consistent theme: versatility. Regarded by many as the pioneer of contemporary hip hop, her unique fusion style stems from the multifaceted dance training she received growing up in San Diego, with classical ballet, modern, tap, jazz and hip hop. At age 15 she formed the nonprofit dance company Unity Dance Ensemble, and she's since helped build the Debbie Allen Dance Academy's jazz program, choreographed for "So You Think You Can Dance" and won an Emmy for Outstanding Choreography in 2015 for her "Dancing with the Stars" piece performed by Julianne Hough and Derek Hough.


Dance Teacher: How can teachers help students who struggle to learn different styles?

Tessandra Chavez: Labels restrict dancers and keep them in their heads. And I see it all the time, the more trained dancer will take my class, and they freeze up on those more intricate hip-hop parts, and it's because they suddenly think, "Oh that's hip hop; that's not what I do," and so they block themselves. And the same goes in reverse for the hip-hop dancer. Dance is dance. We are not a "hip-hop dancer" or a "ballet dancer." We're dancers. If you open your students' minds in that way, they're going to be more capable and open to learning any style. Plus, dancers have to take classes they're not comfortable taking. Today's generation of dancers, I find, take classes they know they're good at or that are going to be filmed and put on YouTube. And I'm thinking, "Nooooo, you should probably be in that class you look awful in!" Teachers should encourage students to get out of their comfort zones, because that's when they grow.

DT: What was it like to work with Debbie Allen?

TC: I worked for Debbie Allen for six years at her academy. She was always an idol of mine. When she was on "Fame," I wanted to be her, so to work for her was an honor. She and I were always like kindred spirits—we're very alike in our approach to training dancers. I think part of the reason she hired me was because she saw herself in me a bit, because, as a teacher, I was very stern and strict and all about discipline and focus and being versatile as a dancer.

DT: What advice do you have for teachers?

TC: There's so much competition between local studios, and owners tend to enable and appease the students rather than enforce the old-school mentality of work your butt off and do what makes you uncomfortable: "You're required to take ballet" or "You're required to take tap." There's not a lot of "you have to" anymore because studios are worried about losing business. I'd love to see studio teachers across America encourage their students to do what makes them uncomfortable rather than give in to what the dancer wants.

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Photo courtesy of Kreiling

While training with Abby Lee Miller in Pittsburgh, Rachel Kreiling underestimated the studio's requirement of enrolling in every class. The versatile curriculum (tap, ballet, hip hop, modern, acro, lyrical and jazz) paired with Miller's unconventional teaching style, since showcased on "Dance Moms," greatly impacted Kreiling's own style and relationship to music. "Abby would play the music and choreograph within the phrasing, but rarely to actual counts," she says. This resulted in a huge positive learning component. "I had to learn musicality myself," says Kreiling, who left the studio at age 18 after graduating, more than a decade before the Lifetime network show aired. "And studying every style became instrumental in my attachment to music," she adds. "I'm always seeking out new genres and diverse songs." After a performing career that included a Broadway-style revue at Tokyo Disney, Revolution (a tap tour with Mike Schulster), and dancing with Alison Chase/Performance and in a Rasta Thomas contemporary ballet, Kreiling began assisting Suzi Taylor at Steps on Broadway in New York City. In 2007, Kreiling, who describes her class as extremely athletic and technical, became full-time NYCDA faculty.

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Courtesy of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center

For seven decades, Frank Shawl's bright and kind spirit touched thousands of dancers in the studio and in the audience.

After dancing professionally in New York City and with the May O'Donnell Dance Company, Shawl moved with Victor Anderson to the San Francisco Bay Area and founded Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in 1958. It is the longest running arts organization in Berkeley.

The two ran their own company for 15 years and Shawl-Anderson Dance Center became a home for dance for students and artists alike. It currently runs 120 classes and workshops every week for children and adults, plus artist residencies, rehearsal space and intimate performances. (If you have never visited, the Center is actually a large house converted into four studio spaces.)

Shawl taught modern classes at the studio until 1990, performed into his late 70s and took classes at the Center into his mid 80s.

As I simultaneously mourn and honor Frank—my dear friend, fellow dancer, mentor and boss—I reflect on a few lessons that I learned from him. These five ideas relate to our various roles in dance as students, performers, teachers and administrators.

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Halloween is just a few weeks away, which means it's officially time to start prepping your fabulously spooky costumes! Skip the classic witch, unicorn and superhero outfits, and trade them in for some ghosts of dance legends past. Wear your costumes to class, and use them as a way to teach a dance history lesson, or ask your students to dress up as their favorite dancer from history, and perform a few eight counts of their most famous repertoire during class. Your students will absolutely love it, and you'll be able to get in some real educating despite the distraction of the holiday!

Check out some ideas we had for who might be a good fit. We can't wait to see who you all dress up as!

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Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Photo by Sedge Leblang, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At 8, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle at with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.

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You've got the teaching talent, the years of experience, the space and the passion—now all you need are some students!

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This fall Hubbard Street Dance Chicago initiates an innovative choreographic-study project to pair local Chicago teens with company member Rena Butler, who in 2018 was named the Hubbard Street Choreographic Fellow. The Dance Lab Choreographic Fellowship is the vision of Kathryn Humphreys, director of HSDC's education, youth and community programs. "I am really excited to see young people realize possibilities, and realize what they are capable of," she says. "I think that high school is such an interesting, transformative time. They are right on the edge of figuring themselves out."

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Q: What policies do you put in place to encourage parents of competition dancers to pay their bills in a timely manner?

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Original photos: Getty Images

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