The 2008 Dance Teacher Awards

Get to know this year’s winners—Elizabeth Fernandez-Flores, Kee-Juan Han, Jan Van Dyke and Sanja Korman.

Private Studios and Conservatories

 

•DT_Flores-TischmanElizabeth Fernandez-Flores

New American Youth Ballet

New York, NY

www.newamericanyouthballet.org

At just 13 years old, Elizabeth Fernandez-Flores was a child herself when she founded the Carousel Cities Youth Ballet to provide children in Binghamton, New York, with free lessons and seasonal performances. Although beginnings were tough, holding class in a community center and using two chairs and a pole as a barre, Fernandez-Flores knew it was the start of something big.

She was right. Through donations, fundraisers and grants, the program raised more than $40,000 its first year, allowing for a live orchestra to accompany its productions and a summer program at Carnegie Hall. Five years later, Fernandez-Flores moved her nonprofit to downtown Manhattan, renaming it the New American Youth Ballet. Today, she single-handedly teaches ballet to 120 students ages 2 through adult. Her students continue to perform in full-length classical ballets with live accompaniment, which she feels is a must for all dancers (the program recently presented Don Quixote).

Fernandez-Flores strives to offer a non-competitive learning environment where students can flourish regardless of economic background. Favoritism is not allowed (she breaks up any parental or student cliques) and, instead of auditions, lead parts are chosen based on in-class progress and attitude. With the help of a music therapist, she also developed songs to stimulate learning: “Ballet can be very removed; you feel like you have to sit there and be proper,” she says. “But we all know that if you bring something into the classroom, kids want to see, touch, feel and know what it is. Ballet shouldn’t be any different.”

In addition to running NAYB, she has headed the Summer Dance program at Ballet Academy East and was director of the Harkness Youth Ballet Program.Fernandez-Flores trained at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet before dancing professionally with Ballet America, Brooklyn Ballet and Victoria Ballet Theater. At 21, she was one of six finalists profiled in Seventeen Magazine for winning the Seventeen/CoverGirl Volunteerism award. Her students have gone on to begin similar nonprofits and study at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and American Ballet Theatre.

Fernandez-Flores says it is most rewarding to see “what students feel they are empowered to do in whatever direction they choose. As long as they train well, know their craft and continue sharpening it, they will have a voice they can take forward.”

•DT_KeeKee-Juan Han

The Washington School of Ballet

Washington, DC

www.washingtonballet.org

“I’m very strict: Just ask David Hallberg,” says Kee-Juan Han, laughing, referring to his former student who is now an American Ballet Theatre principal. “He would say, ‘If he wasn’t strict, I wouldn’t be who I am today.’”

Han has been preparing students for professional life for more than 14 years. The former Boston Ballet soloist retired from the stage due to a knee injury in 1993 and went on to direct the Arizona Ballet School before accepting a full-time teaching position at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he won The Excellence in Teaching Award. In July 2007, he took over as director of The Washington School of Ballet.

Born in Singapore, Han studied under extremely demanding teachers. That, combined with two years of military training, has made him quite the taskmaster in the classroom. “Teaching technique is just a fraction of what teaching is,” explains Han. “To train a whole dancer . . . you need to teach them manners—the way they come in, greet the teacher, greet the pianist and fellow students.”

Students are required to line up in height order and must always come to class with a notebook in which they record every correction given to them. If one student makes a mistake, the entire class is penalized. “You have to know and learn about teamwork before you can become a leader. If you’re in the corps de ballet, you can’t decide to hold your leg a little longer or do another pirouette. That’s not a team player and that’s not going to make a beautiful ballet.”

Han admits he is especially tough on his male dancers, who placed first at Youth America Grand Prix in Torrington, Connecticut, this past January. “People think, ‘Oh, we only have one boy in the whole school, so we should be lenient.’ I think the opposite. They like parameters and discipline,” says Han, adding that parents of his 6-year-old students sometimes jokingly ask him to take their kids home. “[But] I’m just a medium. Teaching is like a tango. It takes two.”

 

Higher Education

 

•DT_jan2Dr. Jan Van Dyke

University of North Carolina–Greensboro

Greensboro, NC

www.uncg.edu/dce

Like many dance educators, Jan Van Dyke, PhD, didn’t imagine she would ever become one. Yet as soon as the University of Wisconsin–Madison graduate started teaching, she found she loved it. Now the head of University of North Carolina–Greensboro’s dance department, Van Dyke has dedicated the past 40 years to teaching, creating and producing work, primarily in Washington, DC, New York City and throughout North Carolina.

After studying at George Washington University as the school’s first master’s candidate in dance education, she opened a DC-based studio where she taught as well as produced and presented local work. For the next two decades, Van Dyke moved back and forth between DC and NYC, studying, teaching, running various studios and dance companies and acting as mentor to generations of young dancers. Eventually, she landed at UNCG, where she obtained first a PhD in education, then a teaching position in the dance department. Van Dyke has been there ever since, intent on helping students discover their own voices. “It’s so rewarding when you see students start to develop skills and ideas that they didn’t have before and learn to think and solve problems on their own,” she says, adding that she sees a lot of herself in her young female students and strives to prepare them better for entry into the professional world. Toward that end, she taught a career-management course last semester, in addition to one in dance and video.

A true advocate of dance, Van Dyke is committed to spreading awareness and appreciation of the artform in the Greensboro community and throughout North Carolina. Twice a year, she runs a “Saturday Series” of performances that is open and free to all area dance artists. Last September, Van Dyke also started running a city dance program in downtown Greensboro that is now booming, with more than 25 classes a week for the general public. In addition, she oversees the North Carolina Dance Project, which has been putting on the annual North Carolina Dance Festival in six cities across the state since 1991.

“As teachers, we really teach a lot more than we think we do,” she says, by way of explaining the draw that education, and her multitude of roles, has for her. “We teach just the way we live our lives. So I try to think in terms of modeling the kind of dance professional that I’d like my students to be.”

 

K–12

 

•DT_SKorman_1966Sanja Korman

Bellaire Senior High School

Houston, TX

http://www.bellaire.org

All too many K–12 dance teachers know the feeling of playing second fiddle to the more traditional school subjects. Just ask Yugoslavia native Sanja Korman, who held class in the school cafeteria of Houston Independent School District’s Bellaire Senior High School before and after regular school hours for nearly seven years. But Korman’s perseverance paid off when the administration had a new dance studio built to accommodate her growing number of students—Korman, an educator for close to 20 years, remembers starting with about 25 students and now teaches just over 100. “They decided that the program is so strong and so well-built that my students deserved to be in a better space,” she says proudly.

In addition to being rewarded with a new studio, Korman’s hard work also won her the title of the National Dance Association's 2008 K–12 Dance Educator of the Year. "I still can't believe it! It's really helping me share my knowledge and...see what other teachers are doing. I'm in a position where I can teach and, at the same time, learn a lot," she says. Korman's community outreach does not sotp there. She founded an annual concert for her students, to which all members of the dance community—including public school dance children, private studio dancers and university students—are invited to participate. In addition to performing their own works, Korman encourages students to use this time to become better acquainted with the university dance programs. Meanwhile, middle school students are introduced to Bellaire's dance program dance troupe, eMotions Dance Company.

Founded on the basis of Korman's personal dance philosophy, "Devotion to motion creates emotion," the company began as an after-school club but has since evolved to include more thatn 100 students, who practice modern dance and/or hip hop and break-dancing. Today, the company has regular school periods scheduled and Korman allows students to create their own routines to showcase their individuality. "My students are everything to me," she says. "I live for this. This is my career, this is my life." DT

Photos from top: by Geoff Tischman; Stephen Baranovics; Steve Clarke; Mia Horvath

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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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.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

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."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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