The 2010 Dance Teacher Awards: Cindy Gratz

Cindy Gratz broadened the Sam Houston State University world dance program.CINDY GRATZ

Sam Houston State University

Huntsville, Texas

Cindy Gratz grew up immersed in both academia and ethnic dance. While her father was teaching at the University of Hawaii, Gratz followed her mother off to hula classes, studying with master teacher Kumu Hula Nona Beamer. Her mother, Sara Carpenter, an emeritus faculty member of Southern Illinois University/Edwardsville and a Mexican-American, also immersed her in folklórico. “My mother was teaching world dance when it was not cool,” she says. When the family moved back to the mainland, Gratz’s mother took her to Katherine Dunham’s class in East St. Louis. “I went kicking and screaming,” remembers the Texas native. “I wanted to do tap, jazz and ballet like every other kid.”

Fortunately, Gratz was not like every other kid. “At 10, I told people that I wanted to go to UCLA, then NYU and then teach at a university in Texas,” she says. “Except for a short stint in the circus, that’s pretty much exactly what I did.” (Gratz rode elephants for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in 1977. “You have to have something to tell your grandchildren,” she says.) Now, as a professor at Sam Houston State University, she takes a broad approach to teaching dance, considering context, historical roots and multiple influences.

When she arrived at SHSU in 1991, she brought her world dance experience right into the curriculum. “They had a class that combined folk and social dances, which was a start,” says Gratz, who expanded the program to include several world dance forms. “You cannot learn the dance without learning the culture. So if we are learning the Cotton-Eyed Joe, a Texas form, we have to address the polka rhythms and Native American lineage of the dance.” She continually adds new forms, from Tahitian to Bharatanatyam, depending on the ever-shifting interests and backgrounds of the student body.

“There is no one form of dance that is better than another; we honor all forms here,” says Gratz’s boss, Jennifer Pontius, associate professor and dance coordinator. “Cindy has been a large part of that effort with the work she has brought here in world dance.”

A car accident in 2006 left Gratz with a spinal cord injury and limited movement in her arms. After two years of rehabilitation, two new hips and a new knee, she’s nearly back to full capacity. “I am like the bionic, metallic woman,” she says. “Hula was really helpful in getting my range back.”

In addition to her role at SHSU, Gratz continues to develop her own choreography, often based in social issues. She also works with older adults in Prime Time, a component of her company, Texas World Dance Company, which has been going strong since 1988.

Supervising MFA students’ thesis projects is part of her job at SHSU. “Helping students manifest their ideas is so fulfilling,” she says. She’s also a stickler for editing and requires that composition students cut a 30-minute dance down to three minutes, while maintaining the essence of the dance. “They learn a lot about filler, and honesty,” she says. “She has a gift for making students find their place in dance,” says Pontius. “We are not all going to be in a dance company. She opens doors to other possibilities in dance or in themselves.”

“When I hear students coming out of a dance class saying, ‘Wow, what a great teacher,’ I smile,” Gratz says. “But when they come out of a studio saying, ‘Wow, what a great class,’ I am delighted. This is what I strive to do, provide good classes with focus on the topic, enhanced by humor and memorable anecdotes. The credit should go to the subject. I am just the messenger.”

Photo by Julian Grandberry, courtesy of Cindy Gratz

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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