The 2015 Dance Teacher Awards

As a teaching artist with Luna Dance Institute, Jochelle Pereña reaches students who otherwise wouldn't be exposed to dance. Photo by Michael Ertem, courtesy of Luna Dance

Four remarkable educators: Jochelle Pereña, Dale Lam, Brandee Williams Lara and Vera Ninkovic inspire us by nurturing their students' love of dance, whether preparing them for success at competitions, paving pathways to professional careers or offering them an emotional outlet through movement.

Helping students discover the power of self-expression

By Mary Ellen Hunt

Unlike dancers who pursue the art as a lifelong goal, Jochelle Pereña took a break from her ballet and modern training to study anthropology and French in college. But when she studied abroad in Senegal and Cameroon, in West Africa, her passion and appreciation for movement reignited in a new way. “In the nightclubs and bars there are big community circle dances where you just jump in and take a solo," she says. “This was such a foreign way of moving my body, I had to close my eyes and just feel it. I learned to surrender and listen with all my senses, to not try to control the movement." She brings this visceral experience of dance to students she teaches through Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley, California.

One of Luna's main missions is to place teaching artists in public school settings where students might otherwise not be exposed to dance. Pereña, who holds a professional diploma from London's Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and an MFA in dance, has taught for more than seven years in Oakland, CA, schools in low-income neighborhoods where violence is common. She finds that for many of these students, a strong relationship to movement can be a saving grace. “Dance has been the through line, the safe place where they can find confidence and power in their own bodies," she says. At New Highland Academy in East Oakland, she helped organized a yearly Dance Anywhere Day. Students, teachers, parents and even the principal rushed out together into the yard at noon for a 20-minute, free-for-all dance party. “For teachers or parents to see their children in a new way, or for students to see their friends in a new way through dance is incredible to me," Pereña says.

In the classroom, Pereña uses imagery to get students thinking with their bodies. “Stretch up to get a cookie jar that's almost out of reach. It's falling toward you. Now catch it! It's heavy, but you don't want it to break, so you land on the ground and roll with it. Now push yourself up off the floor and put it back on the shelf," she coaches. “I want to help my students find a freedom in movement, the kind I see in my daughter spinning around, the kind of movement I remember as a child in the living room—the way you might feel in contact improvisation, where you're not leading the dance all the time, but there's something else guiding you."

“When Jochelle teaches, she always discovers something new, and she takes this delight, even in content she's taught for years," says Luna founder Patricia Reedy. “She brings it a kind of effervescence that can't be taught."

At Chapman University, Brandee Williams Lara keeps the atmosphere fun and the training intense. Photo by Dante Lara

Creating a conservatory setting for college tappers

by Jen Jones Donatelli

While ballet and modern often take center stage in college dance programs, Chapman University breaks the mold—largely due to the energetic efforts of Brandee Williams Lara. Now in her 28th year of teaching, Lara has headed a conservatory-style tap program at Chapman since 1997, and it continues to attract aspiring tappers from all over the country. The program's reputation for preparing dancers to excel in today's professional tap world has earned the dance department increasing renown—and applicants. Lara says well over 300 dancers auditioned this year, and only about 80 were accepted.

For tap dancers, knowing the history is a huge part of understanding the art. Lara regularly incorporates history into her technique class and invites guest instructors once a month—often using her own money—to round out students' knowledge. Past guests have included the late legends Gregory Hines and Fayard Nicholas, as well as current artists like Channing Cook Holmes, Maud Arnold and Melinda Sullivan (of “So You Think You Can Dance" fame). Whenever a guest instructor leads class, Lara curates a question-and-answer session with the artist and often takes class alongside her students. Arnold, who refers to Lara as “a second mother," says one of the things she admires most about Lara is her belief that “the learning never stops, even when you're a teacher."

Though Lara considers herself a hard-core taskmaster, she also prides herself on creating a sense of fun among dancers. She mounts an annual “Happy Chappy Tappy" show at Chapman every spring, and recruits her students for a large-scale tap production she choreographs for the Orange County–based American Celebration fundraiser. During classes, she brings candy or Popsicles for an afternoon pick-me-up, and she regales students with showbiz stories inspired by her experiences working on regional tours with shows like George M!, Anything Goes and 42nd Street. “The kids leave my class dripping in sweat," she says. “But they all say this is the most fun they have."

Dale Lam fosters a loyalty among her clientele that lasts long after dancers leave the studio. Photo by Lisa Baker, courtesy of the photographer

Training top competitors with love

By Alison Feller

For Dale Lam, the most poignant moments aren't when a student nails a move on the first try—it's the opposite. “When a child is so passionate but doesn't have turnout or flexibility, I learn to be a better teacher," she says. “I learn to translate the movement in a way he or she can understand. When a kid is standing there saying, 'Help me,' you've gotta give it to them."

Though she thrives in her role as artistic director of Columbia City Jazz Dance School and Company in South Carolina, Lam never set out to become a studio owner. After dancing at the University of South Carolina and training with Frank Hatchett and Robin Dunn, she began taking classes and working at Columbia Conservatory of Dance. Director William Starrett, who is also artistic director of Columbia City Ballet, asked her to head up a jazz program for the ballet's school. The program grew into its own nonprofit, multigenre studio. Today, Lam enlists her husband to handle the business side of the studio so she can focus on her true passion: teaching. “When I got into this, I didn't know it was going to become a lifelong ambition," she says. “I just followed where the road took me."

Lam teaches all levels at Columbia City and maintains a curriculum and syllabus for staff. She runs the studio much like a conservatory, with twice-yearly exams for the dancers. When not at her studio, she is teaching in the University of South Carolina's dance department, where she's an adjunct faculty member (and an alum), or she's traveling to studios in nearby cities for teaching residencies.

Her passion for teaching and her love for her dancers keeps clients closely tied to her, even after they move on from the studio. “There's something unique about the relationships Dale has with her dancers," says actress Andie MacDowell, whose two daughters trained with Lam. “She knows how to bring out the best in them without being demeaning. She cares about helping them use dance to feel good about themselves." Lam's students have won top honors at The Dance Awards Nationals, have gone on to London Contemporary Dance School, joined Shaping Sound dance company and performed on “Glee."

The challenge, she says, is watching students leave. “I wasn't able to have children, so my dancers are my kids," she says. “It's hard to let them go. Early in my teaching career, when they left for college, I wanted to leave, too! But Frank Hatchett said, 'You have to stay, because you don't know what child is going to come next with a dream. You have to be there to fulfill it.'"

Vera Ninkovic helps dancers discover their creative sides while training them in proper technique. Photo by Staci Armao, courtesy of Everybody Dance!

Helping dancers feel safe outside their comfort zones

By Emily Macel Theys

Classical ballet and Led Zeppelin may seem an atypical pairing, but not for Vera Ninkovic. This melding of styles pervades her teaching philosophy. As ballet program coordinator for Everybody Dance! in Los Angeles, she provides a base of strong technique for students, while encouraging them to push boundaries and develop their own creativity.

“I don't want to create ballet robots," she says, explaining her contemporary-tinged, rock-scored performance pieces. Her work is well-received. “She is like a painter with human bodies," says Carol Zee, director of the studio's parent company, Gabriella Foundation. She hired Ninkovic to develop the ballet program 15 years ago. “The work she generates is unique, and she makes the kids stand out regardless of their level."

At the nonprofit studio, which offers discounted or free classes to students who otherwise couldn't afford them, Ninkovic describes her style as a mix of Cecchetti, Royal Academy of Dance and Vaganova. She echoes her first teacher, Kira Bousloff, when she stresses that technical prowess is essential to a successful career, but so are musicality and artistic expression. “I feel like I'm passing down her legacy," Ninkovic says. “She would say to me in her broken English, 'Give me your soul. I want to experience it. I want to feel it.'"

She firmly opposes the idea of teachers getting possessive of their dancers; she urges her students to try other dance styles whenever they have the chance. She also invites guest artists—sometimes her own teaching mentors—to work with dancers.

Though she teaches about 200 kids a week, sometimes seven days a week, she also makes time to offer free private lessons to promising dancers. Her pupils have gone on to compete at the Prix de Lausanne, attend Juilliard and choreograph for major ballet companies. “I want them to experience their dance training fully," she says. “You can't force someone to love this or to work hard; you can only inspire them. I supply information and support. I need them to supply the curiosity and passion and willingness to work hard."

Her students respond. “She's the only teacher our kids come back to see," Zee says. “She creates a space for them to be truly accepted. They feel safe."

Dance Teachers Trending
"Music is magical," says Black. "It just transforms kids." Photo courtesy of Black

After 31 years of teaching, Kim Black has mastered how to reach young dancers. Between a studio and private school, she teaches 34 classes per week in Burlington, North Carolina: That's 238 kids from ages 2 to 6 years old. "You have to make them fall in love with dance," says Black. The music, she says, cues this engagement.

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2019's movies featured some truly fantastic dancing, thanks to the hard work of many talented choreographers. But you won't see any of those brilliant artists recognized at the Academy Awards. And we're (still) not OK with that.

So we're taking matters into our own jazz hands.

On February 7—just before the Oscars ceremony—we'll present a Dance Spirit award for the best movie choreography of 2019. With your help, we've narrowed the field to seven choreographers, artists whose moves electrified some of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year.

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Kathryn Alter (left). Photo by Alexis Ziemski

In every class Kathryn Alter teaches, two things are immediately evident: how thoughtfully she chooses her words, and how much glee she gets from dancing the movement and style of modern choreographer José Limón. At the 2019 Limón summer workshop at Kent State University, Alter demonstrated a turning triplet with her arms fully outstretched, a smile stretching easily across her face. "It should be as if…" She paused to think of the perfect analogy that would help the dancers find the necessary circularity of the movement. "As if you live in a doughnut!" she finished, grinning broadly. The dancers gathered around her laughed—her smile and love for something as foundational as a triplet was contagious.

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Dance Teacher Tips
Melanie George (right). Photo by Grace Corapi, courtesy of George

Teachers from coast to coast are pushing students to move outside the constraints of popular music. There is a consensus that the earlier you introduce varied musical forms, the more adept and adaptable a dancer's musicality will be.

New York–based jazz scholar and teacher Melanie George notices that many students' relationships to music can be reductive: They may think exclusively about lyrics or accents. But jazz, for example, is about swinging: an embodied comprehension of instrumentation that only comes with musical acuity. "Students are ready for this specificity, even if we aren't giving it to them," she says. When her students understand that there is a technique to listening, it becomes less about going forward, and more about going deeper into the sound and into their bodies.

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Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in a scene from An American in Paris. Courtesy Fathom Events.

If you loved Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris on Broadway, you can now see the 1951 Oscar-winning movie it's based on in all its Technicolor glory. Fathom Events will present MGM's An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly and French ballerina Leslie Caron, and with music by George and Ira Gershwin, in select theaters nationwide January 19 and 22.

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Photo by Rachel Papo

Alicia Graf Mack's journey to become director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division—the youngest person to hold the position, and the first woman of color—was anything but a straight line. Yes, she's danced with prestigious companies: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But Mack also has a BA in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis; she pursued both degrees during breaks in her performing career, taken to recover from injuries and autoimmune disease flare-ups.

As an undergrad, she briefly interned at JPMorgan Chase in marketing and philanthropic giving, and she later made arts administration central to her graduate work, assuming that she'd eventually take an administrative role with a dance organization.

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Dance Teachers Trending
Morrissey (left). Photo courtesy of Interlochen Center for the Arts

When Joseph Morrissey first took the helm of the dance division at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a boarding high school in Interlochen, Michigan, he found a fully established pre-professional program with space to grow. And his vision was big, with plans to stage the kind of ambitious repertory he'd experienced during his dance career. But the realities quickly set in. During his first year in 2015, the department was denied by the George Balanchine Trust to license any Balanchine ballets—the dancers were not quite ready.

This early disappointment didn't derail Morrissey. In just four years, he has not only raised Interlochen's training standards, he's staged ambitious full-length ballets and been granted the rights to works by Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille and, yes, Balanchine. Guest artists regularly visit, and he's initiated major plans to expand the dance department building. Morrissey is only 37, but it should come as no surprise that he's done so much so fast—his entire life's journey has prepared him to be an artistic leader.

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Dance Teacher Tips
Valerie Amiss with students. Photo by Tracie Van Auken, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet

Jared Nelson, artistic director of California Ballet, demonstrates a tight fifth position as he talks to his class about the importance of rotating from the hips. "Having a visual image helped me as a dancer, so I try to demonstrate as much as possible," he says. "But I am also very conscious of word choice. Every dancer is different, and you have to phrase things in a language they will understand."

Teachers should always be aware of how they communicate with their students, including how they choose language for different individuals, classes or situations. Using the right terminology in early stages of training will ensure that students learn the proper names of steps. This foundation is crucial, particularly when so much of the classical vocabulary has been substituted by nicknames and phrases. (Think "lame duck" or "step-up turn" in place of piqué en dehors.) But good use of language also means using imagery and positive reinforcement to ensure the right kind of messaging. What teachers say in the studio could make the difference between dancers who listen—and ones who really hear.

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Dance Theatre of Harlem's Derek Brockington and Da'Von Doane in Claudia Schreier's Passage. Photo by Brian Callan, courtesy of DTH

Back to your routine after the holidays, but still looking for something to watch? Then this new PBS documentary titled Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants is for you. The hour-long film tracks the creation of two dance pieces: Claudia Schreier's Passage for Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Sir Richard Alston's Arrived featuring students of Norfolk's Governor's School for the Arts. Both works were co-commissioned by the American Evolution 2019 Commemoration and the Virginia Arts Festival last May, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Africans to English North America and the history of slavery that followed.

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Getty Images

Q: My tween is begging me to go to a faraway summer intensive, claiming "all my friends are going." How do I know if she's ready?

A: It can feel like a rite of passage for serious dancers to attend an intensive at a major ballet school. They dance all day and often explore the area's surroundings or attend performances on weekends. But living away from home, having a roommate and living the "dorm life" can be a challenge.

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Kensington Macmillen in class at CPYB. Photo by Joel Thomas Photography, courtesy of CPYB

Last year, Kensington MacMillen auditioned for summer programs away from home for the first time. A longtime Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet student, MacMillen had spent previous summers at her home studio, but now she was ready to branch out. After auditioning for three programs, her first response was a rejection from Miami City Ballet.

"A bunch of people from here had gotten in, and I didn't," she says. "So then you just kind of panic." She was still waiting to hear from the other programs and worried that she'd have nowhere to go.

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Dancer Health
Physical therapist Meredith Butulis in action. Photo courtesy of Twin Cities Orthopedics

After a long tennis match or a basketball game, elite athletes often head straight to the locker room and hit the exercise bike. On first thought, this might seem to be overtraining, but in fact, they are pedaling as a way to cool down properly.

"All of our blood vessels get dilated and blood goes out to muscles when we are doing cardiovascular work," says Meredith Butulis, a physical therapist specializing in dance medicine. "The blood goes mostly to the leg muscles, and blood pooling there is a real phenomenon. If your blood doesn't get back to the heart and brain, you can pass out."

She goes on to explain there are two ways to recover from an intense workout: actively, using a low-intensity movement to gradually bring the heart rate down, or passively, with no activity at all. The latter requires little explanation—how many times have you seen a dancer do a run-through and follow it up by sitting down on the side of the studio in a static stretch? But for many reasons, including the real possibility of blood pooling that Butulis describes, a passive recovery is not the best choice for dancers.

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