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."

To Share With Students
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Celebrated New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns has recently been exploring collaborative possibilities with dance artists outside ballet. Just this year she was guest artist with Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Company, and performed on Broadway in her husband Joshua Bergasse's choreography for I Married an Angel. This summer she appeared in a highly anticipated series of cross-genre collaborations at Jacob's Pillow, titled Beyond Ballet, with Honji Wang of the French hip-hop duo Company Wang Ramirez, postmodern dance artist Jodi Melnick, choreographer Christopher Williams and more. Here she speaks with DT about the effects of her explorations.

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Risa Steinberg (center); photo by Alexandra Fung, courtesy of In the Lights PR

In an adult ballet class, Kimberly Chandler Vaccaro noticed a woman working so hard that her shoulders were near her ears. "I was going to say something about her tension, but I didn't want her awareness to go there," says Vaccaro, who teaches at Princeton Ballet School. Instead, she told the dancer to remember that breathing muscles are low, below her sternum. "Then we talked about moving from the shoulder blades first, and how they're halfway down your back. She started this lovely sequential movement, and it eventually solved the problem."

Drawing attention to symptoms, such as tense shoulders, might create more issues for a dancer if the cause of the problem remains unaddressed. Simply saying "shoulders down" might compromise alignment as the dancer tries to show a longer neck or forgets to breathe, jeopardizing movement quality. Teachers can be strategic and communicate information in a way that doesn't aggravate the situation. "Dance will never be easy," says master teacher Risa Steinberg, "but it can be easier if you're not folding new problems on top of old ones."

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Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

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Site Network
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More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:

"Is your daughter the dancer?"

"Actually," I say, "I am."

"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"

"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."

Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.

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Getty Images

Any teacher who works with little ones knows that props can make class time run much more smoothly. That said, it's often difficult to find the right mix of tools that will both capture a child's attention and are manageable enough to carry around from one location to another—or pack up and store easily. Anything too big or too heavy is out, and some of the props you love to use with little ones may not be the most practical choice if you're a freelance teacher traveling to multiple studios throughout the week.

We asked two experienced teachers to share a couple of their favorite tips for easy-travel props for those who teach young ones. Here are five solid suggestions you can choose from, to incorporate into your overall teaching plans.

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Paige Cunningham Caldarella. Photo by Philip Dembinski

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After watching the dancers go through the phrase a couple of times, Caldarella takes a moment to troubleshoot a few sticky spots and give a quick pep talk before having them do it again. "I know it's fast," she tells them. "I know it's a lot of moves. And you're hanging in there! But stick with the task of articulating everything—try to hyper-explore that."

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Q: What tips do you have for creating end-of-year performances that teachers, students, parents and administrators will all be happy with?

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Savion Glover instructs students in rehearsal for NJPAC's revival of The Tap Dance Kid; photo by Yasmeen Fahmy, courtesy of NJPAC

Tony Award–winning tapper Savion Glover is giving back to his hometown community in Newark, New Jersey, by directing and choreographing New Jersey Performing Arts Center's revival of the Broadway hit that launched his career, The Tap Dance Kid.

September 13–15, you can see the group of young dancers Glover handpicked from throughout the New Jersey and New York areas, as they bring the 1983 story to life in a new and modern way. Here, Glover shares a bit about creating movement inspired by the show's original Tony Award–winning choreography by Danny Daniels, as well as what it's like to revisit the show that changed his life.

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Via YouTube

For all the time we spend talking about feet, we think it's time we did a deep dive into toes. Those little piggies bear a lot of weight, endure painful blisters and help your students soar across the classroom day after day.

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Courtesy Alternative Balance

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Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

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Dance Teacher Tips
JP Tenuta with Monika Knickrehm in a Level 6 class at The Academy of Movement and Music. Photo by Mike Dutka, courtesy of The AMM

The culture of your dance studio should be a major consideration when it comes to hiring new instructors. After all, teaching experience isn't the only thing that matters! You'll also want to make sure an interviewee fits with your overall philosophy when it comes to interacting with students (and parents!) and teaching dance. Here are some great tips that can help you find the right match.

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