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The Artistic Director of Royal Academy of Dance Asks: What Is Good Dance Teaching?

Gerard Charles, courtesy of RAD

This is a charged question that I have heard debated my entire career as a dancer, teacher and director. So why would I pose such a contentious question? Because good dance teaching is at the heart of the RAD and a core value we need to be able to define. I hope this will also promote healthy discussion between all of you who teach every day.


Obviously, a fundamental understanding and experience of the subject to be taught is essential, but academic knowledge alone does not make a teacher. Successful teaching is about how we share our knowledge in a way that allows others to understand to become better practitioners. How well we can dance is less important than how effectively we can help our students to improve.

Teaching dance requires a multifaceted set of skills that include the ability to:

  • inspire others to love their subject and to desire to accomplish more
  • successfully communicate ideas and concepts to other people
  • stimulate the minds of students and develop inquiry within them
  • keep students safe while challenging them go beyond their perceived limits
  • address a variety of physical realities, talents and learning styles in one group
  • have a creative approach to the subject, and to respond to the moment

The RAD has strong foundations on which to build, but as the world around us evolves, so has ballet. How do we equip our dancers to be successful in ballet today?

Dancers must be open to new ideas and be able to adapt to a wide range of styles. They must be fully aware of how and why they make certain choices, and the results of those choices. The RAD examination syllabus is well-documented, and systematically details age-appropriate enchaînements that all dancers will demonstrate in an exam. But it does not purport to be a training syllabus; training is the alchemy that takes place daily in studios around the globe.

At its core, dance is about movement and expression, so developing a technique that frees us to move and be expressive is essential. Ballet has its rules and traditions, but our technique must build upon natural functional movements and not discourage them; to expand abilities and not confine them.

There is no magic bullet; every teacher and student is an individual, so there can be no single way of teaching that will suit all. Every "right way" of executing any move will have positive and negative effects we need to be aware of. We have to be mindful of the range of tools available to us and choose which to use for the symptoms we need to remedy.

One valuable tool that we can all make great use of is music. Movement is often inspired, and should always be influenced by, the music. It is important that dancers hear the music, its phrasing and interpretation, and allow this awareness to color their interpretation and physical movement.

Extensive research in athletics has shown the value of cross-training, and we can learn from these advances, but it is not all about strength. Relaxation between tensile movements is just as important as the strong moves we wish to show. Stretching and strengthening are not odd bedfellows, nor are discipline and creativity.

Ours is a nuanced artform and naturally fluid. I hope I have opened the floor to reflection and debate, and I encourage you to declare what you believe in.

I look forward to hearing from you.


For more on RAD go here.

Music
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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