The Clique Conundrum

Dealing with classroom conflicts

Mary and Betty,* dance students at Howell High School in Howell, New Jersey, had been good friends for as long as they could remember. They stood next to each other at the barre every day, and Mary even chose Betty to be in her piece for a student choreography class. But when Betty skipped some of Mary’s rehearsals, Mary replaced her with another girl. A furious Betty then announced that the two were no longer friends, starting a social war that eventually grew so severe the parents of the two girls demanded that the school’s director intervene.

Sound familiar? Every teacher knows that there’s a social aspect to dance training, whether students are choosing barre buddies or hanging out in the dressing room after rehearsal. But serious problems can occur when these friendships start to affect what’s happening in class.

“Friendship issues always happen. Every year. It makes me a little bit crazy sometimes,” says Lisa Twamley, the director of the dance program at Howell High who was in the middle of the Mary and Betty situation. “It’s usually among the younger students here at the high school. They’re at a vulnerable age, and there’s a lot of insecurity. A lot of the problems with cliques and people feeling left out stem from that.”

Dr. Jim Taylor, a California-based psychologist and lead author of The Psychology of Dance, says that dance classes also have an inherent competitiveness that can take cliques to another level. “Separating into groups is a normal part of forming identity, a part of feeling accepted,” says Taylor, who has worked with many dance organizations, including the Miami City Ballet, the Hartford Ballet and the DanceAspen Summer School. “In most teenage situations, groups are based on things like attractiveness. But in dance class, skill level and body type are often additional factors—and added pressures.”

DT takes a look at how teachers can avoid and address toxic classroom friendships.

Preventive Measures

While it’s almost impossible to eliminate cliques, dance teachers can lessen their negative impact by laying some class ground rules. “A teacher can build a culture in the studio of support and encouragement and establish that certain behavior is not acceptable,” Taylor says.

“We start with our 5- and 6-year-olds, letting them know that cliques will not be tolerated in the classroom,” says Pattie Beller, director of Beller Dance Studio in Overland Park, Kansas. “We tell the kids that we are all friends in dance class. They grow up with that philosophy and understand from an early age what is expected of them.” Teachers can reinforce these ideas by hanging posters encouraging friendship, teamwork and positive attitudes around the classroom.

As students get older, a few deceptively simple rules can go a long way toward preventing the most common problem scenarios. “We don’t let them pick who they go across the floor with—so basic, but so effective,” Beller says. “We tell them who’s in each across-the-floor group.” She finds that assigning spots at the barre is equally helpful.

Making a point of offering corrections and praise for every student also helps students feel that there is no “out” group. “I’ve learned that sometimes I unconsciously made my classes feel that certain students are slower than others by inadvertently devoting less attention to those students, and that can encourage exclusion,” says Donna Farinella, director of Dance World Academy in Clifton and Passaic Park, New Jersey. “Showing that you value everybody by consistently giving everyone equal attention sets an example for the students to follow.”

Incorporating team-building exercises into class is another way to help prevent clique problems. “One thing I do at the beginning of the year is have my students form a circle, with everyone sitting next to someone they don’t really know,” says Michele Larkin, co-owner of Larkin Dance Studio in Maplewood, Minnesota. “I give them 15 minutes to come up with 10 non-dance-related things about that person they didn’t know before.” Exercises of this kind foster an “everybody’s friends” mentality, which makes classes more resistant to clique issues.

Damage Control

But the biggest problems, Twamley says, usually have roots outside the studio. “We can control what they do in class, but what they do with their social time is beyond our control—and when we have problems, that’s often where it comes from,” Twamley says. “So-and-so didn’t get invited to a party. This group hangs out together all the time outside of class and this other group hangs out apart from the first group.”

The worst thing a teacher can do in this scenario is to look the other way. “You never want to appear to choose sides, but you can’t ignore social problems once they become severe,” Taylor says.

Larkin says she often asks other students to help if a student complains about feeling left out or if she sees a problem brewing. “I have captains for each of my performing groups, and whenever there are any friendship issues, I make sure the captains sit down with the group and discuss them. I may ask the captains to go out of their way to make that person feel better, too,” Larkin says. “I’ll say to a captain, ‘This girl is feeling left out. Can you help make her feel included?’” When the captain, a natural role model, leads the way, the rest of the group is likely to follow in her footsteps.

Diane Gudat, director of The Dance Company in Indianapolis, says she tries a different approach: She talks to the leader of the clique directly, but without casting blame. “I try the approach of saying, ‘I have a problem with so-and-so in class. She is feeling left-out and a little sad lately, and I know that you are very outgoing and that the kids all like you, so I would really appreciate it if you would help the others be nice to her and make her feel better,” Gudat says.

Twamley has had more success talking to students who are not involved in the conflict—students she knows are more accepting or mature. “Sometimes it’s best to go to the student who is a little more approachable and empathetic—maybe even someone a little bit older,” Twamley says. “A lot of times, those kids are your leaders anyway, and once everyone sees that person include the one who felt left out, they’ll follow along.”

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, the ability to work effectively with a group is bigger than dance class—it’s a life skill. Remind your older students that in professional situations, dance-related or otherwise, they’ll need to be able to work with many different types of people to achieve success. Dance class is the perfect place to start practicing. DT

*Names have been changed.

Karyn D. Collins is a New Jersey–based writer. She is on faculty at the King Centre for the Performing Arts in Wanaque, NJ.

Photo copyright iStockphoto.com/George Peters

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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