The Cream of the Crop

Some might call it a high-class problem, but how do you make your best students, well, even better? As dancers approach their technical peak, teachers are tasked with finding new ways to challenge and empower them to grow. “The hardest part is helping advanced dancers make the leap to extraordinary,” says Michelle Latimer, owner of Michelle Latimer Dance Academy in Greenwood Village, Colorado.

On the competition circuit, this challenge exists on an individual as well as a group level, as many dance teams must outshine their own past performances, while avoiding burnout and continuing to grow as dancers. For both teachers and students, this pressure can add up to considerable stress. “I’ve found that the more talented the kids, the harder they are on themselves, and the more insecure they become,” says Michele Larkin of Maplewood, Minnesota–based Larkin Dance Studio. “If they win first overall, the next year it’s double the pressure because they have to be just as good, if not better.”

So how can dance teachers enable top-notch students to excel and evolve in a healthy manner? Find out with these six tips:

1. Branch out into other genres.

Many technically advanced dancers may be interested in pursuing professional careers. Yet even those at the top of their game in a particular genre may not succeed without a broad skill base. “It’s not just about technique,” says Latimer. “What makes the difference is versatility. Our job is to ensure that dancers are proficient in all styles and forms of movement. If they’re only good at one thing, it will be the death sentence if they want to go out and work.”

Derryl Yeager, artistic director of Utah’s Odyssey Dance Theatre, agrees: “There are a lot of dancers out there who are good at one or two things, but very few excel at all different styles.” With that in mind, Yeager requires the 24 members of the Odyssey company to gain fluency in ballet, jazz, hip hop, tap and contemporary, as well as tumbling. It’s this well-rounded approach that landed two Odyssey dancers, Thayne Jasperson and Matt Dorame, among the top 20 finalists of the most recent season of “So You Think You Can Dance.” Encouraging students to explore other dance forms, from ballroom to breaking to bellydance, can truly help them reach the next level.

2. Transform dancers into teachers.

In mixed-level classes, it can be especially challenging to keep the most advanced dancers engaged. To combat this problem, Larkin often enlists her top dancers to demonstrate skills for the rest of the students.

Latimer chooses to pass the choreography baton to her class. “When I feel students are just going through the motions, I’ll say, ‘OK, now it’s your turn to set and teach eight 8-counts,” she notes. “Instead of being in student mode, they are suddenly the teachers, and it can spark all kinds of growth. When you let dancers become the creators, it changes the way they think, and suddenly they’re engaged again.”

Prompting dancers to seek outside teaching jobs can also foster growth. At Odyssey Dance Theatre, rehearsals stop at 3 pm every day so that company members can report to their studio teaching gigs. Yeager says he has seen great benefits: “Being teachers helps them understand what they are trying to accomplish in their own dancing.”

3. Focus on improv.

While achieving technical excellence is admirable, it’s also crucial that dancers develop a personal style. By learning to flex the freestyle muscle, high-level dancers can kick their game up a notch. “A lot of kids are really good at choreography inside the set structure of a class, but then they go into an audition or solo with no sense of self,” says Latimer. “Improv is key to helping dancers develop their own signature; it allows them to move without rules.”

Latimer often challenges students to freestyle at the end of a combination, asking them to change the tempo or incorporate partnering. “We try to give them different ways to approach the movement in their own style, to trust their own way of hearing and using the music,” she says. “A lot of dancers are uncomfortable at first, but it’s such a great skill to get over the insecurity.”

Sam Renzetti, founder of XTreme Dance Force, a hip-hop/jazz troupe based in Chicago, also is a big believer in improvisation, which often makes up at least one-third of the group’s competition numbers. “We see so many amazing dancers come in to audition, but they freeze when you ask them to freestyle,” says Renzetti. “We do a lot of freestyle circles in rehearsal so that it starts to come naturally.”

4. Work on inner and outer strength.

Even with an intense schedule of classes and rehearsals, it’s important for dancers to work on basic physical strength and endurance. At Xtreme Dance Force, dancers go through a training regimen that includes sit-ups, pushups, battements from the floor and other strength-training drills. “We’ll do a routine three times in a row, with 50 pushups in between,” says Renzetti. “As a hip-hop dancer, you can’t be weak when you hit your movements. The body must be like a machine in that way.”

It’s just as vital to nurture students’ inner strength. For Larkin, even flawless technique is worth little if not accompanied by self-belief, so she remains very aware of dancers’ mental state as they approach competition. “Competition can be a big mind game, and dancers can really psyche themselves out,” she says. “It’s important to focus on mental preparation and confidence-building; in this day and age, our job is not only to be teachers, but also professional motivators.”

To help dancers believe in themselves, Larkin teaches them to fully use their emotions in performance. “We’ll work on different ways of being in character, listening to the music and letting the body be the instrument,” says Larkin. She also suggests incorporating a storyline into competition routines to give dancers something else to focus on besides the pressure of winning.

5. Expose dancers to other choreographers and instructors.

“As teachers, we need to be willing to let dancers go,” says Yeager. “Sometimes studios hold on to their students with an iron grip and don’t let them experience other things because they view it as a threat. Teachers need to be able to realize when a student has learned all they can from them and encourage them to take the next step.”

Sometimes, “letting go” can be as simple as bringing in outside choreographers to set competition routines or teach master classes, as both Renzetti and Latimer have done. Students at MLDA have worked with such choreographers as Mia Michaels, Travis Wall and Jason Parsons, while XTreme Dance Force has enlisted notables like Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, Dave Scott and Brian Friedman. “Any time your dancers can be exposed to outside instruction from guest artists, it adds more layers to what they already can do,” says Latimer.

 

6. Get back to basics.

As dancers become increasingly fluent in their selected genres, they sometimes lose sight of the basic foundation of dance: ballet. Encouraging students to continue their ballet training will help them stay sharp as they explore other styles of movement. “Teachers have to make sure they really understand the importance of ballet as the base of technique,” says Yeager. “Many dancers can do all these tricks but aren’t using their muscles correctly; you start to see the holes in their training.”

Yeager believes it’s also essential to familiarize dancers with dance history. He is “astounded” when he meets young students who have never heard of Mikhail Baryshnikov or the Nicholas Brothers. “Without knowing what has come before them, there is no sense of where they’re going and how they fit into the big picture,” says Yeager. “Being unknowledgeable creates a huge vacuum in dancers’ ability to learn and grow; if they don’t know dance history, they think the whole dance world revolves around them and their 10 fouettés.” Take the time to show dancers old footage and educate them about the dance greats who’ve preceded them: “Education is about more than just steps, and teachers who approach it that way can create a beautiful legacy,” he says.

Even the most talented students can always improve. Bring these ideas into play, and they will be bringing their “A+” game to competition! DT

 

Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified BalleCore instructor in Los Angeles. Her website is www.creative-groove.com.

 

Photo courtesy of Dance Teacher archives.

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.


Finally compelled to speak up, Griffith led a virtual seminar in June for the entire dance community entitled "Racism and the Dance World." Over a thousand people viewed her presentation, which was inspired in part by the mentorship of longtime family friend Dr. Joy DeGruy, an expert on institutionalized racism. Floored but encouraged by such a large turnout, Griffith quickly prepared a follow-up seminar, which also had a positive response.

"Teachers kept reaching out to me and saying, How do I talk to my students about this? They don't care about anything but steps," she says.

In response, Griffith designed a six-week professional-development program—Roots, Rhythm, Race & Dance, or R3 Dance—for teachers of any style seeking ways to introduce age-appropriate concepts about race and dance history to their students. The history of the art form, she points out, is the context in which we all teach and perform every day.

Griffith laughs, with eyes closed and fingers snapping to the side, as she demonstrates in front of a class of adults. A toddler is at her side, also in tap shoes

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"The white hip-hop teacher asking why Black people are trolling them on Instagram happens against the same backdrop as Tamir Rice holding a pellet gun and not surviving a confrontation with police," she says. "We try to see them as separate things, but they're really not."

R3 Dance isn't the first program Griffith, a 43-year-old mother of two, created for teachers. Since 2018, she has run the Facebook group "Dance Studios on Tap!," a space for sharing struggles and successes in the classroom, teaching tips and ideas on growing studio tap programs.

She has also offered a 10-week, online teacher training program, "Tap Teachers' Lounge," since 2018. Through lecture-demonstrations, discussions, dance classes and workshop sessions, Griffith helps studio instructors increase student enrollment, engagement and success in their tap programs.

"I had started to feel what so many professionals know from experience," she says. "There are huge gaps in people's training, and teachers don't get the benefit of individualized, process-oriented feedback about their pedagogy, especially when it comes to tap dance."

Griffith knew she could help fill in many of those gaps. She also suspected her resumé would appeal to a variety of tap teachers: Some might be impressed by her teaching credits at Pace University and Broadway Dance Center, while others would notice her experience with the Rockettes and Cirque du Soleil, or her connections to tap artists such as Chloe Arnold and Dormeshia.

Griffith also knew that many tap teachers are the sole tap instructors at their studios and have few opportunities to attend tap festivals or master classes. With her programs, they can learn exclusively online, without having to travel, while still teaching their weekly classes.

A key feature of the teacher training program is that participants submit video of exercises they've been working on and get feedback from Griffith. They're expected to implement that feedback and report back on their progress the following week. For Griffith, that accountability is a cornerstone of her pedagogy.

"Teaching is a practice—you have to put it on its feet, you have to do it," she says. "I want to give teachers the tools they need for their practice, and then talk about how that practice informs their preparation in the future, just like how you would teach anything else."

Griffith walks across the front of a studio, clapping her hands, as a large class of teen students practice a tap combination

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

Griffith takes a similar approach for R3 Dance, which last year included 180 participants from around the world working in public schools, private studios, universities and other settings, teaching both tap and social dance. Teachers might bring an anti-racist statement they're drafting for their studio, for example, or a lesson plan or proposed changes to a college syllabus.

Griffith also gives teachers the knowledge to confidently structure and lead conversations about race in the dance industry. Participants typically come with a range of comfort levels in discussing race, says Griffith, some just beginning to comprehend race as a factor in dance. Others have read books and watched documentaries but don't know how to translate what they've learned into lessons. Some worry that starting difficult conversations with colleagues or students will get them fired or reprimanded.

But Griffith says she's been encouraged by the ways in which participants have reflected on everything from their costuming and choreography to their social media presence and hiring practices as a result of the program.

"It's been really inspiring to see more teachers taking this part of history with the gravity that it deserves—not in a way that makes them cry, but that makes them get to work," she says.

For instance, Maygan Wurzer, founder and director of All That Dance in Seattle, Washington, found her studio's diversity and inclusion program enhanced after attending R3 Dance with two of her colleagues. This includes a living document where all 19 instructors share materials that they're using to diversify their curriculum, such as lessons on tap and modern dancers of color, and asking teen students to research the history of race in various dance genres and present their findings.

These changes address a common problem that Griffith notices: Teachers give lessons on certain styles, steps or artists without providing sufficient historical context. For example, it's important to know who Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers were, but it's equally vital to understand how racism contributed to the former having a more prominent place in the annals of dance history.

Griffith stands next to a large screen with a powerpoint presentation showing the name "Bill Bojangles Robinson" with some photos. She holds a microphone and speaks to a large group of students who sit on the ground

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"Topics like privilege and cultural appropriation need the same kind of thought and vision as teaching technique," she explains. "You have to layer those conversations, just like you wouldn't teach fouetté turns to a level-one student."

For educators who have finished one or both of her programs, Griffith is scheduling regular meetings to discuss further implementation strategies and lead additional workshopping sessions.

"As educators, we're excavators who bring out what we can in our students," she says. "But sometimes our tools get dull, and we need to keep sharpening them."

Ultimately, Griffith says that this work has been empowering not just for her students but also for her.

"Dance teachers are completely fine with being uncomfortable and taking feedback," she says. "I found an energy to do this work because there are so many people who are willing to do it with me."

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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