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The Dance Whisperers: Five Dance Teachers With Superpowers

Christine Wright danced as a member of the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company and studied with NYC ballet guru Maggie Black. Photo by Francisco Graciano, courtesy of the photographer.

Dance teachers are often naturals when it comes to nurturing. Even so, certain individuals seem particularly gifted in connecting with their students. Maybe they have an uncanny sense of exactly the right prompt or image that allows a correction to click into place. Perhaps every student who leaves their class feels like a star. DT singled out five such instructors to discover just what makes their classes magical.


Christine Wright

Ballet for contemporary dancers

Toronto, Canada

Try to describe Christine Wright's ballet class, and you'll realize it sounds like a litany of contradictions: It's a ballet class, but it starts on the floor; Wright possesses formidable anatomical knowledge, but she shies away from what she calls “overintellectualizing" her students; her class is serious, but she isn't interested in your unbelievable extension or triple pirouettes.

For almost three decades, Wright's daily ballet class drew hordes of New York City dancers—many of them professional modern dancers. “I teach an extremely unconventional ballet class," she says. “I feel fortunate that the dancers in New York gave me a lot of latitude, that I could say to them, 'We're going to start on the floor,' and they would follow."

Wright has worked hard to earn this seemingly blind acceptance. Her purpose in having her students begin by lying down is twofold: One, it directs dancers “out of their overly busy, overly distracted minds" and back into their bodies; two, her exercises anticipate problems she sees students struggling with later in class, while standing. “For instance, turnout," she explains. “It can be too specific and detailed to deal with off the floor. But after we get up and start the barre, we can just go. We don't have to talk about turnout." Students return because of the results they see in their own relationships with technique, musicality and expressiveness.

Francisco Graciano of the Paul Taylor Dance Company is one of them. “When she talks to you," he says, “there's a feeling that she's paying closer attention to you than anyone ever has, as if the class exists solely for your benefit."

For others, Wright's class reminds them why they started dancing in the first place. Her classroom is a place of calm inclusion and undivided attention. “It feels like people are so stressed in New York," she says. “It's so expensive, and there's so much pressure on dancers because it's so hard. Dancers have jobs, and they're taking class on their break. So if they're coming into class with this incredible load on their backs, it's really important to bring people back to why they wanted to dance in the first place."

Last August, Wright left New York to begin teaching company ballet class (also open to the community) for Peggy Baker Dance Projects, artist in residence at Canada's National Ballet School. Though she's traded harried NYC for the less frantic Toronto, her goal is unchanged. “I am completely uninterested in turning anybody into a ballet dancer," she says. “I just want to help dancers develop a level of skill that they can take into anything else." —Rachel Rizzuto

Stafford Berry

Umfundalai technique

Denison University, Granville, Ohio

Stafford Berry is the artistic associate of the African American Dance Ensemble, co-director of the Berry & Nance Dance Project, and a guest teacher with the American Dance Festival. Photo courtesy of Stafford Berry.

At 6' 5", the agile Stafford Berry is an unforgettable presence at the front of his African/Diasporan class. Wearing baggy beige pants, a blue tank and an American flag bandana around his head, he is both commanding and approachable. “I like to start with everyone gathered together so we can be in one small, sacred space, connected and protected in a circle," he says, explaining the concept of “bantaba," a West African term for “dancing ground." This is his opportunity to check in with students, gauging where they are physically and mentally that day.

“African dance is a dance that everyone can do, no matter who you are. That's part of my approach," he says. He embraces diversity and individuality, and yet he doesn't shy away from demanding technical excellence. It's that inclusiveness that sets him apart.

It's not unusual for new students to feel intimidated by African dance, and Berry says that's especially true for classically trained dancers. One thing that helps is to sing—a practice that makes newcomers uncomfortable at first, but soon lowers their inhibitions. “No matter where I teach, we sing. It's not necessarily about hitting the right note. It's about the collection of voices increasing the vibrations in the room. They do something to the bodies in the room," he says. In a call-and-response exercise, the class sings a Mandinka chant called “Kyra Silo," which means “by way of peace."

As the class continues, students repeatedly cross the floor, jumping and swinging their arms in opposite directions, until finally Berry is satisfied with their performance. He acknowledges students' progress and those who are grasping the material well. As he demonstrates a combination, he travels across the floor in only a few strides, giving a new meaning to the term “full-out."

It's a tough class, but Berry's obvious joy is contagious. Students report leaving with a range of experiences from “I had fun," to a deeper feeling of empowerment or rejuvenation. He has shattered their preconceived notions about who can do African dance and brought out their strength and versatility. In demanding greatness, he has made all the students rise to the challenge.

Berry reflects, “I've gotten a lot of feedback from students over the years that they were grateful to have had the experience, because it did something meaningful in their lives. I see people being reintroduced to the part of themselves that is comfortable, confident and passionate in their bodies. That, to me, means so much." —Rachel Caldwell

George Staib

Modern

Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

George Staib has danced with the Limón Dance Company and David Dorfman Dance and now directs his own group, staibdance. Photo by Mark Teague, courtesy of Emory University.

George Staib teaches an easy modern class. It's not without demands or overly simplistic, just easy in the sense that all are welcome, that movement can be distilled into basic image-based tasks, that a botched across-the-floor phrase isn't the end of the world. Staib definitely keeps his students, well, on their toes. “He's the kind of teacher you'd do anything for, just to hear him say you got it right," says Mary Schindler, who took master classes with him while a graduate student at Florida State University.

“A lot of the time in classes, we're working toward a performance," says Staib. “But I want my class to be a laboratory. And I ask my students to sign everything they're doing with who they are. They enjoy that freedom to play, to stretch and go beyond a rule that might've been enforced when they were younger."

This laid-back approach is a somewhat recent development. Staib used to give long, complex plié combinations. His simpler, streamlined exercises are influenced by his study of Gaga, the movement language developed by Ohad Naharin. “Now I'm more interested in the simple essence of each action, finding the feeling and pleasure of a tendu all over again," he says. “I want my students to love the way it feels to move—I think that sometimes goes away."

Staib's classroom has always been a place where those new to dance feel welcome. A late bloomer himself—he didn't discover dance until his sophomore year of college—Staib can easily recall his own frustration over trying to grasp concepts his classmates had spent years mastering. “I'll go to the people who are most scared," he says. “I think they're afraid to try because they attribute everything we do in dance to a skill. But I'll remind them it's not a skill to stretch your arm to the sky—you do this when you reach for your shoes in the closet."

He also keeps class light with a healthy dose of humor. A bungled combination might elicit a sarcastic “What the hell was that?" While a phrase well-done could earn something as silly as “Get it, Beyoncé!" He says, “I like to remind my students that no one just died because they messed up a tendu."

And for those who underestimate the power of a relaxed atmosphere, dance major James LaRussa credits Staib's approach with broadening his ballet focus to include modern. After several years in Atlanta Ballet's pre-professional program, LaRussa came to Emory initially interested only in balletic movement and choreography. “Together, though, we've found some new stuff," says Staib. “Seeing how quickly he was willing to trust the classroom process was moving to me—how he releases his spine now, what he's started gravitating toward choreographically."

The ease of that transition surprised LaRussa. “Ballet is so structured. Since modern is all about feeling the differences, I didn't know how to get 'better' at it," he says. “But George doesn't want his students to take what's happening in class so seriously that they see it as an exam. He's all about putting yourself in the movement and not holding back, because that's a place to work from." —Rachel Rizzuto

Kathleen Hermesdorf

Contemporary

Alternative Conservatory,

San Francisco, California

Kathleen Hermesdorf was a member of Bebe Miller Company and Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, and worked extensively with Sara Shelton Mann/Contraband. by Yvonne M. Portra, courtesy of ALTERNATIVA.

Kathleen Hermesdorf pauses when asked what kind of dancers are attracted to her classes. “A bit of a wild spirit," she says, “a disciplined body and a bit on the rock-and-roll side." She could add “passionately devoted," as dancers flock to her classes at ODC School in San Francisco and at festivals and universities around the world. Hermesdorf, who teaches in collaboration with musician Albert Mathias, weaves together elements of contemporary dance, improvisation, Qigong and bodywork in classes designed to challenge students to explore their own expressive voices.

Dancers start out on the floor, in guided improvisation. Mathias creates a soft but constantly thrumming soundscape. The class, which Hermesdorf refers to as a “hybrid," is made up of several elements; dancers progress through different spatial levels into a large circle and are paired up for bodywork. They massage, pat and manipulate each other's bodies. This is followed by improvisation (solo and in pairs and small groups) across the floor. Hermesdorf offers a guiding concept of “space" and plays with it (“shake the space around us," or “sculpt the space, feel the geometry") for each round of improvisation. Student Stephanie Sherman says, “It shakes you up to dance with someone else, who has a different body and movement vocabulary, and that influences the way you dance."

The class then shifts to a more traditional format of combinations that Hermesdorf demonstrates. Dancers fly through the air, swooping upside down, shooting legs in wide arcs and snapping into ending shapes as Mathias' music gains force. “One of the reasons people come to our class is the big sound and big movement," says Hermesdorf. “Going upside down is super liberating. People come to flip around and roll around and sweat and try to fly."

Hermesdorf herself is an extraordinary mover, with a fiercely individual style that is as enigmatic and intellectual as it is expansive and athletic. Not surprisingly, she has dedicated followers, several of whom even share her punk chic half-shaved/half chin-length hairstyle. But Hermesdorf doesn't impose her way of moving on students; in class she dances among them, alternating easily between mentor and instructor. “We start class off in such an experiential way," says Sherman, “that by the time we start doing choreography, it's crazily expressive. It's fun, it's cathartic and it's hard, but not because of any mold she's trying to fit us into. She's not trying to make dancers little Kathleens. She gives us the tools to discover new possibilities for movement within ourselves."

Hermesdorf calls her technique GUT Motives. “General unified theory, but also from the gut," she explains. “I pull in the things that for me really work for superefficient, powerful, articulate movement. This is my idea, filtered through my teachers, dance history, somatics and improvisation."

Class concludes with time for students to share information on topics ranging from upcoming performances to rooms to rent. “That little gesture realizing that it's a community with more needs than just class is significant," says student Maryanna Lachman. Dancers emerge from class exhausted, exhilarated and sometimes emotional. “I've learned to move from a deeper place that challenges my soul and psyche," says Katie Griffin. “I've learned how to push myself harder every day, and the importance of training with someone who inspires you, challenges you and drives you beyond your limits." —Caitlin Sims


Kristin Sudeikis

Contemporary

Broadway Dance Center, New York City

Kristin Sudeikisdirects her own company and choreographs for commercial and concert dance. Photo by Lauren Volo, courtesy of Sudeikis

Kristin Sudeikis has developed a following for her contemporary dance classes that borders on the devout. Studio owner Christy Curtis calls her class “soul Sunday, like church for dance." Broadway Dance Center student Rachel Warren says, “I call her a missionary of movement."

Indeed Sudeikis' devotion to the craft percolates throughout our conversation on a fall weekday. She can't wait for her afternoon class at Broadway Dance Center. She also teaches at Peridance in NYC, and she's in demand as a guest artist at studios across the country and internationally. “I brought her in three times this year," says Curtis of CC & Co Dance Complex in North Carolina, whose competition dancers routinely earn honors with New York City Dance Alliance and The PULSE on Tour. “I've never in my life seen someone who could teach a class and everybody walked out thinking they were the best person in that class. She was so motivating, it was incredible."

In a genre that tends to emphasize choreography, Sudeikis' classes are uniquely steeped in a solid base of technique. “On a physical level, it's a demanding class," says Warren. “Kristin calls technique our grammar. Once you have that foundation, you can dance from your soul." Throughout class, Sudeikis gives students opportunities to make artistic choices, providing both structure and freedom. “She gives you the steps, which then you can interpret in different ways," says student Adriana Recchia. “She shows it to you, but it's up to you to make something out of it."

A fountain of positive energy, Sudeikis finds unique ways to encourage dancers to develop their artistic voices. “Sometimes I have them close their eyes. It taps back into why we started dancing, which is because of how it felt," she explains. “A tendu, how does it feel? Am I doing it robotically? Does that extend to my life—am I just doing what I'm told or what I actually want to do?"

One reason her classes resonate beyond the studio is that Sudeikis draws parallels between lessons in dance and in life. “When a dancer falls, I say, 'It's not about the fall, but how you get up,'" she explains. “Are you still worried that people saw you fall, or can you just get up and move again?" She leavens the emotional intensity with flashes of humor, asking the next group of dancers mischievously, “Will anyone mind if someone messes up? Will you tweet #theymessedup? My dad said, 'Kristin, don't worry about what other people think. They're just worried about what everybody else is thinking about them.'"

Sudeikis, who started assisting at 11 and teaching at 13, is as emotionally generous as she is quick-witted and observant, and wise beyond her years. Students realize that they have her complete focus and respond in kind. “By being fully present in the room, it demands others to be present," she says, noting that she can't always explain the intense dynamics in her class. “Some of it's a mystery. I notice people can get emotional. I get the chills when I'm talking about dance, too." But one thing is clear. Dancers leave the studio feeling transformed. “When I'm in her class, she rocks my soul and rattles my cage in this incredible way," says Warren. “When it's over, I'm different." —Caitlin Sims

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Check out these three service-project ideas, and try implementing them at your studio this season. Let us know over on our Facebook page, or in the comments below, what other projects you do at your studio that make a difference in your community!

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Eva Stone directs The Stone Dance Collective, shown here in Eve, reconsidered. Photo by Rex Tranter, courtesy of The Stone Dance Collective

Unlike the majority of my students and colleagues, my journey in dance has been unorthodox. At age 14, I enrolled in modern dance at my high school, and something about the large open studio with room to move thrilled me (and still does). I immediately set out to impress my dance teacher with my complete repertoire, a solo interpretation of "Bohemian Rhapsody" created in my living room, infused with several badly self-taught ice-skating moves. In that moment, an awareness of the power of movement, music, space and performance aligned, and I instinctively knew I was someplace special.

My high school dance teacher was smart. Knowing that she did not have the time to mold us into technically proficient dancers, she introduced us to the craft and skill of making dances. I spent four years opening the door to my creative voice, becoming a confident choreographer. As a dance major in college, however, I quickly realized I was lacking something very important: actual dance training. So I began an intense regimen of studying, analyzing, copying, stealing and emulating every movement language, quality and nuance with which I could connect. Later, I completed a master's degree in choreography and choreological studies, formed a small dance company and set out to fund my artist's life with teaching.

As a modern dancer, and having come to dance late, communication and imagery were significant in managing the demands of my training. I had to ask a lot of questions, because I had not yet developed a physical vocabulary of answers. I needed a sense of humor, to prevent me from quitting. I had to negotiate, rationalize, moderate and articulate, both verbally and physically, a pathway through much of what I was performing in or choreographing. This allowed me to solve problems more creatively, from a place separate from a perspective of pure technical ability. I now use these same methods for teaching students.

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Q: What do you do with parents who constantly complain about where their daughter is placed in choreography?

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Photos courtesy of Google

Valentina Bagala and Rafael Savino held their studio's very first registration at a Subway. "We didn't even have an office," says Bagala, who heads the artistic side of Ascendance Studio in Doral, Florida. "This lady called us over the phone, and we said, 'OK, we can take your registration. Would you mind meeting us at the Subway that's downstairs from our studio?'"

Now, five years later, Ascendance is thriving, with a growing competitive team, a 5,000-square-foot space and 300 students—one of whom is the same dancer who was registered in that Subway. Today, registration mostly happens online, as do many of Ascendance's processes—attendance, billing, e-mail marketing campaigns—thanks to Savino, who heads the studio's marketing, finances and administration. To what do Bagala and Savino credit their impressive growth? Digital advertising. Despite working in an industry where many still rely on old-school methods of operation—manual registration, tuition paid in person by cash or check, fliers handed out in parking lots—they took the plunge to modernize their advertising strategy and found it a game changer for their studio.

Slow, but consistent

Bagala and Savino admit Ascendance got off to a rocky start. They rented space from a fitness studio for three months. "We didn't get the best schedule," says Bagala, who could only rent the space by the hour when it wasn't being used. Still, she managed to amass 25 students. Eventually, she found a small, 550-square-foot space of her own in a shopping center. "I remember for our first classes, we would have people who were supposed to show up but didn't," says Savino. "If we had one student in class, we had to teach to that student. That happened multiple times."

When two more spaces became available in the same shopping center, the couple grabbed them, despite the inconvenience of the units not being connected. "You had to step outside," says Bagala. "It wasn't very comfortable."

"The fliers weren't working."

With more space came more responsibility—to increase enrollment. They had been passing out fliers at nearby schools, but that approach, Savino says, "became unscalable. That's when I started looking at digital advertising." He didn't have much money to spend on it—his budget was $5/day—but he began looking into advertising on Google. He also enrolled in a local digital marketing course at nearby Miami-Dade College. "That gave me strategy," he says.

His most successful venture has been with Google's AdWords. With this advertising strategy, business owners create a search ad. (Search ads appear above Google search results when people look for local services the business offers.) The Ascendance search ad, for example, includes the studio website and phone number, plus: "Dance classes for kids. All ages and styles. Try a free class today." Then, you choose keywords—the words or phrases potential customers might type into their browser—and set a daily budget for how much you'd like to "bid" on each keyword. You're charged only if users click your link. During his first AdWords campaign, Savino often bid less than $1 on keywords like "ballet classes," "hip-hop classes," "jazz" and "dance studio."

How much you bid affects in what order your search ad appears among other businesses. But a business with more money to spend on keywords won't automatically see their ad pop up first. Multiple factors—keyword bidding price, how long a user stays on your website, your click-through rate—determine what's called your quality score. And it's your quality score, ultimately, that decides in what order your ad appears on Google.

"For example, let's say there's a huge competitor who's bidding $10 a keyword, while I'm only bidding $1," says Savino. "Google is tracking everything. If users stay on my website for a while and don't click the back button to get back to the search page, Google knows my website is relevant and a good experience." That increases his quality score and gives his search ad odds a boost.

Experimenting, wisely

Savino ran his initial AdWords campaign for about a month in 2013, starting in mid-September—prime back-to-school time. Each week, he wound up getting 10-plus interested customers. He offered each a free trial class. Of that weekly number, more than 80 percent enrolled in classes. By the time the campaign was over, Ascendance had 45 new students. And it all cost him less than $150. Though he risked spending more than his daily allotted $5, he knew it would pay off in increased enrollment.

As they became more comfortable with AdWords, the couple experimented. Bagala asked her mom what words she would use to search if, for example, she were looking for ballet classes for a 5-year-old. Her responses became part of their strategy: "ballet classes in Doral," "dance classes in Doral," "dance studio in Doral." They also interviewed parents of new students, asking 'How did you hear about us?' "If they said, 'Google,'" says Savino, "we'd ask if they remembered what they typed."

Now his daily budget is $20, though he's careful to time campaigns with high-enrollment periods. "During back-to-school season, August and September, I know a lot of people are going to be looking for classes," he says. "But I also know that January is another high-enrollment period—that's when we see an uptick in our baby program. Those moms are operating on a calendar year, not a studio year."

When Google came to town

Last spring, Google itself took an interest in Ascendance, and it featured Savino and Bagala in a national video campaign as a small-business case study. Of particular interest was the studio's dual advertising campaigns: one in English and one in Spanish. Savino and Bagala are bilingual, and their community is largely Spanish-speaking—so they capitalized on that. "Since we were advertising in Spanish," says Savino, "those people were sure that they were going to come through our door and someone would be here who would speak their language."

Of course, digital advertising can only take a studio so far. You have to follow through with a great product—and that, Savino says, is Valentina's greatest contribution to the business. "At the end of the day, if the product isn't good, people are simply going to leave," he says. "She's the heartbeat of the studio."

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It's a dance teacher's job to prepare students for professional careers. As everyone knows, this means more than just giving them precise technique and exceptional performance capabilities. Perhaps more than ever, it's important that teachers prepare their students to know how to make smart and safe decisions when entering the workplace. It's important that we give them the skills to say "no" when a project doesn't fit with their personal values, puts them in a dangerous or toxic work environment, or is discriminatory to their race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Teachers need to help their students advocate for themselves in order to create a career they can be proud of.

Here are four tips for helping your dancers make safe and smart professional decisions when they leave the warmth of your caring and supportive studio.

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