The Gift of Dance

I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the role that dance has played in my life. Some of my happiest memories and most life-affirming experiences can be traced back to the years spent at my childhood dance studio, Agnes Strecker Dance Studio, in Revere, Massachusetts. I made social ties there to girls who are, to this day, my closest friends. It was on a dance studio field trip to Radio City Music Hall that I got my first taste of New York City and decided, as a love-struck 12-year-old watching the city whirl around me, that I would live there someday. And it was my teacher, Agnes, who has been one of the most powerful mentors in my life and in my career.

Dance teachers pass on much more than a love for the arts. I imagine that every dancer, especially those who have built successful careers in the field, can share a story or two about an influential educator who ignited or encouraged his or her passion. But students need not go on to dance professionally to reap the benefits; I certainly didn’t (though I do get to teach and write about it). Rather, it’s the lessons given beyond the physical training that are most valuable: discipline, commitment, self-esteem, respect. Those are the gifts that students carry with them for years to come, no matter the path they choose. Thank you for . . .

Instilling Life Lessons

As a self-described “energetic, hyper kid,” Kristin Sudeikis simply couldn’t get enough when it came to dance. She started taking class at age 3; by 10, she was spending up to five hours a night at the Miller-Marley School of Dance and Voice in Overland Park, Kansas. “I never wanted to leave,” she recalls. “My parents had to tear me away each night.”

By the time Sudeikis was in her early teens, she was teaching classes and traveling to national dance conventions; her teacher, Shirley Marley, awarded her a talent scholarship. Dancing was a life focus. She made close friends, who would later be bridesmaids in her wedding. They would also stay by her side when, after studying dance at the University of Kansas, she headed to New York City to pursue a career in dance.

“There were about four of us, and we came to New York within a year of each other, all with the same dream,” says Sudeikis. “We shared that common bond—a passion for dance and for music.” The entire group went on to enjoy successful performance careers; Sudeikis herself is now a nationally known master teacher, choreographer and performer, both onstage and on TV. Throughout the year, she travels across the U.S. to conduct master classes at various studios, including Miller-Marley.

“So much of who I am is because of Shirley Marley,” says Sudeikis. “She didn’t just teach me how to dance, she taught me about life.” Marley gave Sudeikis the courage to make her aspirations a reality. “She told me, ‘I know you’re going to make it,’” she says. “It meant everything to me. We learned from a young age that if you dreamt and believed it, you could make it happen.”

She also credits Marley, as well as her other instructors at the studio, namely Brian McGinness and Connie Ramos, for instilling self-discipline, respect for others, humility and grace. “I was taught by example. We saw how to conduct ourselves in a classroom or in rehearsal. We learned how to treat others with respect.” Sudeikis carries those values into her own teaching, making sure students feel comfortable and worry-free. “I just want people to dance and to really let go, to get out of their heads for a minute. Everyone can benefit from it.” (For more about Miller-Marley, read “There’s No Place Like Home” on page 82.) 

Providing Inspiration

“Without dance, I’m not sure what road I would’ve taken,” says Michelle Martin, a nationally recognized choreographer and co-owner (with her sister, Melissa Schott) and director of Dance Connection in Indianapolis. Martin began taking lessons at age 2 at Diana’s Dance Studio, a neighborhood school run by Diana Richardson (Moates).

When Richardson was tragically killed in a car accident in 1984, Martin’s mother, Patti Schott, decided to open a studio in Diana’s memory. “I treasure the stories my mom shares about her and the experiences I have had as a result of her as my first instructor. Each teacher after her had a difficult time trying to fill her dance shoes; nobody ever could.”

Today, along with her mother and sister, Martin strives to create a family atmosphere and positive spirit for her own students at Dance Connection. “I still find joy in this job because the satisfaction never changes,” she says. “The teenage students I teach now were once the babies I used to teach way back when.”

Cultivating Self-Confidence

The benefits of dance class go far beyond physical training. “I hope that kids leave my classroom understanding the importance of hard work and determination; that they can see how practice makes perfection possible,” says Martin. “I hope they learn the satisfaction that comes from hearing kind words and praise and understand what it means to be part of a team.”

Writer and actress Tracey Toomey, who appears in several Manhattan theater productions, and is the co-author of The Perfect Manhattan and Cocktail Therapy, says she owes the success of her writing and acting career to a childhood dance education. Her classes at Studio One School of Dance on Long Island, New York, gave her self-confidence—an essential ingredient for success in any field. “I was pretty shy during middle school, and dancing and performing gave me a lot of confidence, which was invaluable,” she says. “If you can get up onstage and perform in front of people, that will translate into your life offstage as well.” Toomey adds that the discipline she learned in dance class (especially in ballet) has helped her develop as a writer and an actor, “since both require a lot of discipline.”

Martin says that, as a teacher, she is also gaining something from her students. “It’s a good feeling to know that kids can benefit in so many ways from the time they spend with you. I knew that my teaching made a positive impact when a parent approached me to express her gratitude for doing such a wonderful job as a teacher, and to share that her daughter had written a report for school on the most influential person in her life, and I was the chosen person.”

Perhaps the best part for Sudeikis, Martin and other teachers is that they’re reaching children who most likely remind them of themselves at a young age—innocent, passionate and excited about the future. “I remember how much my teachers meant to me,” Sudeikis says, “and it’s just so amazing that there are kids who feel the same way about me. It’s awe-inspiring; it’s humbling.”

Adds Martin: “I have seen how my teaching is absorbed when my student teachers get in front of a classroom and start sharing the same information they have learned from me over the years. I get to be a positive influence in many children’s lives, even if only for 45 minutes a week. Is there anything better than that?” DT

 

Debbie Strong is a New York City–based writer and dancer. She teaches dance and Pilates at All the Buzz in Queens, NY.

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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