The New Guy

Unlike most female dancers, many male dancers start dance training late—and still go on to have successful performance careers. Well-known professionals such as Broadway choreographer Robert Ashford and Merce Cunningham, for example, started dancing seriously only in college. Nevertheless, learning the fundamentals of dance at a later age can be an uphill battle, and it’s important for teachers to understand the challenges newbie males face in their first-ever dance classes. Here are some ways to make them feel as comfortable as possible so they can realize their potential sooner.

Develop Basic Technique

No matter how quickly they pick up choreography, all men should be placed in a level-one dance class if they’ve never done a plié before. “If you accelerate a student too fast, errors and holes in the technique begin to appear,” says Tom Ralabate, associate professor of dance at University at Buffalo in New York. “I think in American dance training, we tend to move male dancers way too fast and get them into doing advanced choreography before they are ready. I think something very valuable about the process is lost when we do this.”

Even with a truly gifted male dancer, be careful that the challenges you offer are “appropriate to ensure proper development and an injury-free environment,” says Ralabate, who suggests coordination exercises for male students to find continuity between different parts of their bodies and to feel comfortable moving through space. “Exercises dealing with alignment, posture and placement will help them learn valuable rules about the body to achieve movement success,” he says. “They get a sense of both outward and kinesthetic, or inner, movement flow.”

If your program only offers mixed-level classes, use the knowledge of your more experienced students to make them feel important while at the same time providing newcomers with individual instruction. Debby Stringham, an adjunct dance professor at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, has her advanced female tappers help out the beginning guys in class. “I may teach the time step and say, ‘Okay, let’s take a two-minute break, and those who are familiar with the step help somebody else in class who is learning it for the first time,’” she says. “I keep them engaged by using their skills to help somebody else.”

Build on Past Experiences
While it’s important to help male students build a strong foundation in dance technique, it’s also wise to encourage their natural movement inclinations. Nancy Kane, a lecturer at State University of New York, Cortland, has new students fill out a questionnaire that asks what kind of movement experience they have. “If they come with a martial arts background, for instance, they may have a certain quality of movement that I can call on in class,” she says. “That increases their self-esteem and recognizes that they have something to bring to the program, which makes them more comfortable and confident going forward in dance and solidifies their relationship to it for the rest of their lives.”

Stringham has a similar philosophy and, in the past, has even used sports equipment to bridge the familiar and unfamiliar in a creative modern class with a lot of newcomer males. “They were athletes, and they felt really uncomfortable being there,” she says. “I realized that I needed to find different ways for them to relate to the class. Dance was a foreign language to them but they were comfortable with sports, so I brought in a bunch of basketballs. I asked them to find creative ways of using them, other than shooting hoops.”

Include Improv
Beyond harnessing the power of past movement experience, encourage male students’ own way of moving from the get-go. “Let them explore and experience the joy of movement through combination work and improvisational exercises,” says Ralabate, who incorporates an improvisational component into all of his technique classes. “Often I will teach a jazz adage with many technical elements, but will find a natural break in the exercise for dancers to improv with different guidelines. Even progressions across the floor can combine structured improv elements.”

Stringham also finds value in encouraging creativity. She recalls one student in an African dance class who was struggling with technique, but blew her away when it came to an end-of-class project in which groups of students created dances and performed them for the class. “I remember that he was a turtle, and when he was doing his own movement I just about started crying,” she says. “He had the most beautiful way of moving. I realized then that there’s more there than just what I’m trying to teach them. Some of it is finding a way to help them connect to what is beautiful about the way they express themselves.”

Be Patient and Flexible

Treating novice males with as much respect as you would a more experienced student may seem like an easy goal, but it can take a surprising amount of forethought. Before entering the classroom, pledge to yourself to answer all questions without being condescending. “That would defeat the purpose and make them think that dance is something they cannot achieve or something they are put off by,” says Kane.

Don’t shy away from humor. “There are some funny things that you can work into every class,” says Stringham, who says things like, “Use your other left foot,” as often as possible. “Not taking yourself too seriously and even making fun of yourself are important so people can relax. I think sometimes males feel like they don’t want to look foolish, so I try to find ways to let them know that we’re going to try to laugh and have fun instead of judging one another.”

Outside of movement-related difficulties, realize that getting guys to feel comfortable wearing tight-fitting clothes in class will most likely be a progression. The most important thing is to get them hooked on dance, rather than force them to adhere to a strict dress code right away. Ralabate has beginner male students take other forms of dance, such as tap, jazz or modern, in addition to ballet. Stringham has gone as far as letting students wear baseball caps in ballroom classes. “At first I thought, ‘Are they being rude?’ but then I realized the cap gave them an extra bit of security so they didn’t feel so exposed,” she says.

Provide Role Models
Dance looks different on male bodies, and sometimes, depending on the genre (ballroom and ballet), the role of male dancers is significantly different from the females’. It’s therefore important for them to have role models. “It gives them confidence to see another man who’s doing it and looks good while, at the same time, exuding masculinity,” says Stringham. If there are no male teachers on staff, find another way to introduce your boys to male dancers. Watching videos of iconic male performers is one strategy, but nothing beats live performances. “Having them view other men expressing movement makes more of an impact,” says Ralabate. “Also, it is helpful if beginner classes with guys are scheduled next to more advanced classes with guys. This gives the newbies a chance to view more proficient male dancers.”

It’s important for novices to watch the pros not only for inspiration, but also to understand that being a male dancer doesn’t mean that all of their movement has to be done at full throttle. “I have to help them dial it back,” admits Kane. “They will get so intense and push things so hard, I have to say, ‘You know what, you really need to be able to breathe through this and look for shadings in your movement. Don’t just go full blast. The more punching, percussive movement is not always the way to get better at the dance.’”

Nurturing the ego of a male dancer new to the artform, while at the same time helping him find where he fits within the spectrum of dance, can be challenging. “The more sensitive a teacher can be to students’ needs and who they are and what they naturally need to express, the better,” says Stringham. “When men enter the dance studio there is a fragile balance between their desire to do well and their fear of making a mistake or looking foolish. You have to be a bit of a psychologist and find ways to let them know that it’s okay to make mistakes and encourage them to be themselves. If you’re not dancing from your own self-expression, then a vital part is missing. If you can get people to connect to that expressiveness, the self-consciousness falls away."

Sara Jarrett is a writer in New York City.

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

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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