Theory & Practice: The Art of the Transition

“Dance isn't about the flashy moment."
—Brenda Daniels, UNCSAAt the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Brenda Daniels includes in her syllabus a quote from Merce Cunningham describing how every movement is just as important as the next. “We don't prioritize big steps—we show how every tendu or gesture with the arm is fully investigated and embodied," she says. “I want my students to understand that dance isn't about the flashy moments, but the connecting steps or moments in between."

Thinking about how movements connect is a more mature concept than basic vocabulary, alignment or coordination, but it's one that can be introduced early on and emphasized throughout a dancer's training. Let class be an opportunity for students to develop the quality and artistry of each transition step. “Like any other correction," says Daniels, “if you emphasize the idea again and again, students start to incorporate it on their own."

Take It Slow

Preparatory connecting steps require precision in order to appear seamless and ensure that what follows—a pirouette, balance or jump—goes well. Igor Burlak, teacher at Boston Ballet School, for instance, emphasizes the importance of turnout in a glissade before assemblé. “I have students face the barre and break it down as much as possible," he says. “We go super slow, so that each move takes one or two counts." Then, when students try these steps in center, they are more likely to connect them smoothly.

Terri Best, jazz instructor at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, reminds her students to be mindful of using a good plié and maintaining turnout in connecting steps. “Some people do tombé pas de bourrée and turn in that last step before they take off for grand jeté," she says. “It doesn't set them up well for the big jump." Best will show this mistake and exaggerate the step by doing it very flat-footed. “I make my point through a little bit of humor," she says, “but then they understand."

Make It Visual and Physical

Teachers should show the proper way to connect steps, or have someone else demonstrate for the class. “If dancers can see what I'm talking about, then they appreciate the value and begin paying more attention," says Best. Daniels suggests offering only one or two corrections at a time and pointing out someone who is making the transition between two particular movements well.

Students should have ample opportunity to practice the movements, too. Daniels structures her class so that dancers go across the floor multiple times. “They should be physical and sweat," she says. Give students the chance to work in a detailed way and find an approach that is most successful for them.

Use the Music

The music can be supportive in a way that eases transitions. Burlak often asks the pianist to play first, before the dancers attempt a combination. “We'll listen for the transition between notes and phrases and relate it to the physical exercise," he says. “Then they see that dancing is like a beautiful melody when they move."

Daniels encourages students to use their breath and imagine that the music is an ocean underneath them. “Maybe they're in a little boat of movement on top of the water that's swelling, ebbing and flowing," she says. Or maybe the music is atonal or jarring. In that case, dancers need to make an abrupt change from one step to the next. “It's good for students to toggle back and forth between these two approaches," she says.

Terri Best demonstrating the right way to connect stepsTreat Every Step Equally

Best thinks that dancers also need to have the right mind-set. “If they're thinking of the next big thing, they're not in the present moment, staying in character or expressing themselves fully," she says. Remind students that the audience can see them even when they face upstage, and encourage them to stay grounded in the story or character. “Every step is equally visible and should be executed with the same attention to detail, commitment, precision and focus," she says. “Poor transitions can take the audience out of the moment."

Ask students to be aware of the lines and shapes they create as they seamlessly move through space. “Students always try to please their teachers," says Daniels. “If they sense it's an important issue to you, they'll do everything they can to achieve it." DT

Julie Diana was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. She and her husband Zachary Hench now direct Juneau Dance Theatre in Alaska.

Photos: by Garrett Parker, courtesy of UNCSA; by Adam Parson, courtesy of Edge Performing Arts Center

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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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