How to Convince Your Students That Flashy Tricks Must Be Balanced With Solid Technique

One tactic: Post a statement on your studio's website about your commitment to proper training, per master teacher Susan Williams, seen here at Gus Giordano Dance..Photo by Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth Photography

Former American Ballet Theatre soloist Anna Liceica has been judging the Youth America Grand Prix since 2007. "Once in a while, we see someone who tries to do too many turns without good form or musicality," she says. "We don't encourage it, and that dancer does not place high." Judges (and artistic directors in attendance) might appreciate the spectacle, but they take technique and artistry into account when assessing the overall dancer. "Of course it's nice to do a lot of pirouettes and jump high," says Liceica. "But if the rest isn't there, the tricks mean nothing."


In today's world of instant gratification, it can be hard to make students and their families understand the value of consistent, careful training. By establishing a good foundation first, you enable a dancer to then tackle the flashiest steps. But many teachers fear they'll lose students if they take the time to break things down and focus on the details that make up good technique. On the flip side, there's no doubt that bravura sells tickets, boosts studio enrollment and might even earn some dancers a paycheck. For teachers, the trick is to establish a healthy and responsible path from the basics to bravura.

Don't Try This at Home

Few people will argue the benefits of proper alignment, strength and a good understanding of the basics. “Technique makes you last longer as a dancer," says master teacher Susan Quinn Williams. “Plus, it looks phenomenal." Yet some students are in such a rush to do tricks—before having a strong foundation—that they risk getting injured. “You have to monitor your students and make sure everyone knows your stance on the issue," says Williams. She suggests posting a statement on your school's website about your commitment to proper training and printing up a pamphlet describing your training method as a handout for parents and students. “If they don't agree with it, and they just want to flail around and have fun," she says, “then it's not the right place for them."

While you want students to find inspiration at the theater, in videos and online, help them understand that the studio—under your supervision—is the best place to experiment. When Williams heard that some of her students wanted to buy a stretching contraption they found online, she stopped them in their tracks. “No way," she said. “They were talking about strapping their bodies to gain flexibility and doing some aggressive exercises they saw on YouTube. I explained that they needed to have a professional teacher guide them to stretch properly."

Technique First

Jaime Randall Farnworth, owner of Bobbie's School of Performing Arts in Newbury Park, California, tells students that simple steps are building blocks for solid technique. And since more and more competitions are rewarding dancers for beautifully executed performances, the results are helping to prove her point. “Soloists with 90-degree turned-out legs stand out, as opposed to the ones who get their leg to 180 by lifting their hip," she says. “As a teacher, it encourages you to go back and refine your students' technique rather than throwing them too much information at once."

Liceica agrees that quality is key. “It has to be taught in class, from when they're really young, that lines and execution are more important than quantity," she says. She stresses the importance of things like using every muscle in the foot, thinking about turnout and making clean lines. She also recommends taking pictures of students in class, rehearsal or performance to give them a visual tool of reference. “The young generation is so into photos and social media," Liceica says. “Even if you don't actually take a picture, ask them how they think it would look? Make them think that their position is about to be immortalized. The minute I say something like that, they're all pointing their feet."

Spectacle, when done well—with solid technique and artistry—can be thrilling. Photo by TAKE Creative, courtesy of Farnworth

Flash Can Be Fun

Every style of dance, from ballet to hip hop, presents an opportunity for showmanship and jaw-dropping feats of athleticism. Liceica encourages students to push for tricks if they can do them well and musically. “I wouldn't want to hold anyone back, especially if there's a natural ability," she says. “I hope teachers encourage kids to hone their natural talents and still bring the artistry." But if a student can do five pirouettes with no form or finish, for example, try pulling the reins a bit. Have them go back to three or four turns with correct placement before they start pushing again for more.

Bravura can get everyone in the audience on their feet. But like most things in life, balance is key. Spend time showing dancers how they can link steps beautifully, and make sure they do so with the right feeling and quality. “You want to inspire and motivate them, and show that artistry in their dancing touches people on a higher level," says Liceica. “If they can connect with their audience and make them feel something, the audience goes home remembering it."

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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