Help Students Develop Artistry in ALL Styles of Dance

Marnie Wood (center) encourages her students at the Martha Graham School to establish their identities from an early age. Photo by Brigid Pierce, courtesy of the Martha Graham School

When Martha Graham taught class at the American Dance Festival in the 1950s, she often gave an exercise with contractions and releases—but no counts. "Instead, she would have students imagine they were sand diviners trying to foresee the future," says Marnie Wood, director emerita of the Martha Graham School and co-founder of the University of California, Berkeley, dance program. "She asked them to reach out as if they were trying to find answers, come up with nothing and reach out again." Graham used imagery to inspire movement and encouraged dancers to draw from personal experiences. This method, she believed, helped dancers find their own language.


In today's dance world, where so much emphasis is placed on technique and athleticism, it's easy for dancers to lose their voices—or not find them at all. A lack of self-expression can lead to robotic movement and flat, lifeless dancing. But teachers can help students develop a unique approach within the frame of technique. Here are seven ways to inspire individuality in students of all styles of dance, from ballet to hip hop.

Nurture enthusiasm. When dancers love what they do, it shows. Rafael Grigorian, founder and director of Rafael Grigorian School of Ballet in New York, tries to foster happiness and excitement in his youngest students. “With students as young as 6, I don't want to scare them in advance with very hard, demanding classes," says Grigorian. “They learn simple steps and have fun. Then, by age 8 or 9, they're ready for more discipline and start to understand what they have to do to further achieve that happiness." Students shouldn't stop using their imaginations, either, when they graduate from creative movement classes to more structured, technical lessons.

Encourage ownership. Young dancers at the Graham School take ownership of their dancing with a simple, seated exercise, sometimes done at the start of classes. “They hold their arms in first position, then put them in fifth overhead and say the words, 'my name,'" explains Wood. “When they open their arms to second position, they say their name. Finally, they bring their arms down and say, 'So be it.' Children reveal themselves, say who they are and let it stand." The purpose of this exercise is for students to articulate themselves verbally and physically, establish their identity and learn that dance isn't all about imitating the teacher.

Include improvisation. Dancers who create movement of their own gain a deeper understanding of how their bodies move, what feels good to them and how they can best express themselves. In a style of dance like hip hop, improvisation is key. “If you're going to be a hip-hop dancer, you have to know how to freestyle," says Tanji Harper, instructor at the American Rhythm Center and artistic director of The Happiness Club in Chicago. “It's creating movement off the top of your head and just freely dancing. You have to have an individual style." She has her students freestyle before and after a combination so they discover their own way to move. Harper says the biggest part of her job is to help students find their individual voices: “They have to, if they want to dance professionally. It will be part of their job."

Develop stage presence. Harper says that personality in dance is part confidence, part vocabulary and part showmanship. Facial expression is an important factor in that equation. “Have you ever seen a student who has it all in their body and nothing in the face? There's no story being told," she says. “That's another level I like to develop: stage presence. I'm not training army dancers."

Photo by Brigid Pierce, courtesy of the Martha Graham School

Champion Observation. Sometimes dancers need to get out of the mirror to find themselves. Encourage them to watch other dancers at the studio, in performance and even online. "Who touches their heart the most?" asks Grigorian. "When they find someone they love, it gives them the opportunity to recognize themselves." He will ask students what they like about certain dancers and what inspires them, in an effort to better understand his dancers and help them develop as artists. "They cannot give the best of themselves if they can't find themselves," he says. "When it happens, something inside of them starts to explode."

Introduce outside inspiration. Grigorian will ask students to visit a library or museum and look for art that speaks to them. The dancers then bring a story or painting back, and he creates an exhibit of this artwork on his studio walls. “After this," he says, “I notice that they start to do class a little differently."

Shuffle your faculty. Studying with a different teacher can also inspire a new approach to movement and help students learn more about themselves. Harper encourages students to take classes from many teachers, in many styles of dance, to become versatile and well-rounded. “They need to work with other people to gain confidence and build their vocabulary," she says. “It will help them find their individual swag, star quality and way of doing what they're doing."

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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