There's a Place for Us

Jason Warley turns rejection into opportunity at Center Stage Dance & Theatre School.

When dancers walk into their first rehearsal for The Ensemble, they’re rarely happy to be there. After all, membership in this company was probably not their first choice. You see, The Ensemble is made up of dancers at Center Stage Dance & Theatre School who don’t make the cut for the elite senior team. At first, these students, many of whom have been training at the East Brunswick, New Jersey, studio since they were little, view membership in The Ensemble as a sort of consolation prize. But thanks to Jason Warley, they don’t see it that way for long.

“These are the kids who would fall by the wayside at another studio,” says Warley, who has directed The Ensemble since its inception 15 years ago. “They’d say, ‘I can’t be on the team? I’ll go somewhere else with a team I can be on.’ But in my program, I don’t lose people.” With a fine-tuned blend of technique and performance, plus a healthy dose of fun, Warley has turned The Ensemble into a company any kid would feel lucky to be a part of. “They may come in unhappy,” he says, “but I have confidence that I can turn this experience into something they’re excited about.”

Warley didn’t always know he wanted to be a dance educator. When he graduated from Lehman College, he planned to pursue a performance career in New York City. Then he met Frank Hatchett. “I remember observing the way he taught class, and there was so much passion and joy,” says Warley, who went on to assist Hatchett in class and at conventions for several years. “Dancers walked out of his class changed. Seeing that magic drew me to dance education.”

Still, Warley danced with Peter Pucci Plus Dancers and did some commercial work while finding his way to Center Stage. He signed on to teach jazz one day a week as a way to supplement his performance income. But Center Stage’s artistic director George Warren saw something special in him and asked him to increase his time commitment. “Jason had such a love of kids, plus this amazing technical talent,” Warren says. “But, most important, he had the humor and personality that allows kids to continue the joy they had in their junior years of dancing.”

Warren offered Warley an important role—to develop a program for those kids who weren’t up for the technical demands or the time commitment of the senior company. It didn’t take much convincing. Warley took on the challenge with gusto, and The Ensemble (originally called The Jazz Cats) was born.

He began to spend three to four days a week at the studio, running rehearsals and teaching technique classes. And over the years, his creative ideas have consistently transformed groups of not-quite-there-yet kids into happy, confident dancers who quickly improve. After a few years in The Ensemble, they often end up making it into the elite team, but Warley says that’s not the goal. In fact, some choose to stay in The Ensemble even after being accepted to the more advanced team. Given the opportunities The Ensemble grants them, it’s no wonder they want to stick around.

For starters, Warley schedules two or three trips to NYC every year exclusively for The Ensemble. In the early years, he’d take them to Broadway Dance Center for professional classes with those he’d previously trained with—Hatchett, Sheila Barker and Kat Wildish, for example. On recent trips, he’s rented a studio in the city and hired instructors to teach private master classes. Afterward, the group might catch a matinee before heading back to New Jersey—Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater or a Broadway show. (On their last trip, they saw Newsies.)

He also puts on an annual student choreography showcase, where Ensemble dancers perform solos they’ve choreographed. Warley points out that, while The Ensemble attends a limited number of regional competitions, this extra performance opportunity is a way to remove any shadow that might be cast by the elite team.

“When their focus isn’t necessarily on competition, I see them grow more as people,” he says. “When they compete, they do get a platinum here and there, but when they don’t win, I don’t see disappointment. They’re really just happy to be dancing. I think that shows that the program works.”

Warley makes sure to reward the dancers’ hard work in the studio—often in an off-the-wall way, like with an impromptu Halloween party. And every Ensemble dancer is a winner at his annual Biscuit Awards. He acts as emcee for the Oscars-like exclusive dress-up event and hands out fun prizes like “The Pirouette Princess Award” for the best turner, or “The Walking Diva Award” for the dancer with the best jazz walks. “It’s the silliest thing, but the dancers look forward to it all year,” he says. “And to this day, alumni from years ago will come back for it.”

After graduation, Ensemble dancers generally dance in college, but most don’t go on to dance professionally. Even so, their allegiance to The Ensemble runs deep. “My friends from Center Stage and I are always reminiscing about the great times we had, and we still miss Jason’s technique classes,” says Aziza Gazieva, one of Warley’s first Ensemble students, who is now an analyst at a bank. “Those years with The Ensemble were crucial for me. I didn’t have the best turns or the best leaps, but Jason pulled something out of me that no other teacher was able to. He taught me confidence.” Gazieva has rarely missed a Biscuit Awards ceremony.

Warley has made his mark on countless students—but this year’s group may be his last. With only 13 members, the current Ensemble is smaller than usual (the team has been as big as 25), so he’s taking the opportunity to focus on another venture, Man In Motion, a network of 40 male dance instructors and choreographers he formed in 2012 as a resource for studios. “When I travel for workshops and master classes, there’s often just one boy in class, and I’ve had many studio owners say, ‘It’s great that he finally gets to dance with a male teacher,’” says Warley.

Meanwhile at Center Stage, faculty member Danielle Mondi is shadowing Warley to eventually take charge of The Ensemble, along with Victoria Moots. The three are documenting the curriculum, and Warley plans to remain involved as a consultant. “Jason has made The Ensemble such a joyful place, and he’ll always be its guardian angel,” says Warren. “Wherever life takes Jason, his work with The Ensemble will live on.” DT

 

Rachel Zar is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.

 Photography by Kyle Froman

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: I'm looking to create some summer rituals and traditions at my studio. What are some of the things you do?

A: Creating fun and engaging moments for your students, staff and families can have a positive impact on your studio culture. Whether it's a big event or a small gesture, we've found that traditions build connection, boost morale and create strong bonds. I reached out to a variety of studio owners to gather some ideas for you to try this summer. Here's what they had to say.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Sam Williams and Jaxon Willard after competition at RADIX. Photo courtesy of Williams

Self-choreographed solos are becoming increasingly popular on the competition circuit these days, leading dance teachers to incorporate more creative mentoring into their rehearsal and class schedules. In this new world of developing both technical training and choreographic prowess, finding the right balance of assisting without totally hijacking a student's choreographic process can be difficult.

To help, we caught up with a teacher who's already braved these waters by assisting "World of Dance" phenom Jaxon Willard with his viral audition solos. Center Stage Performing Arts Studio company director Sam Williams from Orem, Utah, shares her sage wisdom below.

Check it out!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance studios are run by creative people with busy schedules, who have a love-hate relationship with props and sequins. The results of all this glitter and glam? General mass chaos in every drawer, costume closet and prop corner of the studio. Let's be honest, not many dance teachers are particularly known for their tidiness. The ability to get 21 dancers to spot in total synchronization? Absolutely! The stamina to run 10 solos, 5 group numbers, 2 ballet classes and 1 jazz class in one day? Of course! The emotional maturity to navigate a minefield of angry parents and hormonal teenagers? You know it!

Keeping the studio tidy? Well...that's another story.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox