News

This Dance Couple Lost Their Home To a California Fire

Photo of the Woolsey fire via Instagram

A few days ago, a friend forwarded me the GoFundMe Campaign of Nikki and Ethan White, a dancerly wife and husband duo who escaped the California "Woolsey Fire" with their children but whose home burned to the ground. The couple had met while dancing for Smuin Ballet, and later were one of the top three finalists on Paula Abdul's TV show "Live to Dance." Today, they live in the Los Angeles area, where Ethan is researching how dance partnerships develop interpersonal trust at USC.

I spoke to Nikki about the fire, what comes next and how readers can help.


What warning did you have about the fire?

I woke at 6 am on Friday, November 9, turned on my phone and saw a flood of texts messages. I packed a suitcase and got the kids in the car. I didn't take nearly enough. I was in complete denial. Part of me kept thinking, "Of course I should take that!" while the other part thought, "Don't tell me I'm not coming back to my house, of course I'm coming back to my house."

Ethan stayed for a few more hours to pack the Nutcracker costumes—we had a show to put on in a week. We ended up getting separated by road closures with no power or cell reception. I took the kids (5 year old Dax and 2 year old Skye) to the Santa Barbara Zoo to keep them entertained.

What's the reality you're facing presently?

Our current reality is that we are not homeless, but we are displaced. Thankfully, we are surrounded by many families and friends that are willing to help.

The difficult part, of course, is losing our home. Every now and then I'll think of something I owned and I'll get a little pang in my heart knowing it's gone. That's where I rocked my babies to sleep, read them books, watched them play outside, watched them grow.

How are you managing the aftermath?

I initially didn't want to accept help, but with the encouragement of several friends I set up a GoFundMe campaign. I did not expect the outpouring of support that we have received, and can't look at it very often because it makes me cry. People from every facet of our lives have donated: school teachers, dance teachers, students, patrons, dancers, directors, comedians, friends and family near and far. I know that if and when someone is in need, I will be able to pay it forward because that is what so many people have done for us. We could not be more grateful.

What's next?

Honestly, I have no idea. We are still in shock. It feels like we might take some time to travel, teach, choreograph and reconnect with friends and colleagues. In the long term, we are going to rebuild our home, our neighborhood, and our community. It will take time, patience and a lot of perseverance, but dancers have these traits in spades.

How can readers help those affected by the fires?

Candidly, I would say that the most immediate way to help others in need is whatever monetary donation that you can give, as well as assurances that you are willing to be there throughout the recovery. Some feel a desire to give something tangible—clothing, toiletries, toys—and while a few of these are needed, getting too much is overwhelming. We just don't have anywhere to put all the things. If you have items you want folks to have, hang on to them! Especially bigger items that they'll need once they have a home. If you have space, offer to store things for people. But most importantly? Just be there. Even if those affected can't respond for a month, just reach out and say something kind. We need more kindness in the world.

Any other information you would like to share?

I have been building ballet "camps" where I teach classes, and at the end of the session we put on a condensed show. We were just about to perform a Gone Nutcracker show with over 60 local dancers, parents, 20 guest dancers and artists, and we have not given up on doing that show. The theater we were going to perform at is no longer accessible, but we will find another location. Art has always brought us closer to people, and it certainly bonded us to so many families in our Malibu community.

Have you or other dance colleagues been affected by the Camp and Woolsey fires? Share your stories in the comments below.

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.

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.