Touchdowns and Tour Jetés

A Brooklyn studio attracts young athletes to the barre.  

Courtney Cooke, center, with the 2014 FOOTBALLet students

On a January morning, two weeks before New Jersey hosted Super Bowl XLVIII, ballet teacher Courtney Cooke set up a combination in the form of a three-person pass play. Tomboyish with a headband around her blonde pixie cut, she positioned one pre-teen boy as quarterback in second position plié. He wore a winter beanie, gym clothes and athletic socks, and held his beginner ballet posture as best he could. “Remember, we’re using our turnout in this class,” Cooke said. Another boy in ballet slippers squatted in front of the QB clutching a foam football, while a third waited as receiver on the other side of the studio. It was the final combination of a FOOTBALLet class, part of a six-week dance program for boys ages 9–13 at Cora School for Dance in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Though she had never thrown a football before, Cooke designed the workshop in hopes of introducing a new group of athletes to ballet.

Dance and football have long shared an unlikely partnership. In the 1970s, famously graceful Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann set the trend of cross-training with dance. He openly attributed his sky-high jumping ability and body control to 14 years of jazz, tap and ballet training. (He even performed with Twyla Tharp and Peter Martins in Tharp’s Dance is a Man’s Sport, Too.) Since then, other NFL players have taken to the studio to limber up, increase their agility and build endurance.

At Cora, the idea for a football/ballet workshop came two years ago from a parent, whose 12-year-old son Matteo plays on a flag football team in addition to taking several weekly dance classes. He proved to be the perfect liaison. “Matteo’s extremely athletic but also really loves and values dance,” says Cooke. “He and his mom talked about getting his football team in the studio.” Cooke and Cora Dance director Shannon Hummel initially discussed starting an all-boys ballet class, “but the more I thought about teaching adolescent boys,” says Cooke, “the more I wanted to include sports.”

They timed the program for the flag football off-season and billed it as “a ballet workshop designed for football players, focusing on footwork, balance and strength-building.” Like all classes at the studio, FOOTBALLet operates on pay-what-you-can tuition. It’s Hummel’s goal to reach as many children as possible in the economically divided Red Hook neighborhood. During its first year, in 2013, all FOOTBALLet students came from Matteo’s flag football team.

In the first class, Cooke’s top priority was making sure the boys didn’t regret their decision to sign up for ballet. “It was about making them feel comfortable in the room with me,” she says. “I brought in images from Sports Illustrated, things that had caught my eye that resembled dance movements. Rather than approach it with the attitude, ‘I’m a dancer, and this is what we’re going to do,’ I approached it from the angle, ‘You play sports. I’m interested in sports, too.’ Immediately they were drawn in and engaged. It got a dialogue started, like, ‘I wanna do this! I wanna look like this guy!’”

Once she had their attention, Cooke used barre work as a means to an end, the essential hard work to build skills and strength before the fun part—incorporating the football into center combinations, or drills. Accompanied by a recording of pop songs adapted for piano, students perform basic barre exercises. “The barre is definitely more my place, where I teach the ballet vocabulary,” she says. She sprinkles in jumps and chassés away from the barre to diffuse the boys’ bursting energy. And she leverages students’ eagerness for center drills to keep them focused. “Let’s have some control of those arms. You’re about to have a football and that would’ve been fumble, fumble, fumble.”

Students focus on ballet at the barre and look forward to dance “drills” with a football in center.

To plan center work, Cooke did her research. “I looked at the drills they do in sports and deconstructed them, incorporating movements that are more appropriate for ballet class,” she says. “They’re really dance combinations, with a football added to them.”

That’s good enough for middle-school boys. They pas de chat across the floor, each manipulating a yoga block as if it were a football during port de bras. (As a cost-saving measure, there is only one foam football, and Cooke maintains control of it.)

The clear favorite, of course, is the three-person pass play, which students helped design. “They suggest different ways to approach the combinations to show what would really happen in a football game,” says Cooke. “The second half of class has been a lot more collaborative that way.”

On that January morning of the workshop, Cooke cued an upbeat Top 40 song and counted the students in, “5, 6, 7, 8.” The studio smelled more like gym class than dance, but the boys were focused on ballet. The center snapped the ball to the quarterback and the receiver performed a single, if slightly off-balance, tour in time to make the catch. The trio chasséd in a circle to rotate positions, while two more boys waited their turns at the back of the studio. “I originally didn’t anticipate making such large ‘drills,’” says Cooke. “But that has been the most fun for all of us.”

After the first workshop, some students signed up for year-round classes. Even if they didn’t, each student who attended returned for the second workshop. Since she hopes to draw in more FOOTBALLet newcomers next time, Cooke is planning for an increasingly mixed-level group. “It’s going to be a variety of skill levels and experience,” she says. “I’ll have to keep everyone involved and confident in their movement.”

No matter their abilities, Cooke is glad to welcome the athletes to class. “Dance is for everyone,” she says. “It’s just about finding the right entry point.” DT

 

Dancers Take the Field During College Bowl Post-Season

Behind the scenes at college bowl games, there’s a hidden dance convention going on. In December, as NCAA football players get ready for the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl and other post-season match-ups, dancers will flock to the arenas, too, but not to watch the game. Instead, they’ll be taking master classes, learning choreography and performing during halftime for crowds of thousands.

At this year’s Orange Bowl (December 28–January 1), commercial choreographer Dee Caspary will stage the halftime show. Luther Brown, Kevin Andrews and other established teachers will lead a day of master classes, as well. Dancers can take up to five classes that day. Then they spend two days in rehearsals before the game. Student travel organization Worldstrides coordinates the event, open to students ages 7–21 on dance and cheer teams.

Andrews, a former University of Wisconsin–Madison dance teacher and flash mob specialist, says he’s looking forward to working with a group of eager dancers. “They want to be there, and that’s half the battle,” he says. “I do a lot of flash mobs with people who sometimes aren’t even dancers, but as long as you have a good attitude and make it fun, it turns out wonderful.” —AM

Photos from top: by Andrea Marks; ©Thinkstock

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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