Teaching Tips

Try These Strategies to Help Students With Coordination

Kira Blazek Ziaii (right). Photo by Raunak Kapoor, courtesy of UNSCSA

In a contemporary dance class at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, instructor Kira Blazek Ziaii gives a stationary exercise inspired by Countertechnique, the movement system developed by Anouk van Dijk. By directing parts of the body away from each other in space, dancers learn to work with an ever-changing dynamic balance. To begin, Ziaii asks her students to shift their attention to different areas of their bodies, like jaws and armpits. "It can be illuminating for people to take their mental awareness to those places," says Ziaii. "It may also be helpful bridging the gap to coordination."

Some dancers naturally have a good sense of how to move smoothly and efficiently, while others need help organizing their bodies and connecting movements. Improving coordination can be slow, methodical work that requires a great deal of patience and technique. But giving students both intellectual and physical tools will help them develop a well-rounded approach to movement and dance more cohesively.

Be methodical

Teachers can approach coordination by repeating exercises that require both upper- and lower-body movements. "I find it's best to start at the barre," says Jenna Lavin, principal of Ballet Academy East's pre-professional division. "Once the students have learned proper turnout, alignment and strength, you can add simple port de bras into the exercises." Lavin's third-year students (ages 9 and 10) start working on this coordination in tendu combinations, for example. The arm goes to high fifth with tendu front. The arm moves to second in tendu side, and then to first arabesque with tendu back.

Lavin will also give eight dégagés in first, while the arm makes a circle, and then repeats with reversed port de bras. She breaks down the movement so students understand where the arm and eyes should be on each count. "Some kids have it naturally and others don't. But we've seen remarkable improvement through this kind of patient work and repetition." Barre combinations that include transfers of weight, changing from inside to outside working legs, can also prepare students to make coordinated transitions once they are in center.

Try using everyday language

At San Diego Civic Youth Ballet, Jessica Reed-Cancel focuses on imagery in her modern class to help students find better coordination. "I use people words, not necessarily dance terminology," she says. "Things that are familiar to them and will inspire an immediate response." For instance, she will say "angry cat tails" and "swish, swish" to describe leg swings, so dancers capture the quality of movement before forming a technical association. "If I tell them to drop, release and then 'cat tail,' it will bring out a more instinctive way of moving," says Reed-Cancel, "and inspire dancers to make use of their natural coordination."

Reed-Cancel also suggests using words inspired by the natural world to get students moving away from static shapes and working instead with sensation. "Talk about the way things move in the water, like anemones or seagrass. Toss your hair and see how the weight of it feels," she says. "Rein it in when you need to, but the students should be OK with experimenting and making mistakes."

Focus on transitions

Coordinated dancers flow from one movement to the next, seamlessly working through transition steps as well as technical elements. "They don't just stop in between phrases," says Reed-Cancel. "I try to help dancers find alignment, but not get stuck so they feel like a statue. They need to be able to let go and fall off their legs." Use of breath, and how it integrates the body, can also help as dancers work with oppositional pull. "Transitions will be easier and more organic when dancers find the maximum span of movement before moving on to the next one." When dancers have good understanding of where they are in space, and where a movement starts and ends, they are more likely to be well-coordinated.

Ziaii encourages students to use their body weight and observe how it supports them through energy and space, to allow for greater coordination. "Talk to dancers about making more space between the pelvis and rib cage, and holding it there throughout the activity. We want parts of the body to be available to move without holding those pieces together," she says. "Can coordination be taught?" asks Ziaii. "I don't know. But you can make an environment where the dancers can start to self-organize."

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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