Twin City Titans

Tu Dance Center fills an unmet need in Minneapolis–St. Paul.

Uri Sands coaches students in TU Dance repertory.

They come bounding in, sometimes with moms or siblings in their wake, shoving dance bags and ballet slippers into cubbies along one wall of the former woodworking shop. After stripping down to black leotards and tights, the boys pull on loose cotton chaya pants, while the girls tie geometric-patterned lappas around their waists. Before one girl steps onto the gleaming wood studio floor covered with marley, she deftly rolls back each foot of her tights, revealing her bare feet.

An intermediate African-based movement class is getting underway at TU Dance Center in St. Paul, which opened two years ago. Ninety minutes later, Toni Pierce-Sands, one of the center’s founders, smiles and leans across the piano, clapping to the dancers’ rhythmic movements as the class wraps up. Sweaty and exhilarated, the students, who are enrolled in the school’s pre-professional program, quickly trade their chayas and lappas for ballet slippers and begin their ballet class. On other days, the students study modern dance—often Horton technique—with Pierce-Sands (the “T” in TU). They also learn TU Dance repertory choreographed by co-founder Uri Sands (the “U” in TU) from company members.

The Twin Cities has numerous nonprofit dance schools and for-profit studios. But the Sands started their school after noticing a lack of racial and cultural diversity that didn’t reflect the increasing multiculturalism of the Twin Cities. “We saw a need for another choice and another way of training kids in dance,” says Pierce-Sands, referring to a program she initiated for students from schools in underserved areas (see "Making it Happen," below). Also, in a community heavy on modern and postmodern dance, the school’s curriculum is unique. Pierce-Sands calls it “tri-part training” in modern, ballet and West African dance.

“The professional world today demands that dancers have fluency in a number of different genres,” she says. “We teach West African because it is a grounding force that complements modern and ballet in ways other styles do not. To be ready for the dance world today and tomorrow, students need these three foundational pillars, and to know how they’re connected.”

Toni Pierce-Sands leads a modern class.

Pierce-Sands grew up in St. Paul studying with Loyce Houlton at Minnesota Dance Theatre’s school in Minneapolis. After dancing in Europe for several years, she met Sands while at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Their critically acclaimed, much awarded and extremely popular company, TU Dance, celebrates its 10th anniversary in September.

“We knew we had to have a company in order for the school to be successful, so the students could be connected with professional dancers,” says Pierce-Sands. “We’re not necessarily grooming future dancers for TU Dance,” Sands adds. “With our pre-professional program, we give students the tools to develop as young artists, so they have the best possible chance of success as they enter a company apprenticeship, or are accepted into a college or university dance program.”

While the curriculum isn’t “necessarily modeled on The Ailey School,” Pierce-Sands adds, “Mr. Ailey had one thing right.” Actually, pipes in Sands, “He had a couple things right!” They both laugh as Pierce-Sands continues. “Those three techniques are within the Ailey technique, along with Graham, Horton and Dunham. So we can’t help our influences. They’re part of our tool kit.”

Growing more reflective for a moment, she then adds: “Some days, for instance, I look at all these beautiful kids who are looking up at me, waiting. And I call on Mrs. Houlton, as I remember being that kid and how she inspired us. I also call in Mr. Ailey, and his idea of training young people to be dancers and present in their time.”

“Toni and Uri’s vision of building a space for teenagers from all walks of life to discover the discipline and joy of rigorous contemporary dance training is already achieving great results with young people,” says Carl Flink, chair of the Department of Theatre Arts & Dance, University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. “I feel certain the center will have a ripple effect in the makeup of the Twin Cities dance community in the coming years.”

Pre-professional students take classes in West African dance as well as modern and ballet.

MerSadies McCoy, an 18-year-old student at Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, met the couple during a residency and has been training at TU Dance Center ever since. “I fell in love with the Horton technique that Toni teaches,” she says. “I also love the openness, the diversity of students and the vibe of the school.”

The center also provides training opportunities for dance professionals, including open TU Dance company classes and TU dancer Berit Ahlgren’s Gaga workshops. “Given how robust the Twin Cities dance community is, I’ve always been surprised at the extremely limited number of studios available for professional artists to maintain, explore and expand their training,” Flink says. “The TU Dance Center, and its very accessible central location to both St. Paul and Minneapolis, represents a critical new training option in our dance community.”

“Through this level of training, we’re turning out amazing human beings, whether they dance or become audience members or administrators in dance,” says Pierce-Sands. “When Uri and I started TU Dance, we knew we also wanted a school. And one day I envisioned young kids waiting on the corner for a bus to our studio, just like my sister and I took the bus to MDT.” Then, her vision came true.

“One evening I walked out of the center and saw one of our young dancers standing in the bus shelter, with her leg up on the glass wall, stretching. I thought, ‘People are driving by and there’s a young dancer. We’re putting dance out in the world, just like in New York.’” DT

Camille LeFevre is a St. Paul–based arts journalist who has written about TU Dance since its inception. She’s the author of The Dance Bible: The Complete Guide for Aspiring Dancers.

Making It Happen

TU Dance Center

St. Paul, Minnesota

Directors: Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands

Year Opened: 2011

Number of Students Enrolled: 120

tudance.org

In 2012 TU Dance Center initiated a pilot program to provide a year of training at no cost to 25 students in underserved areas. In 2013, program enrollment increased to 75. To make it happen, the company conducts outreach activities at five schools, and the Sands invite selected students to attend classes at the studio. In addition to free tuition, these students receive dance attire and bus cards to cover their transportation. Funding is through the Minnesota State Arts Board.

Top and middle photos by Ingrid Werthmann; bottom photo by Bill Kelley

Health & Body
Getty Images

The term "body shaming" might bring up memories of that instructor from your own training who made critical remarks about—or even poked and prodded—dancers' bodies.

Thankfully, we're (mostly) past the days when authority figures felt free to openly mock a dancer's appearance. But body shaming remains a toxic presence in the studio, says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, psychologist for Atlanta Ballet: "It's just more hidden and more subtle." Here's how to make sure your teaching isn't part of the problem.


Watch What You Say...

The cardinal rule of a body-positive teaching style: Correct your students' dancing, not their bodies. Say you're about to ask a dancer to take up more space, possibly because that dancer's legs are on the shorter side. "Just tell them, 'I see you're holding yourself back and I think you could travel more,' or 'I love how fast you can move, but you need to work on making that movement expansive,'" suggests Kathryn Morgan, former soloist with New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet. "The only time I'll bring somebody's body into it is in a positive way, like, 'Your arms are so long and beautiful. Let's use them more.'" In Morgan's experience, there's always a way to reframe a correction so dancers don't conclude that any given body part is a problem that needs fixing.

Jenifer Ringer, former New York City Ballet principal dancer and current dean of dance at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, is careful not to set damagingly narrow expectations when using imagery. To get a young dancer to engage their core, she asks not for a "flat tummy," but for them to bring "belly button to spine." Morgan adds that there's a world of difference between "Why is your butt out?" and "Lift the front of your hips."

Ringer also regularly encourages students to feel and express gratitude for their chance to dance. "I remind them just how miraculous their bodies are," she says. "I want them to marvel at what they're asking their bodies to do." (This is far from just a feel-good ritual, by the way: Gratitude has been scientifically proven to improve poor body image.)

Ringer, smiling in a blue shirt and black pants, sits in a chair at the front of the studio, smiling at the teen ballet students in front of her

Jenifer Ringer. Photo by Paige Ray, courtesy Colburn School

...And What You Don't Say

If paired with a misplaced frown or a terse tone of voice, even a neutral comment from you can trigger a shame spiral in a self-conscious teenage dancer. Of course, teachers can't always leave their own problems outside the studio. Still, be mindful that negative nonverbal cues might be misread as disgust with a dancer's physicality. For students who are mature enough, a little self-awareness and transparency from you can go a long way. Dr. Christina Donaldson, a licensed clinical psychologist who co-founded the Soul Meets Body self-esteem workshop for dancers, says, "When I work with teens, if I have a bad day I'll tell them, 'I've just had a tender day. So if I come across in any way that seems odd, please don't take it personally.'"

Speaking of self-awareness, even the best-intentioned dance educators have internal biases against certain body types. Be honest: Do you devote more time and energy to students whose physical characteristics remind you of your own? Do you agree that "every body is a ballet body," yet tend to give harsher (or fewer) corrections to dancers who don't fit the traditional mold? "Treating dancers who look a certain way differently is a subtle cue that only certain bodies have potential," says Kaslow. Distribute your gifts as a teacher fairly.

Approach With Caution

All that said, there are times when a dance teacher feels the obligation to talk to a student about what's going on with their body. The most obvious instance is sudden weight gain or loss, which usually (but not always) means there's a new emotional or physical issue in the student's life. Because "most children don't have control over what is bought and put in front of them to eat," Donaldson suggests talking to the caregiver if you're concerned about a student aged 18 or younger.

If the student is older, Morgan suggests leaving out the question of weight unless the dancer brings it up on their own. "I would ask, 'Are you okay? I've noticed you seem a bit tense/unhappy/unfocused/anxious.' Start by making sure, in a way that has nothing to do with their body, that they're okay mentally." This strategy becomes especially key if a dancer is intentionally limiting food intake, because giving attention to the visible changes in their body could actually motivate them to double down on restricting. If the student brings up any body concerns of their own accord, you can then "address it from a health and life standpoint," Morgan advises. "Make sure they know you care about them as a human being, not just as a dancer."

Morgan corrects a teenage girl in a pink leotard's tendu at the barre. Two other teen girls at the barre observe

Kathryn Morgan. Photo by Travis Kelley, courtesy Morgan

Body-Positive Studio Policies

A major cause and result of body shame is the drive to compare one's appearance to others'. A thoughtful dress code is one way to reduce this urge to compare and despair. Morgan remembers what a relief it was to put on black tights for partnering class at the School of American Ballet—"which we especially appreciated during the run-up to our periods"—and to wear a skirt during after-lunch classes. When Ringer was formulating Colburn's dress code, she decided that tweens and up would wear dark shades, not pastels. "They're also allowed to wear any leotard they feel comfortable in, as long as it's in the color scheme," she says. Building some flexibility into your dress code can help students feel their best in the studio.

Keep in mind that members of your studio population who already feel different or marginalized—dancers of color, male dancers and trans or nonbinary dancers, to name a few—are at increased risk of body dysmorphia. Body image isn't just a female problem, says Donaldson: "Dancers who are born or identify as male experience eating disorders too. It's just that they fixate on calves and pecs, not waists and thighs." Consider whether your changing rooms, guidelines on hairstyles and tights colors, and other studio rules are as accommodating and affirming as they can be for each and every dancer.

News
Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.


His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.


"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone

Zoom classes have created a host of challenges to overcome, but this new way of learning has also had some surprising perks. Students and educators are becoming more adaptable. Creativity is blossoming even amid space constraints. Dancers have been able to broaden their horizons without ever leaving home.

In short, in a year filled with setbacks, there is still a lot to celebrate. Dance Teacher spoke to four teachers about the virtual victories they've seen thus far and how they hope to keep the momentum going back in the classroom.


1. Respecting the Basics

Like many ballet instructors, Kate Crews Linsley, academy principal at the School of Nashville Ballet, designed her remote classes to home in on foundational elements like stance, alignment and connection of the eyes to the port de bras. Now that her dancers have returned to the studio, they're reaping the benefits of spending so much time focused on these details.

Linsley says there's also been a mindset shift: an increased willingness to pause and figure something out before moving forward. "On Zoom, because we couldn't do all of center, we could take our time at barre," she says. "The kids saw that it's great to ask questions—to make sure that they really understand the principles of each movement. Everything in ballet builds into something else. Going back to basics is not going backwards."

2. Fostering Creativity

"Since the start of the pandemic, my class content has been driven toward imagination," says Dana Wilson, who teaches jazz for New York City Dance Alliance, among other organizations. For example, she might ask students to picture themselves dancing on a beach. "We're all tired of our living rooms," she jokes—but the exercise is about more than an escape from reality. "Taking ownership of the element of imagination helps you develop a creative identity and makes you intrinsically more interesting to watch," Wilson says. "I want imagination to be a baseline, no matter the style." When dancing at home instead of in a room full of peers, students can feel safer experimenting. Then, the next time they're asked to call on their creativity in person, they'll be ready to shine.

3. No Hiding in the Back

For choreographer Al Blackstone, who teaches theater dance at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway in addition to working with young students at Downtown Dance Factory in Tribeca, one benefit of Zoom is that it puts every dancer on equal display. "Kids that tended to hide in the back of the room suddenly weren't able to do that," he says. From the start of virtual classes, Blackstone made it a point to frequently call out names and give specific feedback, so everyone felt seen. As the months passed, "I saw progress in leaps and bounds," he says. His DDF students have returned to the studio, and while he admits they aren't all rushing to the front row, "they are making bolder choices," he says. "They're more willing to stand out. Dancers who were meeker are more confident, and that's a blessing."

4. Committing to Conditioning

As Linsley and her staff were tweaking their curriculum for Zoom last spring, they built in extra cross-training: yoga, Pilates, floor barre, even high-intensity interval training for stamina. "We wanted to make sure that their fitness was still there when we came back to the studio," Linsley says, "but we didn't want kids to do it on their own." Thanks to this strategy, teachers were able to smoothly guide students back into the rigors of in-person classes, despite the new roadblock of dancing in a mask. Stretch and conditioning offerings will be a permanent part of the School of Nashville Ballet academy's syllabus going forward.

5. Dancing On Camera

Dance films have become a mainstay during the shutdown months, but even in normal times, dancers can benefit from camera training. That's why Wilson has been using her Zoom sessions to teach film terminology and to get dancers comfortable with performing for a camera rather than an audience. "I'll say 'camera right' instead of 'stage left,'" she explains. "I'll ask them to have only their head and shoulders in the frame by this eight-count. You have to think from the device's perspective instead of your own, which takes some rewiring." The Zoom grid allows dancers to see whether they're hitting their marks correctly in real time. For students who hope to go pro, especially in the commercial realm, this aspect of virtual class is a major bright side—and proves there's a market for dedicated dance-for-camera classes in the future.

6. Increasing Access and Opportunity

When anyone can log on from anywhere, training with big-name teachers is much more accessible. But that's just the tip of the digital iceberg. At Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, Utah, students came back in person before many of their coaches were able to travel. So, the school has hosted virtual master classes as well as virtual private coaching on site. "We have a big movie screen," says Kim DelGrosso, Center Stage's artistic director. "It's almost like the teacher is in the room."

At the School of Nashville Ballet, students have been able to Zoom-chat with luminaries like Kathryn Morgan and Marianela Nuñez, and Linsley hopes to schedule more virtual conversations with pros. "To have someone at a top level sit down and share their story—that's a connection we shouldn't let go of," Linsley says. "It's one thing to watch someone dance, but to get to ask them questions and hear their struggles is precious."

7. Encouraging Discipline and Drive

Without hands-on instruction, "dancers have to take ownership of their own training," says DelGrosso. "They have to self-correct. It's their responsibility not to cheat the movement." That sense of discipline will serve them well—if they can hold on to it. Luckily, Linsley points out, the dancers who stuck with remote learning despite it being less than ideal tended to be extremely driven. "So many of our students said, 'I don't care where it is or what's happening, I'll show up. I want to perfect this tendu because it's important to me,'" she says.

Blackstone feels that pushing through Zoom's technical difficulties may have also helped dancers come to appreciate their art form even more. "Anyone who's still taking class at home by themselves has to ask 'Do I really want to do this?'" he says. "The people who've kept at it have found a renewed sense of purpose. They do it because they truly love it."

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