Teaching Tips
Irene Dowd with Juilliard student Leiland Charles. Photo by Jim Lafferty

Irene Dowd's third-year students at The Juilliard School sound more like they're in medical school than a dance class, citing complex kinesiology terms and muscle names, like multifidus and iliocostalis. But instead of memorizing the vocabulary with index cards and textbooks, the students in Dowd's anatomy/kinesiology class come ready to move. “Motor-learning specialists have found that we learn by doing," says Dowd, who began teaching at Juilliard as an assistant to ideokinesis matriarch Lulu Sweigard in the late 1960s. “If you learn it [anatomy] intellectually, you forget it. You have to do it physically, and then you can start to understand what you've learned."

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Teaching Tips

The ankle joint can only move about 25 degrees outward and 35 degrees inward from a neutral position. Why does that seem hard to believe? Because in a dance context, these minute motions have huge aesthetic effects. They can punctuate the line of an arabesque, elongate a tendu—or indicate a lack of training. In a purely anatomical sense, a properly aligned foot is one in which an imaginary straight line can be drawn from the ankle out through the second toe. Yet in the classical ballet world, a “winged" shape (toes pointed outward) is the signature of a first-rate ballerina, while “sickling" (pointing the toes inward) is taboo. On the other hand, most modern dance teachers find fault in winging, and some teachers and choreographers even find a sickled foot beautiful. But is either sickling or winging truly safe for student dancers? Here, DT takes a closer look at these ankle adjustments and offers strengthening tips to help students avoid sickling- and winging-related injuries.

The Skinny on Sickling

Because the ankle naturally has a larger range of motion inward than it does outward when pointing the foot, many students with weak or untrained ankles are prone to sickling. Genetics or personal anatomy can also contribute to a student's tendency to sickle, says Julie Daugherty, physical therapist for American Ballet Theatre in New York City. Injuries can occur when students balance in a sickled position on demi or full pointe, which pulls the tendons of the ankle out of alignment, and ankle sprains can occur if jumps are landed through a sickled position in demi or full pointe. Students should be told to avoid sickling in these weight-bearing situations.

Outside of ballet, sickling is sometimes intentional. In modern dance, for example, “dancers' feet are used as expressive tools," says Peter Sparling, professor of dance at the University of Michigan. Sparling, who was a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1973 to 1987, remembers, “In Graham's work, we were asked to sickle in works like Embattled Garden. There were moments when the choreography demanded a turned-in or relaxed foot, signaling vulnerability or a broken body. The foot became part of your characterization, part of one's stylistic integrity." (In modern technique classes, however, Sparling suggests correcting both sickling and winging, which creates a more versatile dancer.)

The Way of the Wing

As with sickling, winging one's foot becomes dangerous when the foot is supporting weight, Daugherty says, because it pulls the ankle joint out of alignment. Since a winged position is more likely to be seen as desirable than a sickled position, Daugherty treats many injuries that stem from long-term winging in weight-bearing positions. Dancers who force their heels forward when executing tendus en avant and à la seconde, instead of using their turnout, overstress the tendons on the inside of the foot and twist their knee joints over time.

But the winging question is a delicate one. Marisa Albee, a teacher at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School in Seattle, Washington, admits that she allows some students to alter their ankles' shape into a slightly more winged position—in non-weight-bearing instances—in order to fulfill the demanding ballet aesthetic. “There are times when a dancer needs to wing her foot slightly to enhance the line she's trying to achieve," she says, if the dancer has limited natural turnout.

Those teachers who approve of winging should explain how a winged foot fits into the classical line as a whole, to prevent winging from becoming an empty affectation. Denise Pons, professor of dance at The Boston Conservatory, recommends breaking down the whole process of the foot's extension through tendu, explaining each movement verbally rather than just showing it. For tendu en avant, for example, tell students to put weight onto the ball of the gesture foot, then to release and let the heel glide forward to initiate the brushing motion, keeping the whole foot on the floor as long as possible so that it seems to pass through a short fourth position before the heel lifts. Remind students to engage the turnout and strength of the whole leg as they execute these movements, Pons says, and a small wing will occur naturally.

Ultimately, sickling and winging are just two tools in a strong dancer's toolbox. Pons stresses that above all, a student needs to be aware at all times of how she is using her feet. “If she's not thinking when working through these positions," she says, “a dancer is setting herself up for knee or ankle injuries, for sure."

Strengthening to Avoid Injury

Daugherty recommends that dancers work on improving their overall ankle strength and stability, so that they can consciously control winging and sickling as required with a minimal risk of injury. To this end, she suggests that teachers have their students place a tennis ball between the feet in a parallel position, just below the inside ankle bone, and then slowly move through plié and relevé while keeping the ball in place. Maintaining the ball's placement will strengthen the calves and work on a dancer's proprioception and proper alignment of the foot and ankle.

If you have a student struggling to control her sickling tendencies in particular, Daugherty suggests having the seated dancer sit with her legs straight in front of her, with a TheraBand tied in a loop and placed around both feet. With ankles, feet and toes pointed, wing one foot out to the side and slowly return to neutral, then repeat with the other foot. This will strengthen the muscles along the outside of the foot, preventing involuntary sickling.


Bridging high school with college and beyond in Virginia

Many of Abigail Agresta-Stratton’s students go on to study dance in college.

When her teaching hours dropped roughly 38 percent between September 2011 and June 2012, Abigail Agresta-Stratton had an inkling. New York State school dance programs were being cut left and right, and dance teachers—only some of whom are covered by tenure—were losing jobs. Although Agresta-Stratton had built the West Islip High School’s program from the ground up in 2006, by spring of 2012 she was out of a job. Though she claims she had a “woe is me” moment, it couldn’t have lasted long. By fall, the former president of the New York State Dance Education Association was holding the reins of the dance division at Chesterfield Specialty Center for the Arts at Thomas Dale High School in Chester, Virginia.

As sole dance educator of the by-audition-only performing arts high school, Agresta-Stratton teaches five classes per week (68 students) and oversees the dancers’ concerts. “When we interviewed Abigail, we knew we had found a dance professional with experience, energy and vision,” says Pamela Barton of Specialty Center for the Arts. “We wanted someone to bring in new connections to benefit our students, and her

leadership in dance organizations gives her a wider vision of the professional world and

collegiate opportunities.”

In her first year at a new school—let alone in a state with different policies, administrators and colloquialisms—Agresta-Stratton’s tenacity has come in handy. “I’ve had to learn fast,” she says. “I don’t know the language yet—my New York sense of humor doesn’t fly all the time here.”

Still, she’s jumped right in: She’s on the board of the Capital Region Educators of Dance Organization—the National Dance Education Organization’s state affiliate for Maryland, DC and Virginia—and is working to increase membership and has started an online forum for members. She’s also piloting a new program in partnership with NDEO: Chesterfield Specialty Center for the Arts is the first high school to house NDEO’s dense dance education research database, DELRdi—something typically used by university programs.

Agresta-Stratton’s take-charge attitude has also resulted in a slew of guest artists, including Bob Boross and James Madison University’s Cynthia Thompson, and a trip to see the University of Richmond Dance Company perform. And though she has increased the amount of student-generated work and about half her graduates go on to dance in college, she’s aiming even higher. “I look at programs like LaGuardia and New World School of the Arts, and I want our program to be on par with them,” she says—plans for a national high school choreographic exchange are already percolating. “We can have that quality of education. I’m just trying to get through the first year.”

Photo by Cliff Cole, courtesy of Abigail Agresta-Stratton

How I teach pre-tap

Courtney Runft and American Tap Dance Foundation student Julia Freer (age 5) demonstrate a maxi ford.

Forty-five minutes of 3 1/2-year-olds in tap shoes may sound like a recipe for a throbbing headache, but Courtney Runft manages to keep the noise under control. That’s because for the first few months of her pre-tap class at the American Tap Dance Foundation, students wear sneakers. “We learn classroom etiquette,” she says. “For most of them, it’s the first time they’re in a classroom, and they don’t know how to take turns, stand patiently or follow directions.” The noise level rises when the taps are first introduced, but the students quickly learn to control their feet. “I’ll point to them and let them make all the noise they can, and then make the signal for freeze,” she says. “We play noise/no noise, and they get used to it.” Like most skills taught at this level, standing quietly becomes a game.

Runft also co-directs the Tap City Junior Ensemble and teaches adults at ATDF, but it’s the youngest levels that keep her on her toes. “It’s the hardest class to teach because you have to think quickly,” she says. “As soon as I lose one person’s attention, it’s time to move on and switch gears.” Runft, who helps shape the school’s curriculum, has roughly 11 tap activities in her arsenal for pre-tap—including a “scrambled eggs” counting and moving game, hopscotch and a stage-direction challenge—and she goes through more than half of them each class.

Many of the activities are tailored to individual students, depending on his or her coordination. For instance, when students take turns traveling a square’s perimeter, Runft may ask a few students to try more advanced steps, such as hopping on one foot versus jumping with two, or doing flap-heels instead of ball-heels. Although Runft says that girls tend to be half a year ahead of boys in terms of ability, all students show accelerated motor-skill development in the years to come. “By the end of the year they’re able to stand on one foot, hop and shift their weight, and they know dig-toes, ball-heels and shuffles,” she says. “In the next levels you can really tell which kids have had pre-tap and those who haven’t. There’s a huge difference in body awareness and balance.”

Here, Runft teaches a basic maxi ford, one of the first complex steps her students learn (typically ages 5–6) that combines elements from pre-tap class:

A conversation with the host of “So You Think You Can Dance"

“SYTYCD” host Cat Deeley in a Catherine Malandrino dress and Christian Louboutin shoes

"So You Think You Can Dance” host Cat Deeley sees the show’s every success and glitch. She has an exclusive view of the performers, judges and crew, and she is with the dancers from audition day to the moment the winners are crowned. From this position she has the power to set the tone of the show. Deeley’s warm personality is infectious. Though reality television often calls for dramatics, she gives lighthearted feedback after even particularly disappointing performances. “I’m a fan [of the dancers],” she says. “I’d rather make fun of myself or joke with them than at them. I couldn’t do anything like what they do.”

With Season 10 premiering this month, Dance Teacher caught up with the two-time Emmy-nominated host for a behind-the-scenes perspective on America’s favorite dance show.

Dance Teacher: What’s most challenging about hosting “So You Think”?

Cat Deeley: Because the show is live, the most difficult thing is keeping it on track and not getting lost in the moment. There are many elements and emotions run incredibly high. We have to be in the moment, but I also have to be able to extract myself to keep the show moving. I’m the ringmaster, juggling lots of different balls to make it entertaining and enjoyable for everyone watching at home.

DT: How much are the producers feeding you instructions?

CD: Actually, I do my own thing. I’ve got a clock I can see so I know where I can take my time or move on. Quite honestly, the producers can’t see everything I can see at the same time, so they let me get on with what I fancy, unless we’re going really over on time—usually because the judges are talking for too long. Then they’ll scream in my ear, “You’ve got to move them on; you’ve got to move them on!” which is much harder than it looks.

DT: Who taught you to deal with the pressure of a live show?

CD: Voice coach Peter Settelen, who helped me with public speaking, always said, “Be in the moment.” The biggest thing I learned was preparation. Prep, prep, prep, and go to every rehearsal. I think this can be said for any kind of performance. Do everything that you possibly can, so that when you’re live, you can throw away the preparation. I know what camera I’m speaking to, what spotlight to be in, where this dancer needs to be and how long we’ve got on the clock. So when the judges are commenting or the dancers are reacting, I can truly be in the moment.

DT: What have you learned about dance?

CD: When I was little, I’d see The Nutcracker at Christmas. It was beautiful and the dancers could do amazing things with their bodies, but it never really moved me. On the show, though, there are incredible moments when you get the right choreographer with the right dancer and the right hair, makeup, costumes, lighting—the right amalgamation of all those factors—I can’t describe it. I’ll get the chills and the hairs on my arms stand on end. I’ll go onstage after the piece and look out into the audience, and people are mesmerized. Dance can absolutely move you both physically and emotionally, and I didn’t realize that until this show.

DT: You’re known for being a fashion guru. How do you assemble your wardrobe?

CD: I don’t have a stylist, so it’s a real mixture of many things. I do have a few designer friends, so I’m lucky that I can ask to beg, borrow or steal. I also love vintage shopping. I visit vintage stores in all of the cities we go to and customize dresses I find to update them or change the hemline. But it’s very important to remember that style isn’t about having lots of money. You can take something from a store like Zara, Topshop or Forever 21 and put a fabulous belt on it, work a great pair of shoes and accessorize, and it becomes something unique and completely your own. That’s what fashion is all about. DT

Photo courtesy of FOX Broadcasting

A conversation with Matilda’s choreographer

Peter Darling doesn’t consider himself a whiz when it comes to working with children. “I suppose I just think of them as very small adults,” he says candidly. But the British choreographer is clearly doing something right. He took home the 2009 Tony Award for his work in the kid-centered musical Billy Elliot (nine years after he choreographed the Oscar-nominated film), as well as the 2012 Olivier Award for best theater choreography in the original West End production of Matilda The Musical.

This month, Darling brings Roald Dahl’s classic tale to life on Broadway, opening with a new children’s cast at the Shubert Theatre. Directed by Matthew Warchus, the story follows hyperintelligent Matilda, whose newly discovered special powers help her navigate a world full of terrifyingly nasty adults. Dance Teacher spoke to Darling about his choreographic process and tactics for getting the most out of young performers.

Dance Teacher: Were you familiar with Dahl’s work before you were asked to choreograph Matilda?

Peter Darling: I’ve always loved Roald Dahl, and I think it’s [Dahl’s work] very me in terms of how it’s abrasive, but also funny. And it’s about something real. There aren’t saccharine elements to it; it’s not pretend. Although his work—like James and the Giant Peach or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—often deals with heightened situations, the underlying themes are real.

DT: How did you go from book to dance? Where did your process begin?

PD: I looked at a lot of the images by Quentin Blake, who does Dahl’s illustrations. There’s sort of a spiky, stretched-out quality to all of the drawings. I also spent about a week at a primary school, trying to find a common denominator in all of the children. For me, it was their fidgeting. They never stop moving. Even in their attempt to be still, there’s always a scratch or a shift. That’s where the kids’ movement was derived.

DT: In rehearsals, do any of the more precocious kids ever make choreography suggestions?

PD: Not often. Because I’m interested in children doing quite complicated work, I don’t start with them as the models. But they are able to replicate the work in an extraordinary way.

Royal Shakespeare Company’s "Matilda The Musical" in London, 2012Instead, I’m much more inclined to develop material with adults. I work with tasks. For instance, I might ask two people to fight. And then I’ll break their fight down into a series of moves, take the bits I like and put those together or reverse roles. I take a realistic situation and abstract it. I very rarely say, “OK, let’s all do a great rond de jambe.”

DT: You’ve said that after auditioning thousands of children, you know very quickly who you want to cast. What do you look for?

PD: The ability to attack movement, and the ability to express themselves through movement. I want to see that their movement isn’t divorced from their brains.

When you’re teaching dance, give a narrative. It will help them understand why they’re doing whatever they’re doing. In life, we don’t move without motivation. So in a musical, why would anyone move without a reason or intention? My job is to see how they respond when I give them an intention.

DT: Any advice for curbing habits of overacting or mugging?

PD: I’ll often say, “I don’t believe you; I need to believe you.” It’s amazing when you call children on it. They know when they’re being fake. It’s about getting them to really apply the intention, as opposed to doing what they think is required. Children haven’t yet learned how to be duplicative. So you can strip it away fairly quickly, much more than you can with an adult. DT

Performance photo by Manuel Harlan, both courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown, INC.

Balanchine rehearsing Diana Adams and Jacques d'Amboise, circa 1963. Photo by Martha Swope ©NYPL for the Performing Arts.

With an expansive and athletic style, George Balanchine (1904–1983) helped shape American ballet. His frequent exaggeration of classical vocabulary birthed the neoclassical movement and sparked what we now know as contemporary ballet. With technically demanding choreography that highlighted the ballerina, Balanchine developed a sophisticated approach to ballet training.

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