Dance Teacher Tips

Best-selling author Greg Anderson once famously said, “Focus on the journey, not the destination." In an ideal world, dancers would always apply this mantra in the competition setting, putting less focus on the outcome and more on the experience.

Yet in such a high-stress environment, dancers often base their self-worth on whether they nab a coveted trophy or ribbon. How can dance teachers better prepare their students for possible disappointment? DT posed the question to several seasoned educators, who weighed in with their experiences and insights.

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Studio Owners
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It's summertime and the living is easy—or is it? Studio owners and dance teachers have long lamented the summer months as a traditionally slow season. With many students leaving town on vacation or for outside training, studios are often faced with less than sunny prospects for revenue and clientele. However, the forecast for your studio need not be bleak: With strategic attention to planning, programming and pricing, summer can offer a great opportunity to grow your business and diversify your offerings.

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Tayeh leads her contemporary jazz class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in L.A. Photos by Rose Eichenbaum

One look at Sonya Tayeh and any casual observer would know that this choreographer is far from ordinary. Not only do her jet-black Mohawk and punk-inspired style make an indelible statement, but she's also instantly recognizable as a staple on “So You Think You Can Dance." Having designed memorable pieces like Season 4's “The Garden" and Season 7's “Hallelujah," Tayeh has swiftly become a fan favorite. “People stop me everywhere I go—from the airport to 7-Eleven," she says, “because they love the show."

It's not hard to see why she attracts so much attention. Her essence is pure Detroit-edge-meets-arty-San-Francisco. But more than Tayeh's personal flair, it's her style of movement—along with a compelling empathy for dancers and selfless passion—that puts her in demand everywhere from the convention floor to off-Broadway to the “SYTYCD" stage.

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Photo by John Burcham

Miss Kim leads class at Kelli Wilkins' Club Dance studio in Phoenix."Whether I'm in a room of 40 or 400 kids, I'm going to find a way to make a difference in some way, shape, or form," says Kim McSwain about the inspirational, upbeat teaching style that's become her calling card with students and teachers alike. "Anyone who knows me knows how strongly I feel about changing kids' lives."

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Clockwise from top left: Manon Chaney, Lesley Vaughn, Sarah Sporich, Aloysia Gavre and Nicole Reineman. Photo by Joe Toreno

Funky jazz music fills the space as a trio of advanced contortionists twist in unison. Across the room, burgeoning trapeze artists are building core strength atop Pilates balls. And in another corner, a group of beginners attempts to master the proper foothold for shimmying up the smooth aerial silks.

It's a typical lively night at Cirque School, a circus-arts training studio set in an open warehouse-style space in Hollywood. The school attracts all types of enthusiasts—from amateurs looking for a unique fitness challenge to pre-professional Cirque du Soleil hopefuls. Celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz have trained at Cirque School, as well as cast members of productions like NBC's "The Cape" and CBS' "The Defenders."

And at the heart of it all is proverbial ringmaster Aloysia Gavre, who founded the school in 2009 on the heels of an illustrious career with Cirque du Soleil. Though she specializes in aerial hoop, Gavre is well-versed in all circus disciplines. Now she's spreading the love, one student at a time.

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Tremaine Dance Conventions celebrates 35 years.

Faculty member Marty Dew leading Tremaine Performance Company Dancers

Whatever Joe Tremaine does, he does it big. And the 35th anniversary of his Tremaine Dance Conventions (TDC) follows suit—a documentary, a book and a gala are all set to fete one of dance’s favorite figures.

Laissez les bons temps rouler—let the good times roll!” exclaims Tremaine from his office in Los Angeles. “I’m from the cotton fields of New Orleans, where we love a good party. It’s time to celebrate…and dance.”

The 2015–16 convention tour culminates in a massive gala dinner during the Orlando stop this month. Many of Tremaine’s former faculty members, protégés and “scholarship kids” from the last 35 years will gather to pay tribute, and for the first time, all former award honorees will also be invited (from Debbie Allen to Kenny Ortega to Paula Abdul).

Summer marks the release of the book Tremaine is co-authoring with tap dancer Laurie Johnson. It’s a primer on seizing the various opportunities in the dance world—both onstage and off. “The message is that regardless of how you dance, how you look or who you are, there is a place in the dance industry for you,” says Johnson, who has been teaching for TDC since 1998.

Also in the works is Behind the Curtain, a feature-length documentary that includes footage of Tremaine in 2015 and 2016—from the conventions’ national finals to his acceptance of the Gene Kelly Legacy Award from the Dizzy Feet Foundation.

Joe Tremaine (left) with faculty member Colby Shinn

A noted dancer, choreographer and educator, Tremaine founded the convention in 1981 with Julie Adler. At the time, he had taught for Dance Masters of America and Dance Educators of America, so he knew exactly how to differentiate his event. He was the first to employ a faculty of professionals actively working in the industry. Says Tremaine: “I wanted to bring real working dancers to the hinterlands across Middle America.”

To date, close to 2 million dancers have come through TDC, and the faculty roster has included notables like creative director Barry Lather, “So You Think You Can Dance” runner-up Tiffany Maher, Tony Award nominee Lisa Mordente and dancewear designer Marcea Lane.

Johnson says Tremaine’s longevity is due to a mixture of old-school values and modern finesse. Adds Tremaine, “We don’t teach kids to dance all in one weekend, but we inspire them to go work harder in their studios. People ask me what these weekends are like, and I say, ‘You just have to come and feel the energy.’” DT

For more: tremainedance.com

L.A.-based Jen Jones Donatelli is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.

Photos by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging, courtesy of Green Galactic

Don’t miss a single issue of Dance Teacher.

Kelly Dailey is breaking beats—and boundaries—with a new studio business model in Dayton, Ohio.

Clean music, appropriate moves. Dailey (wearing hat, above) keeps hip hop modest at Funk Lab.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hip-hop classes have long been a viable means of attracting boys to dance studios, but what happens when the entire studio is devoted to hip hop? Forty percent male enrollment may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s a fact for Kelly Dailey’s Dayton, Ohio–based Funk Lab—and her numbers are going up. Funk Lab is one of a handful of pioneering studios around the country that specialize in hip hop. And with the successful wave of hip hop–centric competitions such as Monsters of Hip Hop, VIBE Dance Competition and World of Dance, more studios seem destined to follow.

“I would say it’s not a growing trend—it’s a growing culture,” says Shaun Evaristo, who founded the touring urban dance convention, Movement Lifestyle, in 2009. “The form of hip hop has been around for a long time, but it’s starting to flourish and grow more than ever before. People want it, so there are more companies looking to fill that demand.”

Dailey can certainly attest to the demand. Since she first opened Funk Lab in 2011, enrollment has more than tripled, growing from 80 to 260 students. Though jazz funk and contemporary are offered, the focus is almost exclusively on hip hop. Styles like breaking, popping, locking and krump are the name of the game, and the syllabus includes viral street moves like the “Nae Nae” and education on hip-hop history. “Right now, hip-hop studios are few and far between, but there are enough styles of hip hop where you can operate a hip hop–only studio and succeed,” says Dailey.

She opened the studio because she herself had experienced limited resources as a street dancer growing up in Dayton. She moved to Chicago after college to train at Lou Conte Dance Studio, then returned to Dayton to teach at Howard School of Dance, where she created an advanced hip-hop program. “The program at Howard became very successful, and Funk Lab grew out of that,” she says. “I told the owner shortly after my last recital that I wanted to open my own space and just do hip hop, and that I didn’t consider myself a competitor.” The two reached an understanding that Dailey was free to solicit students from her competitive program at Howard as long as she did not reach out to the recreational hip-hop students.

Starting from scratch, Dailey worked closely with her husband (and studio co-owner) Andrew to develop a science-centric branding theme. “My husband suggested we call it a lab, since that’s where you make and invent things,” she says. That concept is incorporated throughout the studio—from the wall graffiti art (mad scientists stirring up musical notes) to the competitive crew names (like Electronz and Lab Werk). “I try to make sure the marketing is gender-neutral and that the studio space is inviting for everyone,” she adds.

Performance opportunities are a big part of the draw. Funk Lab competitive crews attend Monsters of Hip Hop, Star Systems and Legacy Dance Championships. The annual May recital has featured themes ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Super Mario Brothers. The studio also stages flash mobs for everything from a marriage proposal to arts festivals in Dayton.

One of the most popular classes is Advanced Urban Choreography, taught by crew co-director Toni Denee. “We learn music video–style choreography, clean and perfect it, and then record a video at the end of every month; the kids seem to really enjoy that structure,” says Denee, adding that one of her favorite routines was a Super Bowl–themed homage to Missy Elliott (for which all of the dancers wore football jerseys). Many of the videos are posted to the studio’s YouTube channel, “FunkLabDCAC.”

A mad scientist motif plays out in studio graffiti art.

Like all studio owners, Dailey faces certain challenges—for instance, there is what she calls “revolving door syndrome.” “People come in expecting to look like tWitch [from ‘So You Think You Can Dance’] in one class, and then they realize that it takes a lot of work,” she says. To reduce turnover, she implemented a costume fee for the spring recital that’s paid in the fall; that strategy has helped to lower turnover from 40 to 8 percent. “People stick around since they’ve invested,” she says.

Part of Dailey’s charge is to change certain perceptions about hip hop. “I’m constantly defending myself that we play clean music and that our moves are appropriate,” she says. “We’re a more modest studio—we don’t wear anything that shows midriffs—but it’s sometimes hard for people to get past that initial stereotype.”

Both passionate and protective over the unique environment at Funk Lab, Dailey says, “I feel like we’re inventing something here.” For that reason, she tends to hire former students or trusted colleagues she’s known for years. That’s how Denee came onboard as co-director: The two met nine years ago when they were both members of a street dance group. “In terms of the syllabus, I want my teachers doing what I created rather than what they learned from someone else,” Dailey says. “It keeps us true to the Funk Lab form.” DT

Jen Jones Donatelli is a Los Angeles–based freelance journalist who regularly contributes to Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit and Dance Magazine.

Photos by Bill Franz, courtesy of Funk Lab

You’ve invited a celebrity choreographer to your studio to create a number for your senior dancers. Now what?

Choreographer Lauren Adams has strong ties to Spotlight Dance Works. She began her training there with Liz Schmidt’s mentor.

Megan Lawson is on a mission: finish choreographing the senior piece for Dance Impressions studio in just three days. Typically, she likes to take four days for such a project, but this piece spotlights star senior Mattie Love—alongside 15 other dancers—and Love needs to head out on tour with New York City Dance Alliance within 72 hours. There’s also much at stake: The Utah-based studio travels to NYCDA Nationals as a team only once every four years, and a lot is riding on this piece.

Though Lawson is admittedly stressed out by the time crunch, you wouldn’t know it. The dynamic, quirky guest choreographer, known for her two-time stint on MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew” with her crew Fanny Pak, is more than up for the challenge. The work begins right after school on a wintry December day, goes late, resumes at 3 pm the next day and doesn’t stop until 9:30 pm. Clad in a bold flowered onesie and armed with Starbucks, Lawson provides high energy that’s contagious—and much needed considering the task at hand.

“When Megan comes, the kids tap into their colorful side; there’s a great energy, and she really brings out their personalities,” says studio director Kandee Allen.

The process of selecting the other 15 dancers has been relatively simple; this isn’t Lawson’s first visit to Dance Impressions. (Allen and Lawson originally met through a referral from Allen’s sister, who owns The Dance Zone in Las Vegas.) “Generally, most choreographers can figure out who they want really quickly; Megan usually uses a short improv session or four counts of eight,” says Allen. “She can nail what kids have to offer really well.”

Though the to-do list is long, Lawson’s guest residency isn’t all work and no play—amid the master classes and choreography, Allen makes time to take Lawson on a drive into the mountains of Park City, UT, and to get her favorite mango pistachio wild rice pudding at a local deli. And, of course, Lawson can’t leave without signing the signature wall that displays the John Hancocks of all of the prominent choreographers who’ve visited the studio—from Joey Dowling to Travis Wall to Cedar Lake dancer Matthew Rich.

The piece, set to Sade’s “Morning Bird,” debuts just a few months later at NUVO, and it goes on to win “Critics’ Choice” at NYCDA Nationals. “It was really magical and simple,” says Allen. “It was all about flying free—with one bird setting the others free.”

As Dance Impressions’ experience with Lawson demonstrates, bringing in a guest choreographer can be a rewarding growth experience. “Outside choreographers see the kids differently than their regular teachers, so they challenge them in new ways and give them something fresh,” says Allen, who brings in as many as six guest artists every year. 

At Chesterfield, Michigan–based Spotlight Dance Works, owner Liz Schmidt has developed ongoing relationships with choreographers such as Lauren Adams (who has visited for the last 15 years), Sonya Tayeh and Brooke Pierotti—and continues to bring in new talent every year as well.

“It gives our students the chance to have a special piece choreographed by someone who is a hero to them,” says Schmidt. “By getting to know them and their work on a more personal level, it makes the kids feel more confident at conventions; plus, it’s a huge growth experience because they’re working on choreography that’s out of their comfort zones.”

But as Allen and Schmidt will tell you, it takes planning and commitment to pull off a successful collaboration. Here’s how they do it.

 

Planning ahead. Doing ample legwork ahead of time will ensure a smooth experience for both company director and choreographer. Step one typically involves nailing down the logistics—cost, length of stay, what the visit will entail and accommodations/travel. It’s important to provide ample lead time; Allen says she has booked choreographers with anywhere from three days’ to six months’ notice.

Pre-communication is key. For instance, choreographer Lauren Adams says that there have been numerous times where she’s arrived at a studio and realized that the planned schedule won’t work for her needs. “Make sure that the choreographer gets full breaks, and be sure to consult him or her before finalizing the schedule,” she says.

Yet, even with the best planning, be prepared to handle last-minute requests. It comes with the territory, says Allen, who recalls instances where she had to find a pinball machine on wheels for Joey Dowling and a portable grand piano for Travis Wall. “Most choreographers are so busy with shows and jobs that they end up planning last minute,” she says. “We try to get a checklist ahead of time, but that doesn’t always happen.”

 

Length of stay. At Spotlight Dance Works, Schmidt invites choreographers to stay for a long weekend, starting with master classes on Friday (90 minutes for each of the three age groups: junior, teen and senior), followed by morning classes on Saturday and two days of choreography with the seniors. “Most choreographers feel comfortable with two days—it gives them a good headstart the first day, and then they can come back with fresh eyes and finish up,” she says.

 

Megan Lawson’s Morningbird won National Senior Critics’ Choice at New York City Dance Alliance in 2012.

Dancer/artist introductions. 

Holding master classes can play an important role in maximizing the choreographer’s contributions, says Allen. “Some choreographers know exactly what they want to do and set it beforehand, but others want to take a few days and create in the moment,” she says, adding that visiting artists spend anywhere from one day to one week at the studio. “Starting with a master class allows the choreographer to get to know the kids and see how they move, and that directs the piece and who they want to use.”

It’s helpful to prime your dancers ahead of time to make the most of the opportunity. “One thing I always coach kids on is to do their research ahead of time on who’s coming in,” says Adams, urging that they consult YouTube or the choreographer’s website to get a feel for what to expect. She also advises company directors to instruct dancers to treat the experience like an audition: “Choreographers are always looking to build relationships for future collaborations and jobs.”

 

Time and expenses. Some choreographers charge per dancer, while others will charge a flat fee per small or large group (around $1,200–$1,600, in Schmidt’s experience). According to Allen, typical “per dancer” quotes fall between $80 and $200 (with the average around $125/dancer), and that’s before any expenses such as hotel, flights and food are figured in. “We often try to coordinate visits for when they’ll already be in town for convention, which helps to drive down the cost,” says Allen.

When Schmidt enlists choreographers like Nick Lazzarini and Travis Wall to visit Spotlight Dance Works, she uses the master classes to help offset costs. “We always open up the master classes to people outside the studio with a base price of $25/class,” says Schmidt, who splits the choreography fee evenly among the dancers who are selected for pieces.

 

Housing. Logistics must be agreed on and arranged ahead of time. Both Schmidt and Allen take care of making all arrangements for visiting choreographers. Lawson and other choreographers visiting Dance Impressions usually stay at the nearby Country Inn & Suites, while Schmidt offers her spare room to choreographers who come on a recurrent basis. “I’ve become friendly with choreographers like Lauren, Sonya and Brooke, so they’ll usually just stay with me,” she says, adding that she still always provides the option of staying at a hotel.

 

Holding auditions. Once a guest artist has arrived safely on site, he or she is often ready to dive right in and start creating. Adams visits approximately 20 studios every year, and she prefers to select students for pieces via audition. “At the majority of places I visit, I’ll do a master class that serves as the audition,” she says. “It gives the dancers a chance to get used to my style and how demanding I am, so that it’s not a shock.”

Schmidt adds that holding auditions can help choreographers better pinpoint who’s up for the challenge. “Of course, there are those same six kids whom every choreographer will pick because they are the strongest and most exceptional,” she says. “It does get competitive, but usually the ones who aren’t picked aren’t ready yet or can’t pick up style as quickly. If they’re not ready, I would rather they not be in the piece.”

 

Social activities. Creating a welcoming, comfortable environment is integral to a smooth visit. Over the years, Schmidt has found that each guest has different needs and wants. “Some choreographers want to hang out and go to dinner; others just want to relax alone at the hotel,” she says. “Some want to start choreography bright and early; others want to sleep in. We try to feel out their idea of the perfect weekend and make that happen for them.”

Allen suggests going out of your way to make it a memorable experience for the choreographer. “If they’re up for it, we can do some fun things like hiking or snowboarding,” she says. Schmidt also goes the extra mile, offering personal touches such as asking the choreographer’s preferred airline/hotel chain and dietary needs.

 

Lauren Adams choreographed I Love You for Spotlight Dance Works.

Rehearsing. The work continues long after the choreographer leaves the studio and the director and dancers are left to continue perfecting the piece(s). One of the challenges can be keeping the integrity of the piece intact, as well as refraining from “over-cleaning” to where the original piece is no longer recognizable.

“A lot can get lost in translation to the point where it loses the desired dynamic and performance quality,” says Adams, who asks studios to send her videos for review throughout the season. “If it gets too rehearsed, it doesn’t look fresh—I want it to stay vibrant.”

Though a “stickler for things being clean,” Schmidt avoids this tendency by observing while the choreographer is teaching and taking detailed notes and videos. “I’ll also ask the choreographer, ‘Who is my go-to person if there are differences? Who’s picking it up the best?’ They’ll give me a few people to look for,” she says.

Keeping an open line of communication is beneficial on both ends of the spectrum, says Adams. She likes to be in the loop on everything from hair to makeup to costuming to how well the piece is progressing. “Once I set a piece, I’m always happy to continue to give feedback,” she says. “I welcome the request and I want to do so—after all, it’s the studio’s name on the piece, but it’s also mine.” DT

Jen Jones Donatelli is a Los Angeles–based freelance journalist who regularly contributes to Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit and Dance Magazine.

Questions to Ask

  • What does the choreographer charge, and how does she determine those rates?

  • What are her upcoming dates of availability?

  • How much time will she need for choreography, and is she willing to conduct master classes while on site?

  • How does she plan to select dancers, and how many pieces is she willing to create during the residency?

  • What’s her ideal schedule, including total hours per day, and how many breaks are needed?

  • Are there any props or other considerations that can be organized ahead of time?

  • How much support is the choreographer willing to give after the visit in terms of feedback? —JJD

Photos (from top) by Natalia Harvey Sanchez, courtesy of Lauren Adams; ProPix, courtesy of Dance Impressions; courtesy of VIP Dance Competition

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