Barbara Bashaw has always been a pioneer. Since kicking off her career in education by building a dance program from the ground up at an elementary school in Brooklyn, she's gone on to become an inspiring force in teacher training. Now, as director of the new doctoral program in dance education at Columbia University's renowned Teachers College and as executive director of the even newer Arnhold Institute for Dance Education Research, Policy & Leadership, she's in a position to effect change nationwide.
"The study of dance education is a young field," Bashaw says. "Music and visual arts are far ahead of us, in terms of the research that has been done, as well as the foothold they have in education. Anywhere education is being discussed, we want to put dance on the table—and that means developing researchers and championing research that will push public policy." In a climate where arts education feels both more endangered and more necessary than ever, Bashaw is ready to blaze a trail.
Alicia Graf Mack's journey to become director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division—the youngest person to hold the position, and the first woman of color—was anything but a straight line. Yes, she's danced with prestigious companies: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But Mack also has a BA in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis; she pursued both degrees during breaks in her performing career, taken to recover from injuries and autoimmune disease flare-ups.
As an undergrad, she briefly interned at JPMorgan Chase in marketing and philanthropic giving, and she later made arts administration central to her graduate work, assuming that she'd eventually take an administrative role with a dance organization.
When Steps on Broadway founder Carol Paumgarten called Joe Lanteri several times in a row in February 2018, his first guess was that she wanted to get him back on the faculty roster. "For decades, I taught jazz at 4:30 pm at Steps," he says, "but a couple years ago, I had to let go of that class to free up some time."
To Lanteri's surprise, Paumgarten told him she was ready to move away from her place at Steps' helm. He was on her list of possible successors. "When she brought it up, I laughed," he says. "My life was already so full. But it took about 10 seconds for me to know I had to seriously consider it. Steps on Broadway is such an important part of the footprint of New York. It had to continue—and it had to remain recognizably Steps."
If you want to become a go-to dance studio in your local area, the best way to grow your business may still be via good old-fashioned word of mouth—and these days, that happens not just through direct person-to-person interaction, but also over social media. Focusing your energy toward what you, specifically, have to offer clients can raise your profile. To start you down the right path, DT spoke to three studio owners about what works for them.
It could be argued that half the battle of owning a dance studio is getting people to follow the rules. To ensure your business will run like a well-oiled machine, it helps to have clear expectations in place for students and their families—and, most important, to make sure everyone knows them from day one. Of course, every school is unique, and behavior that may be acceptable to you might be out of the question for someone else. "There are so many studios out there," says Dana McGuire, a studio co-owner in North Kansas City, Missouri. "Know and stand by what you're about." Here, four seasoned studio directors discuss the issues they consider non-negotiable.
Katie Langan never intended to teach dance—much less run an entire college dance department. Now, with decades of experience under her belt, including more than 15 years as the dance chair at Marymount Manhattan College, Langan is a passionate advocate for higher education.
How did she get where she is? Following early training at North Carolina School of the Arts, American Ballet Theatre and School of American Ballet, and a performance career highlighted by stints with Ballett Zürich and Twyla Tharp Dance, Langan got her BA in art and design at MMC. While a student at the college, she was asked to teach a ballet class. Part-time soon became full-time—and the rest is history.
Running a dance school requires you to build relationships with your students and their families. But being friendly and accommodating isn't the same as being BFFs with everyone, and there's a difference between making yourself accessible and being on call 24/7. How can you set boundaries for yourself and your faculty? Your choices may depend on both your comfort level and the size and type of school you operate. Here, three veteran teachers share their rules for social media, texting and more.
A group of friends who decided to continue dancing after college now run a major professional touring production and more.
“I never anticipated dancing as my career,” says Amit Shah, the founder and creative director of AATMA Performing Arts, named after the Sanskrit word for soul. Shah was a pre-med major at Rutgers University when he realized he wasn’t ready to let go of his creative side just yet. “I felt I had more to offer the world than a medical degree,” he says.
And he wasn’t alone. He recruited friends who all shared his passion for dance, without being on a professional track. What began as a small troupe in 2010 has now become a large-scale organization. The Bollywood and Indian dance company is based in New Jersey, with outposts in New York City and Los Angeles. They offer dance classes for kids and adults and produce a major touring show, Mystic India.
Assistant creative director Kruti Shah (no relation to Amit) majored in evolutionary anthropology in college. “I’d danced since I was 6, but in college, dance was more of a hobby,” she says. When Amit reached out to her, she jumped at the chance, and as the organization grew, so did her role within it. “Now I run the school. I teach, I choreograph for the company and I run rehearsals,” she says. “AATMA helped me realize I could make a living with dance and be successful. It changed my whole life.”
Despite the organization’s focus on Bollywood and Indian dance forms, staff and company members have diverse training histories. Some performers and teachers, like Amit, come from a purely Indian dance background. Others, like Kruti, grew up studying ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary, hip hop and other styles. Classes offered reflect this diversity, incorporating Indian and Western styles into almost every session. “We want our students to get the best of both worlds,” Amit says.
Many of the students are Indian-Americans who enjoy Bollywood movies and music and want a cultural experience. They start out taking Bollywood and then become interested in learning other dance styles. The junior and senior troupes perform in a recital showcase each June, as well as in community performances, and they participate in Indian dance competitions such as Naya Andaz and Dance Pe Chance.
The professional company currently has 65 members who perform in local shows and have the opportunity to tour with Mystic India. Pay for local shows is by performance. Since nearly a third of the company members also hold down outside employment, cast and choreography can vary, depending on which dancers are available. Performers in Mystic India commit to a yearlong contract and travel frequently in the U.S. and abroad for as many as 200 shows a year.
AATMA recently launched Bollywood Beats Boot Camp, a one-hour cardio class that is available at select gyms in New Jersey, Manhattan and Los Angeles. And, with AATMA having had a company presence in Los Angeles for more than a year, plans are in the works to open a school on the West Coast.
“Seeing the progress the students make puts a smile on my face,” says Amit. “Plus, one of the biggest compliments I’ve received was having a parent say their child used to be ashamed to be an Indian-American, but through our program, they became more comfortable being themselves. It’s so rewarding to cultivate a new generation in the U.S. that isn’t afraid to share their Indian culture and music and art with other people.” DT
Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn, NY.
You’ve seen it on “So You Think You Can Dance,” but do you really know what Bollywood’s all about? “As a technique, Bollywood is a mix of many different genres,” says Kruti Shah, AATMA’s assistant creative director and the head of the organization’s student programs. “Bollywood is a melting pot of Indian classical forms, hip hop, jazz—and anything else you can think of!”
Because Bollywood has its roots in Indian classical dance, AATMA encourages students to study Indian classical technique. “It’s just like taking ballet is important if you’re doing contemporary and modern,” Kruti explains.
There are eight officially recognized forms of Indian classical dance, each from a different geographical region of the country: bharata natyam, kathak, kathakali, kuchipudi, manipuri, mohiniyattam, sattriya and odissi. “Each style has different hallmarks, including specific hand positions, footwork, even facial expressions,” Kruti says. “All of that is incorporated into Bollywood choreography.” —KH
Photos courtesy of AATMA Performing Arts