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
In South Carolina, the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities thrives.
South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities dance students in concert
One might not expect to find a residential arts high school in South Carolina that’s backed 100 percent by the state government. While many states have been eliminating their governor’s school programs due to budget cuts, the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities is celebrating its 13th anniversary as a year-round program.
Since the school opened its doors in Greenville in 1999, the dance department has become known for exceptional classical training. Former students include New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns and American Ballet Theatre corps members Joseph Phillips and Gray Davis. Other former students have gone on to join Boston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and Miami City Ballet.
The school stands out not only because of the quality of the training, but also because the state of South Carolina makes this training available to students of all backgrounds. “Because we’re state-funded, we can take talented people who could not afford serious dance training otherwise,” says dance department chair and artistic director Stanislav Issaev. “Everyone here is on full scholarship. If people really want to dance, we can train them.”
Building a School
The umbrella term “governor’s school” refers to any residential program for gifted high-schoolers funded by the state. As of 2012, governors’ schools for the arts exist in New York, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, California, West Virginia, Delaware, Missouri, North Dakota, Vermont and South Carolina; many other states offer similar programs for academic enrichment, though the focus, intensity and duration vary. But with the economic downturn, many are losing funding—arts and academic alike. Currently, the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities is the only residential year-round governor’s school specializing in the arts.
Established in 1980, SCGSAH was originally a summer intensive housed at Furman University. In the mid-’90s, then-director Dr. Virginia Uldrick, a musician, teacher and arts activist, felt that her state could offer more to its student artists. She approached state lawmakers to discuss the expansion of the program into a residential high school.
“The state’s eventual answer was, ‘We’ll give you funding if you can raise half of the initial investment on your own,’” says Julie Allen, interim dean of SCGSAH. “So, the school was originally built as a public/private collaboration.” After Greenville was chosen to house the school, the county and city jointly donated 8.5 acres for the new campus. And in 1999, after years of research, meetings and unprecedented fundraising efforts on Uldrick’s part, a school was born.
Today, the dance program at SCGSAH is open to 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders, while students in the other disciplines—drama, creative writing, visual arts and music—can attend in 11th or 12th grades. The school’s maximum enrollment is 242 students, approximately 35 of whom are dancers, and all students live on campus. Although the school continues to raise money from private entities to provide scholarship support for food fees and summer programs, the yearly operating budget comes entirely from the South Carolina state legislature.
Crafting a Conservatory
Uldrick’s vision was to hire teachers who were masters in their fields. To lead the dance program, she selected Issaev, a Russian native who started his performing career with the Moscow State Ballet Theatre and moved to the United States to join Atlanta Ballet as a principal dancer in 1990. Issaev was on faculty at the University of South Carolina when Uldrick approached him about heading up the new program—an opportunity he jumped at.
To help build the program, Issaev turned to Robert Barnett, former director of Atlanta Ballet, for advice and mentorship. The program was modeled on Robert Lindgren’s University of North Carolina School of the Arts dance department. The ballet curriculum is Vaganova-based, though Issaev says that it’s “updated Vaganova—very modern, and faster than a traditional Russian ballet class.” Students are also exposed to George Balanchine’s style and works through guest teachers and choreographers like Barnett, who performed with New York City Ballet.
Students have academic classes in the morning and arts classes after lunch. During the week, it’s all about ballet: technique, pointe, pas de deux, men’s class, character class and rehearsals. Saturdays are devoted to modern—Horton technique and Cunningham—with classes and repertory 10:30–5. Dancers are divided into intermediate and advanced levels by ability, not grade.
SCGSAH’s residential high school is open to any high school student (through a rigorous audition and application process) who is a resident of South Carolina. Some students are invited to attend the high school after attending a five-week summer dance intensive, which is open to dancers from 7th to 12th grades and features the same curriculum, taught by the same faculty, as the year-round school, with the addition of guest artists.
“We’re looking for natural ability and talent—coordination, musicality, flexibility,” Issaev says. “Prior training is important, but so is effort and desire. If someone really wants to come to our school, you can see it.”
By nurturing dance talent while promoting academic study, SCGSAH aims to create well-rounded graduates who have an array of opportunities awaiting them. Says Allen, “We want them to be prepared for whatever the next step is: a dance company, a conservatory, a major university or a liberal arts college.”
Allen sees the school’s success as a credit not only to the faculty and administration, but also to the state. “South Carolina may not be known for the arts, or frankly for innovative education, but our legislators have chosen to give us the resources to do this,” she says. “Students who go on to be successful talk about their time here as being formative. That has to do with the arts, yes, but also about finding their place and voice in a community that allowed them to grow.” DT
Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn, NY.
Photo: Students from the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in performance, by Matthew Leckenbusch, courtesy of SCGSAH