What's Up for 2017: 7 Studio Owners Look at the Big Picture

The start of a new calendar year—smack dab in the middle of the studio year—often brings its own challenges, issues and focuses. We checked in with seven prominent studio-business leaders to see what's on their minds for the new year. Their responses run the gamut, from worries about how to avoid gender stereotypes in classroom language to a need to update studio policies.

Are we giving our students what they really need? Last year, after taking a few of her senior dancers to college dance auditions, Dale Lam noticed how they struggled with the modern portion of the audition. “They did fine in the ballet," she says, “but then when it came to the modern part, they felt like they were fish out of water."

Her approach Last fall, Lam hired a modern teacher for Horton and Graham techniques at her South Carolina–based studio, Columbia City Jazz Dance School & Company. Attendance was required for her pre-professional teen and senior students.

During a recent master class with Parsons Dance company members, she could see the difference in her dancers after only a few months. “We got a lot of feedback that I was doing the right thing," says Lam, who will continue the modern classes this spring. “I feel like I'm actually getting them more of what they're going to need—providing them the education they'll need after competitions."

What's the future of our studio? “We're quickly approaching our 30th anniversary, and that leaves the question of, 'What do the next 30 years bring?'" says Joseph Naftal, marketing director at his mother Mary's studio, Dance Connection, on Long Island, New York. “What direction does our company go in, and how do we want to grow the company in the best way possible?"

Their approach Naftal understands that looking forward begins with looking back. He plans to celebrate the 30th anniversary by honoring the studio's history and engaging its community. Festivities include reprising past dances; putting the opening number (also a reprise) to an audience vote; projecting clips from previous recitals and classes; and creating a montage of throwback photos submitted by current students and alumni to play during intermission. He hopes an alumni reception at the studio with food and wine will encourage past dancers to attend the recital.

How can I engage my customers further? “I want to establish a relationship beyond the transaction, or just dropping your kid off for dance," says Phyllis Balagna, owner of Steppin' Out—The Studio in Lee's Summit, Missouri.

Her approach Though she currently sends parents weekly updates, publishes a monthly newsletter and invites customers to holiday-themed events, Balagna plans to step up her studio's social-media exposure, hold more studio events that include both parents and kids and introduce incentives to spread the word about classes.

We want to stop the objectification of girls in dance. “It's hard to avoid, because our bodies are our tools and our canvas," says Cynthia King, who runs her eponymous studio in Brooklyn, New York, “but I'm still really horrified by the focus on prettiness and tricks and allure—things that keep girls stuck in very old stereotypes."

Her approach King and her staff have pledged to be careful about what language they use. Rather than calling their female students “adorable" or “cute," they say “beautiful job" or “good work." “We don't ever say, 'You look so pretty,'" says King. “We're going to talk about how they move."

Does our competition policy still make sense? Jill Athridge of Stage Door Studios in Sarasota, Florida, has had a competition team for nine years, so it's time to update her policies and sort out some issues she's been too busy to fix.

Her approach Throughout the 2017 competition season, Athridge will keep a notebook handy for a running list of things that go wrong—for example, if students were late for call times, missed important rehearsals or didn't make up classes in time for competitions. Then she'll update her team and employee handbooks accordingly, implementing appropriate changes—incentives and consequences—to ensure the team operates like a well-oiled machine in the future.

What to do about the demand for instant gratification? Suzanne Blake Gerety and her mother Kathy Blake have noticed a disturbing trend with parents new to dance at their Amherst, New Hampshire, studio—what Gerety calls the push-button mentality. “They think, 'If I can get Amazon to ship my package overnight, why can't I get my kid to take class just once a week and get them on pointe?'" she says.

Their approach It all comes to down to educating parents and sharing your studio policies. “It's communicating how it works at our studio, how you progress here and what the benefits of dance are," she says. Gerety likes to offer informational sessions on intensive- and competitive-track options, and info sessions at parent nights. She positions alumni well, too, to demonstrate what graduates of their studio look like. Gerety invites current dance majors/minors to help run recitals and assist and choreograph for summer intensives.

How can I make my studio more inclusive? When a number of parents approached her about teaching kids with special needs, owner Jennifer Turey took notice. “They'd ask, 'So-and-so's sister has autism—could she join a class?'" she says. “But I had no idea how to answer them—how to integrate those kids."

Her approach Turey heard about Tricia Gomez's Rhythm Works Integrative Dance, an adaptive dance certification program. She and one of her dance moms, a physical therapist, enrolled in similar programs last summer. Now, they co-teach a Saturday class at her Newtown, Connecticut, studio for two young boys with autism.

Turey invited one student's occupational therapists to observe the class, so they would know what he's working on with her. “They couldn't believe this little boy was dancing," she says. “It was nice to confirm what I was doing was working." Now that she's established the program, she hopes to expand it and attract more students. “It's great that I've started out slow, so I can get my feet wet," she says. “You just don't think you can do this, and then you see it happen, and it's really rewarding." DT

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Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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