Sep. 05, 2018 09:47AM EST
The term "body shaming" might bring up memories of that instructor from your own training who made critical remarks about—or even poked and prodded—dancers' bodies.
Thankfully, we're (mostly) past the days when authority figures felt free to openly mock a dancer's appearance. But body shaming remains a toxic presence in the studio, says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, psychologist for Atlanta Ballet: "It's just more hidden and more subtle." Here's how to make sure your teaching isn't part of the problem.
Watch What You Say...
The cardinal rule of a body-positive teaching style: Correct your students' dancing, not their bodies. Say you're about to ask a dancer to take up more space, possibly because that dancer's legs are on the shorter side. "Just tell them, 'I see you're holding yourself back and I think you could travel more,' or 'I love how fast you can move, but you need to work on making that movement expansive,'" suggests Kathryn Morgan, former soloist with New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet. "The only time I'll bring somebody's body into it is in a positive way, like, 'Your arms are so long and beautiful. Let's use them more.'" In Morgan's experience, there's always a way to reframe a correction so dancers don't conclude that any given body part is a problem that needs fixing.
Jenifer Ringer, former New York City Ballet principal dancer and current dean of dance at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, is careful not to set damagingly narrow expectations when using imagery. To get a young dancer to engage their core, she asks not for a "flat tummy," but for them to bring "belly button to spine." Morgan adds that there's a world of difference between "Why is your butt out?" and "Lift the front of your hips."
Ringer also regularly encourages students to feel and express gratitude for their chance to dance. "I remind them just how miraculous their bodies are," she says. "I want them to marvel at what they're asking their bodies to do." (This is far from just a feel-good ritual, by the way: Gratitude has been scientifically proven to improve poor body image.)
Jenifer Ringer. Photo by Paige Ray, courtesy Colburn School
...And What You Don't Say
If paired with a misplaced frown or a terse tone of voice, even a neutral comment from you can trigger a shame spiral in a self-conscious teenage dancer. Of course, teachers can't always leave their own problems outside the studio. Still, be mindful that negative nonverbal cues might be misread as disgust with a dancer's physicality. For students who are mature enough, a little self-awareness and transparency from you can go a long way. Dr. Christina Donaldson, a licensed clinical psychologist who co-founded the Soul Meets Body self-esteem workshop for dancers, says, "When I work with teens, if I have a bad day I'll tell them, 'I've just had a tender day. So if I come across in any way that seems odd, please don't take it personally.'"
Speaking of self-awareness, even the best-intentioned dance educators have internal biases against certain body types. Be honest: Do you devote more time and energy to students whose physical characteristics remind you of your own? Do you agree that "every body is a ballet body," yet tend to give harsher (or fewer) corrections to dancers who don't fit the traditional mold? "Treating dancers who look a certain way differently is a subtle cue that only certain bodies have potential," says Kaslow. Distribute your gifts as a teacher fairly.
Approach With Caution
All that said, there are times when a dance teacher feels the obligation to talk to a student about what's going on with their body. The most obvious instance is sudden weight gain or loss, which usually (but not always) means there's a new emotional or physical issue in the student's life. Because "most children don't have control over what is bought and put in front of them to eat," Donaldson suggests talking to the caregiver if you're concerned about a student aged 18 or younger.
If the student is older, Morgan suggests leaving out the question of weight unless the dancer brings it up on their own. "I would ask, 'Are you okay? I've noticed you seem a bit tense/unhappy/unfocused/anxious.' Start by making sure, in a way that has nothing to do with their body, that they're okay mentally." This strategy becomes especially key if a dancer is intentionally limiting food intake, because giving attention to the visible changes in their body could actually motivate them to double down on restricting. If the student brings up any body concerns of their own accord, you can then "address it from a health and life standpoint," Morgan advises. "Make sure they know you care about them as a human being, not just as a dancer."
Kathryn Morgan. Photo by Travis Kelley, courtesy Morgan
Body-Positive Studio Policies
A major cause and result of body shame is the drive to compare one's appearance to others'. A thoughtful dress code is one way to reduce this urge to compare and despair. Morgan remembers what a relief it was to put on black tights for partnering class at the School of American Ballet—"which we especially appreciated during the run-up to our periods"—and to wear a skirt during after-lunch classes. When Ringer was formulating Colburn's dress code, she decided that tweens and up would wear dark shades, not pastels. "They're also allowed to wear any leotard they feel comfortable in, as long as it's in the color scheme," she says. Building some flexibility into your dress code can help students feel their best in the studio.
Keep in mind that members of your studio population who already feel different or marginalized—dancers of color, male dancers and trans or nonbinary dancers, to name a few—are at increased risk of body dysmorphia. Body image isn't just a female problem, says Donaldson: "Dancers who are born or identify as male experience eating disorders too. It's just that they fixate on calves and pecs, not waists and thighs." Consider whether your changing rooms, guidelines on hairstyles and tights colors, and other studio rules are as accommodating and affirming as they can be for each and every dancer.
Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.
While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.
His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.
But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.
"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."
Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.
"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."
After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.
A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.
"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."
Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.
In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.
Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.
"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone
Zoom classes have created a host of challenges to overcome, but this new way of learning has also had some surprising perks. Students and educators are becoming more adaptable. Creativity is blossoming even amid space constraints. Dancers have been able to broaden their horizons without ever leaving home.
In short, in a year filled with setbacks, there is still a lot to celebrate. Dance Teacher spoke to four teachers about the virtual victories they've seen thus far and how they hope to keep the momentum going back in the classroom.
1. Respecting the Basics
Like many ballet instructors, Kate Crews Linsley, academy principal at the School of Nashville Ballet, designed her remote classes to home in on foundational elements like stance, alignment and connection of the eyes to the port de bras. Now that her dancers have returned to the studio, they're reaping the benefits of spending so much time focused on these details.
Linsley says there's also been a mindset shift: an increased willingness to pause and figure something out before moving forward. "On Zoom, because we couldn't do all of center, we could take our time at barre," she says. "The kids saw that it's great to ask questions—to make sure that they really understand the principles of each movement. Everything in ballet builds into something else. Going back to basics is not going backwards."
2. Fostering Creativity
"Since the start of the pandemic, my class content has been driven toward imagination," says Dana Wilson, who teaches jazz for New York City Dance Alliance, among other organizations. For example, she might ask students to picture themselves dancing on a beach. "We're all tired of our living rooms," she jokes—but the exercise is about more than an escape from reality. "Taking ownership of the element of imagination helps you develop a creative identity and makes you intrinsically more interesting to watch," Wilson says. "I want imagination to be a baseline, no matter the style." When dancing at home instead of in a room full of peers, students can feel safer experimenting. Then, the next time they're asked to call on their creativity in person, they'll be ready to shine.
3. No Hiding in the Back
For choreographer Al Blackstone, who teaches theater dance at Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway in addition to working with young students at Downtown Dance Factory in Tribeca, one benefit of Zoom is that it puts every dancer on equal display. "Kids that tended to hide in the back of the room suddenly weren't able to do that," he says. From the start of virtual classes, Blackstone made it a point to frequently call out names and give specific feedback, so everyone felt seen. As the months passed, "I saw progress in leaps and bounds," he says. His DDF students have returned to the studio, and while he admits they aren't all rushing to the front row, "they are making bolder choices," he says. "They're more willing to stand out. Dancers who were meeker are more confident, and that's a blessing."
4. Committing to Conditioning
As Linsley and her staff were tweaking their curriculum for Zoom last spring, they built in extra cross-training: yoga, Pilates, floor barre, even high-intensity interval training for stamina. "We wanted to make sure that their fitness was still there when we came back to the studio," Linsley says, "but we didn't want kids to do it on their own." Thanks to this strategy, teachers were able to smoothly guide students back into the rigors of in-person classes, despite the new roadblock of dancing in a mask. Stretch and conditioning offerings will be a permanent part of the School of Nashville Ballet academy's syllabus going forward.
5. Dancing On Camera
Dance films have become a mainstay during the shutdown months, but even in normal times, dancers can benefit from camera training. That's why Wilson has been using her Zoom sessions to teach film terminology and to get dancers comfortable with performing for a camera rather than an audience. "I'll say 'camera right' instead of 'stage left,'" she explains. "I'll ask them to have only their head and shoulders in the frame by this eight-count. You have to think from the device's perspective instead of your own, which takes some rewiring." The Zoom grid allows dancers to see whether they're hitting their marks correctly in real time. For students who hope to go pro, especially in the commercial realm, this aspect of virtual class is a major bright side—and proves there's a market for dedicated dance-for-camera classes in the future.
6. Increasing Access and Opportunity
When anyone can log on from anywhere, training with big-name teachers is much more accessible. But that's just the tip of the digital iceberg. At Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, Utah, students came back in person before many of their coaches were able to travel. So, the school has hosted virtual master classes as well as virtual private coaching on site. "We have a big movie screen," says Kim DelGrosso, Center Stage's artistic director. "It's almost like the teacher is in the room."
At the School of Nashville Ballet, students have been able to Zoom-chat with luminaries like Kathryn Morgan and Marianela Nuñez, and Linsley hopes to schedule more virtual conversations with pros. "To have someone at a top level sit down and share their story—that's a connection we shouldn't let go of," Linsley says. "It's one thing to watch someone dance, but to get to ask them questions and hear their struggles is precious."
7. Encouraging Discipline and Drive
Without hands-on instruction, "dancers have to take ownership of their own training," says DelGrosso. "They have to self-correct. It's their responsibility not to cheat the movement." That sense of discipline will serve them well—if they can hold on to it. Luckily, Linsley points out, the dancers who stuck with remote learning despite it being less than ideal tended to be extremely driven. "So many of our students said, 'I don't care where it is or what's happening, I'll show up. I want to perfect this tendu because it's important to me,'" she says.
Blackstone feels that pushing through Zoom's technical difficulties may have also helped dancers come to appreciate their art form even more. "Anyone who's still taking class at home by themselves has to ask 'Do I really want to do this?'" he says. "The people who've kept at it have found a renewed sense of purpose. They do it because they truly love it."