Teaching Tips

Your Studio Culture—Hiring New Teachers

JP Tenuta with Monika Knickrehm in a Level 6 class at The Academy of Movement and Music. Photo by Mike Dutka, courtesy of The AMM

The culture of your dance studio should be a major consideration when it comes to hiring new instructors. After all, teaching experience isn't the only thing that matters! You'll also want to make sure an interviewee fits with your overall philosophy when it comes to interacting with students (and parents!) and teaching dance. Here are some great tips that can help you find the right match.

Define your studio culture—It pays to spend a little time nailing down your studio culture specifically, if you haven't already. Each place has its own focus and atmosphere. Being able to articulate your unique mission helps when it comes to hiring. Natalie Molter is the owner at Noble Dance, a ballet-focused studio in Kalispell, Montana, and she has spelled out her vision for how things should run very simply and clearly. "Our culture is hard work and sweat will pay off, so stick with it no matter what you are doing! Life lessons," she says, adding, "There is little drama or politics within our space."

From a casual, recreational, community-based feel to pre-professional track programs, it's smart to know exactly what you are trying to cultivate so that you can hire people who mesh with your ideas and ideals. Take a little time to write it all out so you have a solid grasp of what you're looking for in a teacher's philosophy when you interview them.

Develop interview questions—based on whatever you decide your studio atmosphere should be, formulate a set of questions that will help you target your culture, and see if the teacher you are interviewing is a good fit. Molter tests the waters by asking questions that help her see if a potential teacher has done their homework on the studio, and has an understanding of what sets them apart. For example, she asked the last instructor she hired, "Why do you want to work here and not at the other studios in the area?" Other questions that may be useful include asking the person about why they want to teach dance, or how they view your studio.

Listen/observe carefully—this includes watching for behavior that matches your philosophy—as well as keeping an ear out for warning signs that it might not be a great match. "I like to watch how the prospective teachers engage with families in our crowded waiting room," says Molter. As she watches from afar, she can observe how the person interacts and see if it matches her belief that instructors should serve as a role model for students. "You can tell a good bit about a person as they engage with our group," she explains.

Consider hiring from within—Stephanie Clemens is the founder, studio owner and director of The Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park, Illinois, and she has had success with hiring teachers who have previous training at her school. "My 'good fits' have been with the Academy for years/decades," she says. This makes for an easy relationship, since those who have attended the school are already steeped in her studio's culture and instinctively understand the overall training/teaching philosophy.

Training your own instructors allows you to supervise and direct the process, as well as help new teachers develop. Clemens explains, "We have a program of teacher training, using advanced students as demonstrators and assistants." She adds, "Those with a real interest in teaching are mentored and supervised as they teach parts of class."

Utilize a trial period—even with a careful interview, a trial period can be a good way to see if you and the instructor work well together in practice. Clemens often uses possible new instructors as substitutes first, asking other teachers or accompanists for feedback on how they did rather than watching the class herself. She will also ask older students how they liked a substitute, to get a feel for their ability to engage in the classroom. "Sometimes a person who subs ends up with a contract, and sometimes they really just don't seem to be a fit," she says.

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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