November 2011 | Inspiration in the Desert

Hot tips and straight talk at the 2011 DanceLife Teacher Conference

For four days in July and August, dozens of master teachers, business experts, inspirational speakers, and entrepreneurs shared their secrets for success with more than 700 attendees at the latest DanceLife Teacher Conference. In describing this year’s conference, perhaps master teacher and professional dancer Derrick Yanford said it best: “It’s all about inspiration.”

Hip-hop master teacher Geo Hubela says encouragement is the key. (Photo by Donner Photography)

Sweating and still breathing hard after teaching a packed-to-the-walls contemporary class, Yanford continued, “Here, we get people together who love what they do, all sharing that artist experience. It’s a powerful thing when you come out of class and people are thanking you, saying ‘I’m going to take this home to my students.’ I know I reached someone and changed their life, and they’ve changed my life, too. I’m getting gifts as well as giving gifts.”

Held in the midst of a heat wave at the five-star Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, the DLTC kept four ballrooms pumping with lectures, technique classes, and roundtable discussions. Attendees happily spoke of the difficulty of taking it all in. Vendors, from costume companies to competitions, flooring specialists to software sellers, enjoyed an almost-endless stream of visitors who stopped to learn more about their products.

Lessons even spilled out into the hallways, where master ballet teacher Roni Mahler seemed to be constantly surrounded by a small pack of teachers with notebooks in hand, furiously scribbling down her words of wisdom. “Passé is like an elevator on the outside of a building,” she said during a class on ballet for 6- to 8-year-olds. “Don’t lift the knee; lift the toes.”

Over yogurt parfaits and breakfast coffee, studio owners traded advice on how to keep team members in line, where to rent space (cheap), or who had the shortest recital. (At 45 minutes max, Fabulous Talent Center for Dance in Hamilton, Ohio, was the winner.)

The dance talk seemed never-ending. One night at about 11pm, DLTC speaker Misty Lown was relaxing in the resort’s hot tub when she was pounced on by teachers from several studios, eager to pick her brain about customer relations. She happily obliged—for almost an hour.

For the most part, seminar speakers presented strategies and solutions based on their own successful experiences in the dance studio world. At a marketing seminar offered by DLTC producer (and Dance Studio Life publisher) Rhee Gold, the audience packed into the grand ballroom was quiet and attentive, their pens moving quickly as Gold’s voice boomed out over the loudspeakers. “When it comes to marketing, wipe your ego out of it,” he said. In a later business seminar he elaborated on that idea, expressing the importance of “making decisions for your students that aren’t based on what will make you look good.”

Lown, owner and director of Misty’s Dance Unlimited in Onalaska, Wisconsin, described her definition of success “as having significance in your community.” Her “three-legged stool” formula of “people, profits, and positive programs” allows her not only to give away thousands each year in scholarships for students and teachers, but also to contribute to programs such as the American Red Cross that serve the greater community outside her dance studio.

Nancy Stone, vice president of Art Stone Theatrical, has owned and operated a dance studio since 1961. Her recital-theme session was a cornucopia of creative, age-appropriate ideas, including oodles of song titles and ideas to fit all the themes. For a recital with “A Day in the Park” theme, why not do a number about “Horseback Rides $5” to music from Gaîté Parisienne, and while you’re at it, why not walk a live pony across the stage? She once did. “Your show is your calling card, your brand, your image,” she said. “The idea is to always make your show exciting and different, give the audience something to talk about later.”

In one session, certified life coach and former studio owner Sandi Duncan instructed teachers on how to find inner peace and balance in their lives; the next day she answered questions about how to reach troubled kids and dispel negative energy in the classroom. “I like to check in with kids on a regular basis,” she said. “Teens especially need to know they’re being heard. Make eye contact. Let them know you care. Hugs, hugs, hugs, and energy.”

Geo Hubela, hip-hop master teacher and director of the ICONic Boyz, expressed a similar sentiment. Although he advocates challenging kids, it should always be in a positive way. “Encourage, encourage,” he said. That kind of positive approach can rub off on teachers too. “When I feel that I made a kid feel better about himself, it makes my day better.”

Tap teacher Mike Wittmers, teaching a call-and-response method of rhythm training, had an even more succinct take on Hubela’s and Duncan’s emphasis on positivity: “Tears, fail. Smiles, win.”

Master modern teachers Bill Evans and Don Halquist presented a slide show on modern dance pioneers Hanya Holm, Rudolf Laban, Martha Graham, Erick Hawkins, Doris Humphrey, Merce Cunningham, José Limón, and Alvin Ailey, among others. Evans presented poignant encapsulations of each, touching on their unique contributions to the development of modern dance. His lecture was dotted with personal memories of studying with these masters. For example: “Her mere presence onstage was enough to give me goose bumps,” he said of Pearl Primus.

Through a simple port de bras exercise, Evans proved to his seated audience the importance of breath in giving movement weight and meaning, a concept that he expounded on during a modern technique class the next day. “We study quality, a way of moving, not just putting bodies in motion,” he said, pointing out one dancer who, although she was just learning the unfamiliar combination, was “dancing from the heart.”

Halquist used breath to illustrate the feeling of his movement, sighing and brrr-ing his way across the floor. “I love to be gooey and elastic, so I’m not a good tap dancer,” he said. “I need to luxuriate in movement.”

A packed room listened as Beverly and Annie Spell, co-authors of the Leap ’N Learn early childhood dance syllabus, explained the importance of pretend play. They spoke of the various ways it can assist in skills development through the use of songs, words, verbal responses, and visual prompts. When teaching dancers ages 3 to 6, exercising the imagination through creative movement goes hand in hand with learning proper classroom behavior, they said, such as how to enter the studio and how to “sit and stand like a dancer.”

“The feeling you get on the inside from dance is a gift. Pass that gift on, and your students will pass it on, and it will impact more generations than you know.” —Rhee Gold

 Longtime studio owners generously shared their business knowledge in seminar after seminar. Paul and Tiffany Henderson of the seven-studio California behemoth Tiffany’s Dance Academy elaborated on the three components they feel have led to their success: a strong “babies” program; a fully invested, full-time teaching staff; and ample outsourcing of business services (which allows teachers to spend time doing what they do best—teaching).

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Author and life coach Laurie Johnson did double duty, first teaching a killer tap class, then zipping into “motivational speaker” mode. Johnson, who left a corporate career to return to the dance world, caught the attendees’ attention with her opening statement: “My mother owned a dance studio for 20 years and never made a profit”—and kept them rapt as she explained that creating a brand is all about being yourself. “From that very first handshake, that first hello, you’re teaching people how to treat you,” she said. “Your brand is what people say about you. So what do you want to be known for?”

The incomparable Joe Tremaine led two high-energy jazz lessons jammed with his signature combos. At the luncheon gala, he and Georgia Deane, of Deane School of Dance in Mendon, Massachusetts, each accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award from Gold. At age 92, Deane happily took to the stage to sing “When You’re Smiling,” complete with an elegant soft shoe.

The four days ended, as the DLTC always does, with a heartfelt goodbye from Gold. He had spent hours of the conference onstage, leading Q&A sessions, sharing business advice, outlining handbook info, or chatting about summer camps. Now as the event came to a close, he urged the attendees to find a memento of the conference to bring home. “Put it on your fridge to remind yourself of the attitude you had when you left here today,” he said.

“The feeling you get on the inside from dance is a gift. Pass that gift on, and your students will pass it on, and it will impact more generations than you know. It’s not about kicking a high battement. Remind yourself of the difference you really are making in the lives of these kids.”

As ballet master teacher Madame Peff Modelski put it, “Everything counts, all the time.”

Karen White, Cheryl A. Ossola, and Arisa White contributed to this article.