Heading into my 19th year of teaching, I have held many titles over the years—dance instructor, movement teacher, dance specialist, and guest artist. But when I started being called a “teaching artist” about 12 years ago, the components of my life came together. “Teaching artist” is the title that best describes me.
It’s important for students to understand the modern dance concept of the spiral in the back. The spiral allows dancers to move in a way that feels fully three-dimensional. Think of it as a carving motion, in which dancers use the arms or legs to help them carve through space and generate a turn or fall.
To teach coherent classes with a sense of progression, try incorporating the shapes, movements, and energy of the final combination or phrase into the earlier parts of class. This means no improvising the final combination on the spot—it must be choreographed in advance so the rest of class can be planned too.
Many of the hip-hop steps we teach come out of popular dances. The camel walk and Patty Duke, for example, are based on 1970s dances that influenced the social aspect of hip-hop’s development. Since these steps started as party dances, have students face each other and interact to get into the right spirit.
There are a few versions of the Patty Duke; here’s one. Stand on two feet, shoulder-width apart, and start the groove, a body rock going backward. Bring one foot forward, leaving the weight on the back foot, to tap the floor on the accented beat. Return to two feet and rock, then tap with the other foot. Repeat.
Periodically I have to revisit the mechanics of soutenu détourné, because students want to rond de jambe their working leg slightly when closing to sous-sus. This is easiest to correct at the barre, slowed way down, to make sure technique is not compromised.
Without music, have students execute and hold each step in the sequence: a well-placed and square tendu soutenu à la seconde, a tight and lifted sous-sus, and détourné with a crisp spot and tidy finish. Watch how each student closes to sous-sus; the leg should travel in a direct line, with no hint of a rond de jambe. Once students do it cleanly, practice with slow-tempo music, then work up to a brisker speed. If at any point you see students returning to their rond de jambe habit, slow the exercise down again. Make sure to practice soutenu détourné both en dedans and en dehors.
Chassé en tournant can be a striking step in performance, because it has exciting elements—a jump, a turning step, and a traveling step—and plenty of room to add extra dynamics with port de bras. A common mistake is adding a quarter rond de jambe before taking off in the jump. Forced to compensate for the extra inertia, students may sway their backs and/or let their core muscles go.
Remind students that, with or without the turn, the only leg traffic for this step is: plié in fifth position, chassé to sous-sus in the air, plié in fifth. Have students master this sequence before adding the turn in the air, and make sure they don’t try to bring the leg to à la seconde before closing to sous-sus derrière.
The 20th century ushered in a new era in music composition, though Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Puccini, and others continued to write in a Romantic style.
Major 20th-century movements include neoclassicism, minimalism, and experimental music.
NOMINATED BY: Kim Wood, mother: “In 2003, Lisa opened her school with 80 students. Since then, it has grown and she is living her dream. She is blessed with a 4-year-old son and also a beautiful daughter born two years ago with cystic fibrosis. When she is tired or has been up all night with a sick child, she lights up when she walks into her studio, sees her students, and gets energized to dance with them once again.”
“Recipe for a Better World”: On page 146 of this issue, you’ll find a story about the DanceLife Teacher Conference in which we tell you about many of the goings-on at this big event—but there’s one thing we didn’t touch on because it bears separate mention. It’s the joy and abandon, the sweat and exhilaration of the hundreds of dance teachers who threw themselves into all kinds of technique classes.
“Powerful Girls”: It’s 2015, and our culture still conditions young girls to grow up believing men should be strong and women should be pretty. Misty Copeland’s sinewy leaps, Katniss Everdeen’s archery feats, Title IX, Michelle Obama’s arms, and critical best-sellers like The Princess Problem and Reviving Ophelia haven’t yet washed away mainstream expectations that femininity requires physical weakness.
If you teach girls to dance, you know that isn’t true. But do the girls?
Words from our readers
Advice for dance teachers
This year’s DanceLife Teacher Conference began with producer Rhee Gold making a request of the 800 dance teachers and studio owners in attendance: “Make this week about you,” he said. “Take the time to rejuvenate.” He recalled his mother telling him, when he was a child, to go outside and get lost—in a good way, of course. It was time for the attendees to “get lost” themselves; for these few days at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona, he said, let others handle the school, the house, the kids.
They did, if the smiles, laughter, and conversation witnessed at every turn were any indication. And they did it together. Everywhere, collegiality trumped competition. At breakfast and lunch, teachers welcomed strangers to their tables and swapped stories and ideas.
Books of note (new and not)
1. A Time to Dance
2. Tallulah’s Solo
3. Ballet Spectacular: A Young Ballet Lover’s Guide and an Insight Into a Magical World
4. Creative Dance for All Ages (2nd ed.)
Students often try to achieve correct placement through tension. But to maintain correct placement while moving, dancers must feel engaged, not tense.
The box step is a basic step in many styles. In hip-hop, it was popular with early b-boys/b-girls and lofters.
Most hip-hop dance is done inside a cypher. Dancers address the people around them with their movements, dance together, or dance at each other in battle. Make sure your students think about dancing in 360 degrees. If they always face forward in the studio, their dancing will stay too flat.
Clear weight shifts are essential for strong and articulate footwork. A dancer needs to have one foot released, relaxed, and ready for whatever step is next. A brush, spank, step, stamp, stomp, tap, toe dig, heel dig, or toe tip, for example, requires a 100-percent weight shift to one foot, over the arch, and with the shoulder stacked over a relaxed hip, knee, and ankle. In contrast, only a partial weight shift is needed to produce a strong heel drop or toe drop.
A coordinated port de bras during a jump preparation is key to reaching full potential in the air. Often arms aren’t being allowed to help achieve big jumps because students aren’t timing their arms’ momentum to coordinate with “lift-off.”
To help students grasp this concept, even before attempting small jumps in center, have them stand with feet parallel and slightly separated. Ask them to bend their knees, keeping the feet flat on the ground, then jump as far forward as possible without using their arms. Next have them swing their arms back and forth. Have them jump forward as their arms swing back—that will feel wrong. Then have them jump forward as their arms swing forward—that will propel them into a longer jump.
This exercise demonstrates how helpful arms can be (when swinging with correct coordination) in propelling our movements; a well-coordinated port de bras is the balletic equivalent.
Try this exercise to correct students who, in coupé jeté manèges, are cutting short the port de bras in the coupé. Have dancers extend the arms in first arabesque, right arm in front. Ask them to make the right middle fingertip the starting point, and also the anchor, of an imaginary circle.
Next, have them move the left hand and arm to connect to the anchored fingertip, completing the circle—as they would do in a coupé turn. Insist that the right fingertip stay still in space and the left middle fingertip reach to complete the circle. Students will have to move their upper and lower bodies toward the anchored fingertip to achieve this. Then have them attempt a coupé jeté using the same principle.
One evening before a rehearsal one of my students said to me, “It must be great to be a dance teacher. You can sleep all day and then show up for a few hours of work at night.” This happened during preparations for a rather large-scale show. Like many studio owners, I was responsible for handling all aspects of the production; I’d started planning months beforehand.
This dancer’s comment made me realize how little students understand about what goes into producing a show. In response, I created Production 101, a class that introduces students to the process of theater and dance production, from concept to performance. I also wanted them to see how they could be involved in dance aside from performing.
The two-hour class, open to advanced students, meets weekly for 16 weeks. I also offer the class as an enrichment course at a private high school for international students—a month-long intensive that meets four days a week for three hours each day. On the fifth day, I take the students offsite for field trips. We have toured theaters, observed rehearsals, attended performances, and spoken with production professionals. I also invite guest speakers to the studio for Q&A sessions. Each program ends with a performance at the studio that is open to our dance families.
“Reality Check: Teacher Transitions”: Q: I’m three years in, and it’s happening: I just put out our schedule for next year, and some of the young students I’ve taught will have different teachers. Enrollment has gone from 25 to 150 in three years, so naturally I can’t teach them all anymore. I’m starting to hear parents say, “We come here for her.” Most of these parents don’t know the other teachers, so I will be introducing them, making bios available, and holding meet-and-greets. What more can I do to convince them to trust my judgment in selecting a faculty? They will have me as a teacher again in a year or two. (I teach all levels, but there are multiple classes in each level.) I would appreciate advice on how to navigate the next month during early enrollment. I cannot continue spreading myself too thin. —Chrystie Kenny Greco
“Classroom Connection: Ballet Obstacle Course”: I came up with this activity because our focus of the month was “pathways.” I thought this was an opportunity to hone my ballet students’ focus and to offer a fun alternative to the usual ways in which they travel across the floor. It works best with dancers ages 6 years and older. Younger students may have a difficult time understanding and doing the activity unless you choose easier steps and paths.
I’m writing this two days after the 2015 DanceLife Teacher Conference, our biggest and best yet. Each time we produce this event I’m overwhelmed by the amount of work that goes into it—and each time, as it concludes, I forget about the work because I’m overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, spirit, and generosity of the hundreds of dance teachers and studio owners who spend those four or five days with us, immersed in dance.
From the 1850s to early 1900s, the nationalist movement arose in music, a reaction both to the abstract style in vogue among Germanic composers, and to the wars and revolutions then restructuring much of Europe. Musicians of conquered nations composed music intended to express national pride, often drawing upon popular songs, folk music, and folk dance rhythms (for example Chopin’s mazurkas and polonaises).
The major composers of impressionism, a predominantly French movement (approximately 1870 to 1920), were Debussy and Ravel. They sought to break away from Romanticism’s restrictive tonal structures and create musical pictures, or impressions, analogous to the impressionist paintings of Monet, Degas, and Renoir.
We typically think about dancing for exercise, but what about exercising for dance? Hip-hop requires strength and stamina, but dancers who start off in the street (like me) may have no prior physical training. Some students struggle to keep up in class because they lack conditioning, not rhythm or ability to pick up steps.
The knee drop is a common but impressive transition to the floor. (Jerkers call it a pin drop.)
Sometimes students lean too heavily on asking questions. Encourage them to understand that part of class is figuring out answers for themselves. Students become more engaged in learning if they’re empowered to use various methods for absorbing material or concepts, such as observing another dancer or trying an exercise a few times.
Working with hyperextension can be challenging in all dance forms. First, students struggling with hyperextension need to understand which muscles to engage for support; I often focus on the adductors and hip flexors. Students can find their adductors by standing in parallel while squeezing a yoga block or medium-sized therapy ball between the thighs. Have them repeat this in first position, encouraging them to feel the thigh bones spiraling outward, taking pressure off the knees.
Advice for dance teachers
NOMINATED BY: Elaina DiBenedetto, student: “I am so lucky that more than 10 years ago Wendy Stein walked into my dance studio and my life. She introduced me to modern dance and encouraged me to dance my first solo; her unwavering confidence has pushed me to do things I might otherwise have let pass by. She is the epitome of what a dance teacher should be.”
Sitting in a judge’s seat at countless competitions, I have witnessed hundreds of onstage mishaps. I’ve seen dancers trip, collide, slip, and fall down. I’ve seen costumes split, drop, or fall off altogether. Wigs will shift, shoes will slip off, shorts will climb, and straps will break. Some dancers bounce back from these mini-disasters like Tigger in Winnie-the-Pooh, while others crumble and cry. I’ve seen plenty, and learned plenty of lessons for both students and teachers.
Let’s focus on the basics. Which fundamental skills and techniques form the core of a tap curriculum?
A common mistake with inside pirouettes is turning in the passé leg during the turn. To correct this, have your students start in a straight-leg lunge preparation.
The straight leg in the lunge preparation for an inside pirouette harnesses a great deal of the energy and force needed to get a dancer on balance and turning. Yet students often rely too heavily on their upper bodies during the preparation, swinging their arms to acquire momentum.
Help your dancers remember the material, even when facings change or more complex spatial patterns are introduced, by encouraging them to find a focal point in the room for each direction.
Helping your students identify their weight shifts aids them in defining the quality of their movement.
Hands play a major role in hip-hop dance and can say a lot about a dancer, displaying personality and performance style, showing confidence, and telling a story.
To teach the backslide, have students start with their weight on the left leg. The right knee is bent with the heel raised and the ball of the foot planted.
The musical style of the Romantic period was inspired by the literary romanticism of the great poets, novelists, and philosophers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Works of this period (approximately 1820 to 1900) focused on the lives of common people instead of royalty.
“Conquering Stage Fright”: In October, I watched my daughter suffer intense stage fright in her first show.
Deafening cheers. Phones flashing in the dark auditorium like crazed fireflies. Other kindergarteners smiled—mine looked stricken with terror. Would she faint or throw up? Afterward, she sobbed with disappointment. It wasn’t fun, her stomach hurt, she didn’t expect the noisy dark and blinding lights. Then I remembered that she’d frozen before: as a wedding flower girl, walking the gauntlet of a semi-dark hall thronged with cheering strangers.
“Hold the Flash”: Enough with the pirouettes and the pyrotechnics.
Yes, we’re all impressed with double-digit pirouette counts. Triple sauts de basque, hummingbird-fast entrechats, reverse-twisting, leg-splitting steps you can’t even begin to name—all of those make us gasp. But every time I go online I’m bombarded with videos of dancers performing superhuman physical feats. And it’s becoming tiresome.
For most dance teachers, this time of year—the beginning of a new dance season—marks a fresh start. You’ll welcome back students who are growing up before your eyes, and you’ll see many new faces, students who will experience the excitement of dance for the first time.
NOMINATED BY: Soozie Zeakes, daughter: “She is 75 and celebrating 60 years of teaching dance this year. She still goes to her studio every day, and she’s never stopped loving what she does. She’s touched too many young lives to count and now even has third-generation students at her studio. I’m proud of her accomplishments and marvel at her endurance.”
Advice for dance teachers.
The waltz clog is a classic tap step rooted in two dances that met in the American minstrel shows of the mid-1800s.
A “flash” step frequently done in waltz time is the bell.
Back in the day, I clerked in a big Manhattan department store. Because I was young and quick and flexible, I was assigned to the “flying squad,” a group of clerks who could cover any counter if a regular called in sick, and immediately grasp what was necessary to assist customers.
The situation is more complex, and more tender, when the business at hand is teaching dance, especially to children. Finding a last-minute substitute can be tricky, especially in small studios with skeleton staffs. And kids don’t always react well to the sudden appearance of an unfamiliar face. Here to give some insights into smart strategies for handling absences are instructors from various parts of the country, at various levels, and on both sides of the “temp” equation.
A universal truth in any dance form, and especially in ballet, is that a dancer’s arms must be expressive and show generosity to the audience.
NOMINATED BY: Gail Skinner and Amelia Kinsolving, Leo’s lifelong friends and fellow teachers: “At the 2013 DanceLife Teacher Conference, we were amazed by the number of people who approached Miss Anna Marie to tell her what a great influence she had on them. At the age of 84—and as her studio enters its 64th year—Anna Marie continues to teach, always willing to share her talents with students and fellow studio owners alike.”
Advice for dance teachers.
In this issue’s “Ask Rhee Gold” column, I advise a school owner on how to approach a delicate situation. You’ve all encountered complex issues among your students’ families—divorces, deaths, substance abuse, and so on. But as our world changes, so do its complexities. The question this woman asked isn’t one that any of us would have heard even five years ago, but it’s likely to become more common.
The advice sought was about how to respond to—and how to explain to other students and their parents—a young transgender student’s request to be recognized as Jessica rather than as Josh.
The polka was the second most important couple dance (after the waltz) in classical-period ballrooms. In 2/4 meter, the polka originated in Bohemia as a peasant dance.
Also in 2/4 meter, the galop, named after the running gait of a horse, is a lively country dance introduced in Paris at the Carnival of 1829 by the Duchesse de Berry.
Freezes (also called pauses or poses) are the moments in breaking when the dancer stops all movement—as if frozen in time. Freezes can happen at any point and must be held with confidence.
The use of levels—high, middle, and low—is one of the fundamental elements of dance.
In less than nine months, I have had to notify my studio’s staff that two students’ mothers had died. A second-grader lost her mother to cervical cancer, and a seventh-grader lost hers to leukemia. I was saddened to think how much these two young girls were suffering—but their losses also made me reflect on my own behavior. How many times, as the owner of a studio that is dominated by girls and their mothers, would I use language like “Moms Only” or “Mom Volunteer” without realizing how thoughtless it might seem?
Most dance teachers have to talk—a lot. You communicate regularly with children, parents, business associates, and adult learners, to name a few, and among them are the young, the old, the polite, the funny, the argumentative, and the easygoing. Some of that communication happens by email, texting, or social media, but when you’re in a dance studio your voice is all you’ve got. It has to be clear and it has to be heard.
I frequently end barre combinations with a pirouette into attitude derrière. It’s good for students to feel the passé-to-attitude transition and practice balancing out of it. Left unchecked, however, students may contort their torsos and lean toward the barre trying to get the attitude leg up high.
Teaching musicality is vital to help your students grow from dancers into artists. Whether music is live or recorded, encourage them to listen to it, and to understand that music and movement are partners and support each other.
What’s up in the dance community
Luigi: A Life of Influence and Inspiration
Renowned Teacher Maggie Black Dies
Teaching students to respond to and connect with music is as important in tap as it is in other forms of dance. As tappers, our students are “joining the band,” and each sound they make adds to the overall musical arrangement.
Honest. Trustworthy. We all label ourselves with those words, and that’s a good start. Next up: having the integrity to prove them true.
“Learning to Let Go”: Letting go is difficult. It takes time and wisdom (often someone else’s at first) to understand that we’re better off without those habits, that person, these ideas. Usually only after a period of doubt and mourning do we realize that leaving something has made room for something else.
“Then It Happens”: What happens when one of them is suddenly gone? Growing up is a dangerous activity. The kids come to class, joyous, new licenses in hand, and you make sure to camouflage the worry in your congratulations. Weeks and lessons pass, and you’re consumed with corrections they forgot or how to address fizzling energy levels.
When a student’s upper body is not active in a pirouette, the turn itself begins to suffer. It’s not only important to maintain a turned-out passé, high relevé, and strong spot; a dancer’s torso (the back and core muscles) must also be engaged throughout the turn.