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By Kathryn Holmes
Convention teaching 101
Alex Wong instructs students at Excel in Motion convention. Photo: Courtesy Excel in Motion
“At a convention, you have the chance to share your knowledge and what you believe about being an artist with 1,500 kids—in a single weekend,” says choreographer Mandy Moore, who has been on JUMP Dance Convention’s faculty for nine years. “There’s not another platform like that.” Still, there’s no mistaking conventions for an easy teaching gig: Hotel ballrooms are filled to the max with students of varying ages and skill, all kicking and elbowing for space—on a carpet. Classes might be only 45 minutes long, and with the teacher on a raised stage, the intimacy of a normal studio experience is missing.
Despite the challenges, teaching at conventions is a resumé booster, and a chance to earn significant side dough. And although many convention-circuit students may only attend one event per year (limiting a teacher’s reach even more), the scene is growing. There are more than 30 touring convention companies listed for 2013, which means even more jobs for dancers—and the work can be quite rewarding. For Suzi Taylor, a longtime faculty member of New York City Dance Alliance and Steps on Broadway in New York City, the biggest perk is watching students grow up. “I’ve known dancers since they were 7, and now they’re on Broadway or in companies,” she says. “They come to my class at Steps or assist at NYCDA. It’s like my other family.”
Planning the Syllabus
To make the most of short time frames, convention classes have to be streamlined. “In a studio setting, I can work with dancers on a daily or weekly basis to improve technique, strength, or musicality,” says Taylor. “At a convention, my goal is to inspire dancers to want to be better. I give them information to take home.” Convention teachers have to focus on the big picture; they can’t give specific feedback to each dancer.
Alex Wong, a former Miami City Ballet soloist and So You Think You Can Dance All Star, likes to incorporate exercises that work on technical issues he often sees as a competition judge. He’s a faculty member on Excel in Motion and NRG conventions, and points out bent knees in grand jetés, low relevés, and unpointed feet. “I want to help dancers realize what they’re doing wrong and how it feels to do it right, so they can continue fixing it on their own,” he says.
Most conventions offer a group warm-up at the start of each day, so teachers can often jump into choreography immediately, trusting that dancers are ready to move. Moore tailors each combination for the levels she instructs. “With Minis [ages 7–10], I like to do counting and coordination,” she says. “Juniors [ages 11–12] might work on direction and weight change, and I challenge teens with long combinations so they can practice picking up choreography.” By the time the students reach the senior division, Moore can give them professional-level work. Then, she says, “I go wild.”
Managing the Classroom
Learning how to maintain order without sacrificing student excitement takes practice. Moore, who has been teaching on the convention circuit for 17 years, recommends that new teachers spend time watching veterans in action. “You can see when something works, if the kids are focused, or if they’re doing cartwheels,” she says. Moore’s tricks to keep everyone engaged: Set goals for students and refer to them throughout the class, and leave the platform to interact with dancers on the floor.
“Keeping control of the room doesn’t take yelling,” says Brooke Lipton, associate choreographer of Glee and teacher with The PULSE On Tour and Hollywood Connection. “It’s about what you demand from the students.” For instance, Lipton frowns on students marking choreography. “You can’t really learn the choreography until you do it full-out,” she says.
When it comes to disciplining disruptive students, Lipton prefers to wait until after class to say something to individuals, unless they are doing something unsafe that needs action immediately. “I don’t want to give more attention to the dancers acting out,” she says, “but I also don’t want to embarrass anyone. Being a convention teacher comes with a lot of responsibility. What you say to a student can really affect them.” If Lipton is faced with many unfocused dancers, “the easiest and most effective punishment is push-ups,” she says. “They can be done anywhere, anytime—and no one wants to do them.”
Inspiring young artists
A first soloist with Houston Ballet, Melissa Hough is in her first year on the faculty of NYCDA. She preps for her classes by thinking about what kept her engaged as a student at the convention. “I remember what I liked about certain teachers’ classes: hearing the music for the combo sooner rather than later, and dancing rather than listening to the teacher talk,” she says.
The fact that Hough has such an impressive career doesn’t hurt her success as a teacher, either. NYCDA founder and director Joe Lanteri says teachers with professional experience bridge the gap between the convention world and the real world. “A good convention class allows dancers to dream big and to feel like their dreams are attainable.”
While conventions may help advanced dancers find a spot in the commercial world, they also give them a chance to try out new movement styles with an open mind. Wong designs his combinations to push dancers into unfamiliar territory. “I like to challenge them from a stylistic as well as a technical standpoint,” he says.
Lipton wants her classes to help students develop ambition as artists. “Dancers sometimes wait for inspiration to be handed to them,” she says. “I tell them, don’t wait for it—take it. The level of talent in a room will never be equal, but your level of effort is up to you.”
Regardless if students become professional dancers, advocates, or patrons, convention teachers have the potential to affect every person in a packed ballroom. For Lanteri, that outreach is what matters most. “The kids always come first,” he says. “It’s your goal to keep everyone interested, motivated, and inspired. And when it works, you walk away so excited about what just happened.”
Kathryn Holmes is a writer and dancer based in Brooklyn, NY.
Is convention teaching on your horizon? Here are five tips for a successful class.
Aim to inspire, not to nitpick. “If students’ technique isn’t where it could be,” says Suzi Taylor, “I put it in their heads that they can improve if they work at it.”
Teach to the entire room—not just the best dancers. “Some dancers won’t be able to han-dle the choreography, but you have to inspire them to want to be able,” says Joe Lanteri.
Observe veteran teachers. “Watch from the front and back of the room,” Mandy Moore says. “If the kids are engaged throughout, you know it’s a class that works.”
Maximize action. “You can get stuck going over the material, but at a certain point, you have to move on,” Brooke Lipton says. “Minimize time spent changing groups and clapping; you want them to dance.”
Put your enthusiasm and passion for your art front and center. “These kids are listening to everything you say,” Moore says. “They’ll take the experience with them for the rest of the year.” -—K. H.