Dance Training

Inside the Summer Intensive for Broadway Choreographers-To-Be

Broadway Dance Lab's Choreography Intensive. Photo by Whitney Browne

"Go to your choreographers" is the command, and ten 20-somethings sort themselves into two groups at either side of a studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in midtown Manhattan. On one side they become three students gossiping in a schoolroom as another enters alone; on the other, it's a guy sauntering into a club where three women are drinking at a table.

Emma Russo, 25, is in charge there, setting up a romance; across the space, Alexia Acebo, 22, is summoning a popularity contest. Both are working to the same jazzy instrumental version of "Pennies From Heaven."

Bouncing back and forth between the two story lines is Broadway choreographer (and Tony nominee) Josh Prince, asking questions, making suggestions, offering encouragement—half mentor, half mother hen.


Prince is the mastermind behind the Broadway Dance Lab, a nonprofit he started in 2012 to grant working choreographers the three things they need to test ideas: studio space, time and trained dancers. Andy Blankenbuehler, Marcelo Gomes and Larry Keigwin are among those who've spent time at what Prince calls a "dance incubator."

A classroom full of dancers in heels slide to the side

Photo by Whitney Browne

But on this summer afternoon, the choreographers are not famous. They've been chosen for BDL's first-ever Choreography Intensive and the nine women and one man have paid $1,500 each to spend a week not just honing their choreographic skills, but also discovering what life as a Broadway choreographer is all about.

"Learning how to do it, that's one thing," Prince says. "But choreographers also need to hear from dance arrangers, lighting designers, set designers—the people they will liaison with."

Nick Kepley, who was Prince's creative director, notes that the typical choreography curriculum doesn't really prepare you for "the first time you go into a room with a director and designers and producers, and suddenly there are 20 voices coming at you." The intensive, he says, shows students "the full scope of what it's like out there."

Days begin with dancing, as they do at other intensives. But here, the front of the room might be occupied by Broadway veteran Nancy Lemenager, teaching a number from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; or "So You Think You Can Dance" choreographer Al Blackstone leading a jazz class.

Prince designed the program to cover multiple styles and varied approaches to storytelling. "I wanted the choreographers to physically experience different vernaculars," he says. "I also wanted them to hear from the teachers how the movement was created." So dance is followed by discussion, students sitting on the floor with notebooks in hand.

The notebooks come out again after lunch for a class with a director, casting agent, designer or other professional corralled from Prince's network. But most of the day is spent working on choreography assignments. For Russo and Acebo, the mission is to tell a story in dance about someone who finds a penny that changes their luck. And tomorrow, when Prince says, "Go to your choreographers," they will become the dancers as two of today's performers, Brianna Melroy, 23, and Sadé Murray, 21, stage a theater song ("You're Gonna Love Tomorrow," from Follies) for non-dancers.

Three different challenges await the six other fledgling choreographers: Director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun will give pointers on making a dance that centers on a prop; Blankenbuehler collaborators Jaime Verazin and Mark Stuart will help on choreographing for partners; and BDL grantee Kristen Carcone will work on creating movement-based theater. Although only two students tackle each problem, the other eight perform the results.

So, says Andrea Brodine, 23, "the rest of us are able to learn, observe and participate in the entire process."

One dancer speaks to a group sitting in chairs, while a teacher looks on

Photo by Whitney Browne

Several other theater people will share their expertise during the week. Lighting designer Burke Brown and set designer Donyale Werle will do a joint class. Choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter (School of Rock) and dance arranger David Dabbon will demonstrate the give-and-take between those who make the dances and those who make the music for them. And Beautiful director Marc Bruni will give notes on the "Pennies From Heaven" efforts ("We're sitting in that moment longer than we need to") and insight into the director-choreographer relationship. ("My biggest thing is 'Where am I supposed to be looking?' Am I looking at that place? And then, am I bored?")

There are also field trips. At the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Tony winner Christopher Gattelli discusses the ins and outs of choreographing revivals, with sketches from the original productions of My Fair Lady and South Pacific arrayed on the table. Before seeing Pretty Woman and touring backstage, students meet another Tony winner, director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell.

"We're getting real-time knowledge from these people," says Robert Redick, 24. "Everything they're saying, I'm just soaking it in, because I know on Monday, they're going to work."

Melroy, who graduated last year from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, says that until now, "the Broadway world had seemed like a secret club that I was never going to get the password to." Murray got the password early, touring as Young Nala in The Lion King. But she's making discoveries, too. "Follies is totally out of my style," she says. "But Josh told us just because it's a classic doesn't mean you have to choreograph it that way."

The week ends with a casual showing. Acebo has invited Cornelius Carter, director of dance at her alma mater (University of Alabama), who says later that he was struck by "the in-depth investigation that the students were allowed to do without the expectation of some kind of end result." But he adds that one end result, perhaps unintentional, of the intensive is the way it's "encouraging women to take their place among future choreographers."

Prince says amen to that, and makes a bold prediction: "Some of these students will be our next Tony winners."

The Details

Attendance: 10 last summer

Auditions: Students are selected based on choreography reels and written statements.

Timeline: One week last summer, possibly two weeks in 2019

Ages: 18–29

Housing: Not provided


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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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