Teaching from the Heart
Ailey’s Antonio Douthit teaching at COCA in St. Louis, where he was a student. Photo by Cyndy Maasen, Courtesy Ailey.
Every January, following their New York City Center season, members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater get three weeks off to relax, take a vacation, or perform elsewhere as guest artists. For the past eight years, Antonio Douthit has chosen to return to his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. But his schedule there is almost as demanding as when the company is in session. Monday through Friday, Douthit teaches class and choreographs on students at COCA (Center of Contemporary Arts), his former dance school.
Sounds exhausting, right? But Douthit claims the opposite is true. “Working with children can refuel you as an artist. You see exactly why you’re dancing—all the things you loved about it when you first started, before the paycheck and the audiences got involved. You get that fulfillment back,” he says. “So whenever I’m home I go to the studio to see what the younger generation is doing and be reenergized by them.”
Douthit is one of a growing number of professional dancers who find time to teach on the side. Traditionally, many dance artists become educators after they retire, but most don’t prioritize teaching at the height of their careers. This is understandable; few jobs require the same level of physical and emotional commitment. The sheer number of hours dancers spend honing their craft often makes it hard to maintain a social life, let alone an outside gig. But despite the challenges, more professionals are recognizing the benefits of training young dancers—both for the students and themselves.
Teaching is in tap phenomenon Michelle Dorrance’s blood. Her mother co-founded the Ballet School of Chapel Hill, where she studied as a child, and her father coached the Women’s U.S. Soccer Team. “That kind of leadership is valued in my family and I grew up admiring my parents’ ability to do it,” she says. When ballet turned out not to be her thing (“I was a disaster,” she says with a laugh), Dorrance joined the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble. By the age of 13, she was teaching repertory. Now the New York–based Stomp star and director of Dorrance Dance returns to her native state every summer to lead master classes at the North Carolina Rhythm Tap Festival. She is also on faculty at Broadway Dance Center, and is a guest teacher at Steps on Broadway and tap festivals around the world.
Like Douthit, Dorrance finds working with students invigorating. “I love watching people get excited about tap dance,” she says. “It feels just as good to teach an incredible class as to take an incredible class.” But she also does it out of a sense of responsibility to her discipline. “Tap dance is a street form, so I think it’s the duty of practicing professionals to carry on the tradition at the highest level while at their peak.”
Dorrance admits that teaching prior to retirement is more common in her field than in other genres—especially ballet. She suspects this is due to the rigors of life in a classical company, and perhaps subtle biases. “I think there’s a certain stigma to teaching in other dance communities. It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re teaching now? OK, you’re done.’”
One artist who challenges that assumption is ballet luminary Paloma Herrera. The American Ballet Theatre star, currently in her 20th-anniversary season, manages to squeeze in teaching engagements when not headlining performances with the company. She’s been a guest faculty member at the Fabrice Herrault Summer Intensive at the Ailey Extension for two years, and has taught ballet technique, pointe, and variations in Florida, California, and Italy. “Every time I have the chance I do it,” Herrera says, adding that her motivation stems from her high regard for the studio. “I love the working process. Of course I love the stage—that’s a given—but I love taking class. I love rehearsal. And that’s why I love to teach. For me, it’s a never-ending inspiration to keep getting better.”
All of these performers point out that teaching enhances their artistry. “Dancing in front of your students pushes you to practice what you preach,” says Dorrance. Herrera agrees: “You have to be an example. When you show the steps, you have to be clean and precise.” Douthit feeds off the students’ energy. “When you teach, it keeps you young and vibrant,” he says. “You come back with fresh ideas that make your performance more innovative.”
And as instructors, they can integrate skills they want to work on directly into the class. “It’s really fun to develop exercises that apply to fundamentals you need and use in performance,” Dorrance says. “You teach rudiments that will immediately translate to the stage.” Douthit, whose background is in classical ballet, discovered that teaching Ailey’s Horton technique helped him master its nuances. “It makes it easier for you to understand because you’re breaking it down for other people to understand. You’re seeing how it works on other people’s bodies.” As Herrera puts it, “I teach, but at the same time I’m still a student. Whatever I say I want the kids to do is actually what I want to accomplish.”
Young dancers profit from this approach as well. Not only do they get to see the steps demonstrated by leading artists whom they can emulate, but they also gain insight into the profession. Douthit shares his experiences with students “so they can be more aware of what I didn’t know when I went out into the world to dance.” Dorrance also believes having a performer for an instructor helps bridge the gap between training and career. “You’re reminding them that every lesson in class is applicable,” she says.
There’s another purpose that drives these dancers to teach on top of their full-time jobs. They want to pay tribute to the mentors who shaped them and pass on the kinds of opportunities they were fortunate to receive. “I’m trying to give everything back. And the more experience I have, the more I can give,” says Herrera. The same urge sends Douthit to COCA year after year. He credits the arts center, which awarded him a scholarship since his family couldn’t afford classes, with where he is today. “Dance really saved my life,” he says. “I feel like because I was given so much, the only right thing to do is give back to the younger generation. Someone did it for me, so we must continue this legacy.”
A former dancer, Elaine Stuart has written about the art form for The Wall Street Journal and The Brooklyn Rail.
Inset: Michelle Dorrance at Vortex Dance Center in Moscow, Russia. Photo Dmitriy Sobolev, Courtesy Dorrance; Paloma Herrera rehearsing with Marcelo Gomes: “I love the working process.” Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
The connections dancers make in college are no joke. For recent alum Gabrielle Hamilton, working with guest choreographer John Heginbotham at Point Park University put her on the fast track to Broadway—not in an ensemble role, but as the lead dancer in one of this season's hottest tickets: Daniel Fish's arresting reboot of Oklahoma!
We caught up with Hamilton about starring in the show's dream ballet and her delightfully bizarre pre-show ritual.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Last Friday, through an appeal to an independent arbitrator, the American Guild of Musical Artists successfully reinstated NYCB principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro, previously fired for allegedly circulating sexually explicit texts containing nude photos.
AGMA opposed Ramasar and Catazaro's terminations in order to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent that would allow dancers to be fired under less understandable consequences. But we cannot allow future cases to dictate the way we handle this situation—particularly a union committed to "doing everything in [its] power to ensure you have a respectful environment in which to work."
But according to the H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, one in every three dancers in New York City lives under the poverty line, and may lack the resources to purchase the ingredients they need to make nutritious meals.
Not to mention the fact that dancers are busy, and often running around from class to rehearsal to performance to side hustle, grabbing whatever they can get to eat on-the-go.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.