Teaching from the Heart

August 21, 2011

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.