Saturday, September 20, 2014

Dancing After Retirement: Story of Two Entreprenuers

 Starting at the advanced beginner level, students learn simple routines that give them the confidence to perform.  All photos courtesy The Blade.

By Lois Burch O’Brian

At Off Broadway Dance Company, owners Pat Balderas and Geri Messer, both 66, are having as much fun as their students. That’s not unheard of. But what’s unusual at this Toledo-based studio, now in its third year, is the fact that these two women, neither of whom had thought about owning a dance school, came out of retirement to do just that.

Balderas, who retired from her job as a court administrator in May 2010, had planned to spend her retirement years traveling, spending time with her granddaughter, and helping her husband, Joe Balderas, at the nonprofit cultural center he directs. Messer, a nurse, found retirement unfulfilling, too lacking in activities and organizational challenges. She was the catalyst Balderas needed to make the transition into a second career.

Not everyone would be comfortable using retirement funds to start a new business, but Messer and Balderas had reason to think they would recoup their investment in a reasonable time.

To launch the school, the two women tapped into their retirement funds. That might sound crazy, but after two and a half years, they are making a profit and have already expanded by renting extra space.
How it began

Balderas started studying tap 20 years ago, at the studio she now co-owns. Ten years ago she started teaching beginner classes and working closely with the owner on the business end. She had observed that the owner could have been more proactive about growing the business and securing its finances. She thought about buying the studio in order to implement those changes, but she wasn’t ready.

Messer arrived in Toledo in 2004, a New Jersey transplant, and signed up for tap classes three years later; Balderas was her teacher. Forty-one years had elapsed since Messer had last danced (semi-professionally, in her teens). Being relatively new to the area, she had a fresh outlook that wasn’t enmeshed in how things had been done previously.

Quickly, the teacher/student relationship became a friendship. One Saturday night, after hearing a rumor that the school’s owner might be interested in selling (she had recently taken on a full-time job), Messer said to Balderas, “Want to buy a studio?” in the same spirit in which Mickey Rooney proposed putting on a show in Babes in Arms. And the answer was yes.

In February 2011, Balderas and Messer offered to buy the school; they signed the contract on October 1. Balderas’ husband said she should have done this a long time ago. He knew how she loved the studio and thought she was putting too much time and energy into someone else’s business.

Messer’s husband, Alan Messer, was equally supportive. He knew that since their move to Toledo, his wife needed more to do. She had worked in her husband’s software business doing bookkeeping, sales, staff management, advertising, and marketing for nine years. As a nurse, she had managed a holistic center for integrative medicine, and later managed the Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at what was then Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. So when Alan Messer heard the studio might be for sale, he said, “Go for it!”

The two women did, setting out immediately to make good on their goal for their students: tap dancing through middle age and beyond, including performing, regardless of previous experience. Ranging in age from early 20s to mid-80s, most of the students are in their 50s and 60s.
Confident planning

The months before the contract was signed were spent planning. Messer’s husband, a SCORE volunteer, suggested that she and Balderas contact the organization, which provides resources that include volunteer mentors who help people start small businesses.

Pat Balderas and Geri Messer (front line, first and second from left) came out of retirement to purchase a Toledo, Ohio, dance studio they renamed Off Broadway Dance Company.

SCORE is a nonprofit with 348 chapters throughout the United States, which also provides services through email, live workshops, online workshops/webinars, and online templates and tools. The Toledo chapter assigned a retired accountant to work with Balderas and Messer. With input from the current owner, they looked at the state of the business; as Balderas expected, there were problems. After assisting with the evaluation, the SCORE mentor advised them what to pay for the business.

The two owners-to-be then hired a lawyer, who suggested they change the studio’s name and logo. To create a website, they hired a young designer whom they met through their membership in the chamber of commerce. Not everyone would be comfortable using retirement funds to start a new business, but Messer and Balderas had reason to think they would recoup their investment in a reasonable time. First, they had committed clients who considered the studio a large part of their lives and identity. Second, they knew how much income the school generated. And third, they felt confident they could provide the kind of experience the students wanted. In addition, “the rent for the space was reasonable,” Messer says. “We were very realistic about who the market is and how to reach them, and we are fiscally conservative.”

Once Off Broadway Dance Company opened, a SCORE volunteer and former businessman told the new owners they were doing everything right in terms of advertising. They supplemented the simplest marketing device—a sign in the front yard—with budget-conscious yet focused marketing tools. With the help of their students, Messer and Balderas put flyers anywhere they were allowed, focusing on senior centers, churches, coffee shops, and libraries. Because of their work with a national veterans’ organization, Honor Flight, they were allowed to post flyers in businesses like Starbucks that normally give permission only to nonprofits. They placed ads in neighborhood papers, and students asked local businesses to buy advertising space in the program for the school’s annual showcase.

Messer and Balderas’ marketing goals matched their growth goal: to grow the studio by 10 percent each year. It sounded realistic to them. “If we had 40 students, we could get four new ones without overreaching,” says Messer.
The market

As the former owner had done, Balderas and Messer targeted the niche market of adult tappers, specifically women. They had good reasons to: they knew and enjoyed the clientele and felt confident in their ability to manage an adult-centered studio. (A population of young students would have been unfamiliar to them.) They focused on empty nesters, women in their 40s and 50s and beyond, marketing tap as a fun way to exercise the mind as well as the body (an alternative to working out at a gym), while offering the chance to perform. They also brought back a very popular teacher, Brenda Michalak, who teaches Broadway Tappers, a class designed, as the website describes it, “for the more mature dancer.”

Balderas and Messer say the studio’s students, most of whom are retired, are committed; they love to perform and are proud of being dancers. The sense of accomplishment and camaraderie they feel as a result of performing—strengthened by socializing after performances—serves as a draw for potential new clients.
The program

Balderas now teaches the basic and intermediate classes, while three other teachers (ages 60, 65, and 70) handle the intermediate/advanced to advanced classes. Three assistant teachers (ages 65, 66, and the “baby” of the bunch, a 30-something) work on a barter system, receiving classes in exchange for their work. Messer, who kept the books for her husband’s business, does the bookkeeping herself.

The studio has open enrollment, so no student is ever turned away. Class placement is determined in a mandatory beginning tap class taught by Balderas. Students are given a list of basic steps that must be mastered before they can move to a more advanced class. Some students remain in this class for a full year; others, who have dance experience, for one lesson.

Starting at the advanced beginner level, students learn simple routines that give them the confidence that they can do a dance, and, hence, perform. The chance to perform is the carrot that brings the students back. All students may perform at the annual showcase in October, and nearly all of them do.
Beyond the classroom

The school’s large community outreach program, the Traveling Taps, has turned into a successful marketing tool. The dancers perform regularly at 15 nursing homes each year, doing springtime shows in May and June and holiday programs in November and December that include simple steps and sentimental music. The shows are put together by assistant teacher Sue Morgenroth and student Karen Knoblauch, and 8 to 10 dancers participate.

SoLong2Studio dancers also welcome veterans home from Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio trips to Washington, DC, where—sponsored by the national organization, Honor Flight Network—veterans visit monuments built to honor their service. The dances for Honor Flights are performed by dancers wearing sparkling vests, to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and a medley of military anthems. Any dancer who has mastered the steps may participate; those who are not yet ready to perform (usually a handful) come along to greet the veterans.

This project, which began two years before Balderas and Messer bought the studio, was Knoblauch’s brainchild. She read a newspaper article about Honor Flight and realized that these veterans—part of her father’s generation—deserved recognition.

The studio raises funds for Honor Flight at the annual showcase, which draws 500 to 700 spectators. The dancers perform to the medley of military anthems while flags from all branches of the military are marched in. Veterans who were on the Honor Flights are given free admission, and their relatives pay half price, $5 per ticket. Fifty percent of funds raised at a 50/50 raffle and 10 percent of the admissions fees are donated to Honor Flight; during the show, a check is presented to an Honor Flight representative.

The school also performs at organizations such as the Red Hat Society and Ladies’ Oriental Shrine by request, presenting what Messer calls “showcase pieces.” There is no charge for the performances, but Balderas and Messer suggest an honorarium to be used toward the studio’s needs, such as the new floor they recently put in, the sound system, or the Traveling Taps. No one receives a salary for these performances.

Upcoming events include a mother/daughter church banquet, a performance for the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball team, and, pending approval of the studio’s application, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
For the love of dance

Each August the studio’s students and teachers attend Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s tap festival, Rhythm World, which offers classes suitable for adult novice tappers. In addition, Balderas and Messer bring in master teachers each year, such as dancers in the touring companies of Jersey Boys and Mary Poppins and CHRP’s Lane Alexander.

Unlike studios that include children, Alexander says, at Off Broadway “everyone who is there wants to be there. That changes the energy of the whole enterprise. Pat and Geri exemplify that ethos: we want to dance because we love to dance.”

In December 2012, 18 Off Broadway dancers traveled to Washington, DC, to attend “JUBA! Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance,” a program honoring tap dance as an American art form. The trip included a tour of the city, including the World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War memorials—important to them because of the school’s involvement with Honor Flight. A bonus was seeing the White House decorated for Christmas.

What do these formerly retired school owners think about their new careers? Balderas says, “Just because you are getting older doesn’t mean you have to stop learning or improving.”

What they’re doing, Messer says, is “a labor of love and resilience.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Becoming the Part: How Acting Helps Dancing

A fog-swept stage, a dark forest scene with a lake in the distance. One by one birds alight on the water, rise out of the lake, and transform into beautiful women. With tremulous white tutus fluttering and arms undulating, they bouree onstage, the entire flock of bird-women in pristine formation. What could be more dramatic than Swan Lake?

But wait. Who are these girls, and what do they want? Release from evil Rothbart’s spell? Or perfect turnout, 32 fouettes, and a shot at the role of the Swan Queen? Or does it matter?
Yes, it matters—if you want to give the audience an experience it will remember. Some dancers are natural actors and bring dramatic qualities to their work intuitively. Others need to learn acting skills. Here are some tips on how to integrate acting into performance.
You dance better when you have a reason to do the steps. You can’t just make a face and call it a day. You need to have a purpose. Another word for purpose is intention. Invent your own dialogue. Are you Cinderella, dreaming of attending the ball? Think of something that you’ve wanted in real life to help put yourself into the role. You need to know what you want and what you are doing. It translates into body language.
Using the mirror, dancers tend to watch themselves from the outside and can forget to focus on the internal motivation. If we’re paying attention to what our intention is in each moment, the quality of movement can transcend technique and reveal the idea behind the dance.
Many dancers confuse emotionalizing with acting. Playing emotion or affect, also called “indicating,” can fall into superficiality or cliches. Dancers can avoid that trap by finding a specific intention. Thinking, “I want to look sad,” is aimed at a result rather than aprocess that strives for authenticity. Thinking in terms of a specific action, like, “I want to sink into a hole and disappear,” will connect more deeply in the body.
The Magic “As If”
You have to get all your information first. You don’t want to be counting or looking at the floor when you’re involved in a dramatic role. Instead of just trying to be a certain charactor, figure out what you would do if you were in this situation. How would you behave?
A time-honored acting tool, the magic “as if,” brings a character to life through your own experience. First introduced by the great Russian director Constantin Stanislavski, this concept, along with his use of “sense memory,” revolutionized theater by insisting on naturalism and truth onstage. These tools spark our imaginations to really see and hear as the character. Whether portraying a dramatic role or embodying a quality in an abstract piece, life experience and sense memory help give substance to who you are onstage.
Choreographer/director Tommy Tune advises dancers to “do a thorough mental discovery on the character. Chip away anything that is you that is not that person. Leave that ‘you’ in the dressing room, and take the ‘you’ that is the character to the stage. We can only play facets of ourselves.”
In a musical, you exist in the world of the musical, a character who happens to be a great dancer. It’s not the other way around. Naturalism of movement and speech is a huge plus. In order to understand the universe of the musical and what role they play in that universe, you have to think like an actor. For example, if you’re playing a Hot Box girl in “Guys and Dolls,” that’s very different from playing an upper-class citizen in “Ragtime.” The socioeconomics are different and so are the styles of dress, speech, and movement, all of which translates into the particulars of dance required for each musical. Knowing how to evoke those broad strokes of character will win that dancer the job over the technically dazzling dancer who doesn’t think like an actor or have a clue about character or universe.

The most important acting skill a dancer can have is the ability to get really honest—to be able to relate to the work personally. Even the more heightened moments of violent choreography or an outlandish scene must be rooted in the performer’s own self, so that the bullet being aimed at the audience hits.
Believe It
Steps by themselves mean nothing.’ Don’t act-be it. You have to make it believable. If you can’t believe it, how are you going to make the audience believe it?
What are you projecting? How does your character feel? You want to be a presence onstage, and it takes thought. It’s all about storytelling and communicating with your audience. How can you touch someone without a sense of communication? The bridge between the dance and the audience is the acting. And if it truly comes from your soul, like the best actors in the world, then your audience will feel what you feel. Your message will be heard and your audience will see a true performer and be entertained.
Putting it All Together
If you don’t think of “acting” per se, but rather use your imagination to infuse your movement with clear intention, strong imagery, discovery, subtext, and self-knowledge, you will be more likely to enter that magical zone of “being in the moment.
When every dancer in Swan Lake knows the answers to “Who am I?” and “What do I want?” we experience the story as metaphor, not only as a vehicle for brilliant technicians to dazzle us. We are elevated by the triumph of love over evil—and may even be inspired to take on the Rothbarts of our own lives as well.
Want to Hone Your Actinq Skills?
Listen to those who know.
Tommy Tune
“Don’t act, just be. If you get the body in the right shape, the role is going to come out.”
Peter Sparling
 “Martha Graham built the drama into the movement. Most of the drama comes from the willingness to abandon oneself to the power of the movement.”
Shelley Washington
“Take chances! It’s OK to fall, to make mistakes. Know the choreographer you’re working for. Read their books if they’ve written any. Expose yourself to things, and be true to what you love.”
Christopher Barksdale
“Pay attention to the other people onstage, look at the partner you’re dancing with.”
Anita Paciotti
“Watch the people who move you, and figure out why they move you.”

If dance is the universal language of the soul,  then the most powerful dance is the one that bares that soul.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Physical Health at a Cost: Dancers and Health Care


By Joseph Carman

Alice Vienneau, a mid-career dancer who had worked in shows both on and off-Broadway, prided herself because, “I was never sick a day in my life.” During a three-month lapse in coverage between gigs, a case of appendicitis landed her in the hospital twice and saddled her with $80,000 in medical bills. She seriously considered filing for bankruptcy.

Stories like Vienneau’s are not uncommon in the U.S., where insurance is often expensive or elusive. The heated discussion about health care in this country directly affects many artists. Dancers never decide to go into their profession just for the salary or the benefits. They want to dance. But to dance, you have to be healthy. Knowing where to go for proper health care can make a huge difference in career fulfillment.

“I have seen dancers with the attitude ‘I’m young, I’m strong, I’ll never be sick,’ ” says Vienneau, now a social worker for The Dancers’ Resource at the Actors Fund in New York City. “We all know the collateral injuries that occur as a result of favoring a foot, knee, or hip. The truth is that the stressors on a dancer’s body are so profound—they’re all the time, not when we’re just in rehearsal or performance.”

There are three reasons why dancers need to seek proper health coverage. First of all, you want to prevent crippling debt. A bout of kidney stones or a car accident can crush your finances. Secondly, you need good care that is close to you. Lastly, you want better health outcomes. If you get regular checkups, you are less likely to have chronic illnesses or injuries.

So what resources are available? If you have the money, you can buy an individual policy. An HMO (health maintenance organization) plan provides health services through a specific network of doctors and providers with a primary care physician coordinating any referrals. A PPO (preferred provider organization) or a POS (point of service) policy allows members to use services outside of the network as well. An HSA (health savings account) combines tax-sheltered accounts for health needs with a high-deductible plan. (A deductible is the amount of money you pay annually out-of-pocket for services before the insurance kicks in.) An excellent database for information on private insurance policies and state rules is at

The problem is that health insurance can be so costly that it’s out of reach for many freelance dancers. There is also the issue of pre-existing conditions—a problem that Congress is currently trying to sort out. A pre-existing condition can include anything from asthma to diabetes to a torn ligament. If you live in New York, Vermont, New Jersey, Massachusetts or Maine, you cannot be denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions. In the other 45 states, your fate is largely in the hands of the insurance companies.

If you had insurance through a job and you are terminated or leave, federal protection under COBRA allows workers to continue their group coverage for up to 18 months. When your COBRA coverage ends, The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guarantees access to insurance coverage to certain individuals if they had at least 18 months of continuous insurance coverage, the last day of which was under a group plan, and they are not eligible for any public or group health plans. Clauses that prevent coverage because of a pre-existing condition can be knocked out in those cases.

But what are the other options for those who haven’t had or don’t have steady insurance from an employer? Several freelance unions, such as Fractured Atlas and the Freelancers Union, or organizations like, can help dancers obtain basic coverage in some states when they join as members. According to Marie Ortiz, Fractured Atlas’ health care program director, the group sponsors two plans in New York—one with a $10,000 deductible and a monthly premium of $142.98, and another with a $5,000 deductible with a premium of $212.28., through Affinity Health Plans, offers very basic policies with premiums that cost less that $200, depending on where you live. But the issue of pre-existing conditions is determind on a state-by-state basis, and not everyone is eligible for all of these organizations’ health insurance affiliates.

If you are a member of an entertainment union—AEA (Actors’ Equity Association), AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists), AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), SAG (Screen Actors Guild), or AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists)—group policies are available to qualified dancers. To be eligible for AFTRA’s individual health plan, you must have AFTRA-covered earnings of at least $10,000 but less than $30,000 in four consecutive calendar quarters or less. AEA’s health plan is based on weeks of work: You must have at least 12 weeks of covered employment in the previous 12 months to qualify for 6 months of coverage. AGMA currently has an option with group plans through TEIGIT (The Entertainment Industry Group Insurance Trust) in New York, Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey and some counties in California, Florida, and Indiana. The plans cover people with pre-existing conditions, but the premiums can be very expensive. (For example, the Florida CIGNA PPO costs $934.90 per month and the Illinois CIGNA HMO runs $1,648.10 per month.)

“People who are healthy and just want catastrophic coverage can pair a high-deductible plan with going to clinics on a regular basis,” says Renata Marinaro, manager of Health Services, Education and Outreach at The Actors Fund. (The Actors Fund provides ser­vices for everyone in the entertainment field, from stagehands to makeup artists to dancers.) And there are numerous clinics that offer treatment gratis or for a low fee (see sidebar for a partial listing).

For prescription medications, the Partnership for Prescription Assistance ( provides valuable information on hundreds of pharmaceutical assistance programs that offer free or low-cost medications for those who can’t afford them. They are available in all states; qualifications for those who are eligible vary, and not all medications (such as certain painkillers) are available.

If you’re really desperate for coverage, think about taking a part-time job at a company that offers medical insurance to part-time employees. Starbucks, for in­stance, has a benefits package that includes health insurance for “partners” who work 20 hours or more per week. Target, Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, Whole Foods, and Lowe’s also offer part-time employees some medical coverage. However not all these companies have flexible hours.

Dancers living with HIV have access to ADAP (AIDS Drug Assistance Program) coverage that varies in scope from state to state. The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program ( offers low-income, uninsured women access to screening and diagnostic services to detect cancer. Those who are diagnosed may be eligible for limited Medicaid coverage.

Medicaid is a national public health program administered by the states that is based on annual gross income, and determined by a percentage of the Federal Poverty Level. In 2009, that threshhold for one person was $10,830. Some states require a proof of both poverty and disability for Medicaid eligibility.

Most colleges and universities offer reduced-price health insurance to full-time—and in some cases part-time—students. Some states allow insured parents to keep their children on health insurance policies past their student years. New Jersey law, for example, holds that dependents may be covered up to the age of 31, as long as they are unmarried and have no dependents of their own.

Of course you can often obtain coverage through a spouse’s or domestic partner’s policy. But sign up as soon as you get hitched. In many cases, if you don’t notify a company within 30 days, you may have to wait until the next calendar year for coverage.

And there’s always the chance of landing work as a dancer or choreographer in one of the many countries that offers universal health care, such as Canada, Australia, Israel or all of the nations in the European Union!

For those staying closer to home, the Actors Health Insurance Resource Center ( has a detailed state-by-state guide to health care resources.

And if you want to get involved with improving health care options nationwide, check out

Medical services that are free or inexpensive

Cleveland Free Clinic (thefreeclinic.or
San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium (

Healthy Dancers Clinic at ODC Dance Commons (

Nevada Health Centers, Inc. ( operates medical centers and clinics across the state that provide services on a sliding scale based on income.

Texas Association of Community Health Centers (

Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic (212-489-1939), run by The Actors Fund in NYC, for documented entertainment industry professionals between the ages of 18 to 64

The Dancers’ Resource, resources and wellness groups for dancers, also run by The Actors Fund (

Trading dancing for healing

Artist Access Program at the Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center in Brooklyn, NY (877-244-5600). Dancers can offer their talents in exchange for credits for care, which can include doctor’s appointments, dental work, emergency room visits, prescriptions, inpatient medical stays, podiatry, and rehab. Catey Ott, director of Catey Ott Dance Collective, has used the Artist Access Program for the last two years. In exchange for medical credits, she has performed in the lobby of Woodhull Hospital, done face painting for a holiday party, and has taught yoga and movement classes to the medical staff.

Joseph Carman writes about dance and is the author of Round About the Ballet.

Monday, September 8, 2014

College, Consevatory, Both? School Choices for a HS Graduate Dancer

Right - Student at the Univrsity of North Carolina School of the Arts

Life after high school can be a complex and emotional process in dance is your focus. Some people say a conservatory is the best path to a performance career; others insist that a college education offers broader exposure and a better chance of earning a stable living. Teenage dancers may question the value of earning a dance degree at all.

The more informed dance teachers and mentors are about the post-secondary dance landscape, the better they can support students in their quest to make a choice that honors both who they are and who they hope to become.
What’s the difference?

Conservatories educate and train dancers to a professional-level standard, with the goal of graduating career-ready performers and choreographers. Acceptance to most conservatories is by audition, necessitating a strong technical background at the undergraduate level. Rigorous technique classes typically form the cornerstone of the curriculum. Faculty members tend to be working or retired dance artists with significant performance experience. Most conservatories stage regular performances, giving students an abundance of opportunities to audition and to perform publicly.

College and university dance departments typically place more emphasis on academics, though the amount and rigor of technical dance training varies among schools. Students may have the option to focus in non-performance areas such as dance education, history, theory, or criticism.

At both colleges and conservatories, the culminating undergraduate degree is a BFA, which takes most students three to four years to complete.

Students need to approach their educational pursuits with the understanding that dance artists today rarely land full-time company positions. “A dance career in this country is a nonlinear experience for most people,” says Katie Glasner, co-chair of the Department of Dance at Barnard College, and a former member of Twyla Tharp Dance. “There is no standard progression to follow like there is in state-supported dance systems such as those in Russia or Europe.” A mosaic of projects, teaching gigs, residencies, and non-dance jobs make up the professional lives of most working dancers today.

The Conservatory Option

For dancers with exceptional technique and a determination to dance professionally, a conservatory can be a place to grow as an artist while gaining real-world experience. Teen students who are chomping at the bit to audition for companies should be encouraged to consider a conservatory.

In the experience of Susan Jaffe, a former longtime principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre (ABT), “it’s much easier for directors or choreographers to infantilize young dancers who join companies straight out of high school.” Jaffe should know; she joined ABT in 1980 at the age of 18. Over the next 20 years she performed with many of the world’s most celebrated ballet companies, but she says young dancers today face a much different dance world. “It’s very, very tough now. There are so many more people; the spots in the companies get filled very fast; everybody wants to dance. Dancers with degrees are better able to navigate their world. They develop a depth of artistry. They know how to research and contribute to the artistic process—a must in today’s field.”

Jaffe says she has witnessed this in her students at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA), where she now serves as dean of the School of Dance. One of the most highly regarded dance conservatories in the country, UNCSA offers high school, BFA, and undergraduate Artist Certificate programs in dance. BFA and Artist Certificate candidates choose a concentration in ballet or contemporary. BFA students take 9 or 10 dance-related courses each year, including daily technique, partnering, and costuming, plus one to four in humanities or sciences.

With an emphasis on performance and choreography, the BFA program includes only one course in arts administration (Business Perspectives) and one required undergraduate computer-based course (Digital Media for the Artist). No courses in teaching dance are offered. Artist Certification candidates take only dance-related courses.

Of stage time, however, there is no shortage. “Students have hundreds of opportunities to perform,” Jaffe says. “We’re doing everything a second company does, and more, with professional-level choreographers, facilities, and costumes.” (A second company, such as Ailey II, trains young dancers and serves as a feeder to major companies.)

UNCSA stages three major productions a year in a 1,380-seat theater in downtown Winston-Salem and in a more intimate theater on campus. The dance department has 10 sprung-floor, air-conditioned studios and a fully equipped Pilates studio. Well-known choreographers regularly teach master classes, hold residencies, and stage repertory works and reconstructions. Bill T. Jones visited in 2013, and this year, Wayne McGregor | Random Dance was in residence for the month of February to create a new piece with the students.

The chance to study with a variety of working artists—and the connections that result—are one of the strongest advantages of a conservatory education. (On the whole, college dance departments do not prioritize funding for guest artists to the same degree.) Ballet students at UNCSA also benefit from the School of Dance’s unique relationship with ABT as the “exclusive affiliate school” of the company’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. “Sometimes they want a student who is here,” says Jaffe. “Sometimes they’ll send students to us.”

Fellow conservatory students can also become professional allies after graduation. Morgan Hulen, a former student at UNCSA, has traveled the world as a dancer with MOMIX Dance Company. He joined MOMIX after a friend he made at UNCSA called to tell him he was leaving the company and thought Hulen should audition.

“I don’t think I would be where I am today if I hadn’t gone [to UNCSA]. The audition and performance and resume opportunities,” he says, “were invaluable.”

Hulen also counts meeting his wife, fellow MOMIX dancer Amanda Diehl-Hulen as another blessing bestowed upon him at UNCSA. Her time there, he says, was more challenging than his. “As a man in dance, you tend to get doted on. Amanda faced more politics: faculty favorites, comments about her weight, competition for roles. But neither of us would trade the experience. The hard knocks in school prepare you for the reality after. It’s not all sequins and smiles.”

Jaffe was not on faculty when Hulen and his wife were students, but she acknowledges that the environment at UNCSA isn’t an easy one. “The students who thrive here possess a certain maturity for their age,” she says. “They are not afraid of working hard. If you do not learn to use your time well, you will have issues.”

When asked what percentage of UNCSA grads goes on to dance with professional companies, Jaffe says it’s hard to tell. “Often a student will go to a second company from UNCSA, and it may take two or three years before they get a professional contract. More and more, companies are taking older dancers. Dancers almost never go straight into a company.”

The College Option

Katie Glasner teaches at a college, not a conservatory, but her objection to the advice not to put all of one’s “eggs” in the dance basket applies to both options. “I have seen the desire to study dance be met with great family support and great family conflict,” she says. “Parents often ask me: ‘What if my child becomes injured? What if she changes her mind about a dance career?’ I tell them education is not an insurance policy; it’s a springboard. Just because you get an education in anything doesn’t mean you’re going to use it professionally. Education is a very personal decision. What works for one person may not work for someone else.”

Barnard College, where Glasner teaches, is one of the four undergraduate colleges that make up Columbia University, New York City’s Ivy League institution. Barnard is a small, women’s liberal arts school, but its dance department is coed and serves the entire Columbia population. No audition is required for acceptance to the dance department. There are currently 36 dance majors at Barnard, but more than 1,100 students make their way through the department each week, taking classes in one of six levels of ballet and modern technique, as well as academic courses like Dance in Film and Dance of India.

Freshman dance student Melissa Kaufman-Gomez relishes the cross-pollination among students studying different disciplines. “Being in an environment in which I’m not always surrounded by dancers can be eye-opening,” she says. “It has informed my dancing. Last semester I took Katie Glasner’s Dance in New York City class. We attended 14 performances, all different forms of dance in different boroughs, then discussed and wrote about them. There were several non-dancers in the class, and it was interesting to hear their perspectives on the movement.”

Kaufman-Gomez is considering double majoring in dance and computer science. The option to do so was one reason she decided on Columbia over her other top choices: New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program, a partnership between The Ailey School and Fordham University. Accepted to all three, she made her choice based on a mix of finances, academic considerations, and intuition.

“If I were at a conservatory,” she says, “maybe I would become weary of the technique, or take it for granted. The way I’m doing it now, I have to fight for it. The difficulty makes me realize my passion for dance. I have to take responsibility for getting the ballet and modern I need to give myself a good base.”

Over her winter break, Kaufman-Gomez took classes at Steps on Broadway and The Ailey School. On weekend mornings she takes free classes through the student-run Columbia Ballet Collaborative, which brings in outside professionals to teach and choreograph. With such ready access to professional-level training, Gomez says she does not feel she is missing out on the rigor of a conservatory education.

“Both forms of education [college and conservatory] are great,” says Glasner. “Neither is better or worse. But they are very, very different. The mission of a conservatory is to produce dancers for the field. Not here. We have had people go on to dance with major companies, but we have also had students go on to arts management at the Kennedy Center, to graduate programs in public policy in the arts, or to become dance writers.”

Glasner says one of the main goals of her job is to broaden the dance field. She is not alone. Dance scholarship has flourished over the past few decades in fields like dance pedagogy, ethnography, and performance studies, multiplying the directions students can take a dance-related career.

But for aspiring performers, dance in academia can pose challenges. Facilities and funding tend to lag behind those at conservatories. Many college dance faculties wage a constant campaign as advocates for dance to the administrators who allocate resources. Also, faculty in college dance departments may be less connected to current developments in choreography and performance, especially in colleges with limited budgets for guest artists or those far from metropolitan areas.

The Hybrid Option

A small number of colleges and universities offer conservatory-style programs geared toward aspiring performers. These include Florida State University, Butler University (renowned for its ballet program), NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the University of Michigan (UM).

Amy Chavasse is an associate professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance at UM. “We consider and advertise ourselves as a conservatory within a Research I university,” she says. (“Research I” is a distinction conferred on top research institutions under a now-defunct classification system, though many universities continue to use the term.)

Acceptance to UM’s dance program is by audition, and very competitive: the department admits 16 to 20 students per year on average, out of roughly 125 applicants. Though the BFA is focused primarily on modern dance performance and choreography, many candidates have serious backgrounds in jazz and ballet.

“The ballet curriculum here is quite strong,” Chavasse says. “Students are advised to take certain technique classes the first two years; beyond that, they can take as much ballet or modern as they want.”

Traditionally, modern technique at UM has focused on mid-20th-century forms such as Graham and Horton, but more recently the department has broadened its scope. Chavasse, who has danced with Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians and who currently directs her own company, now teaches modern and incorporates release technique, somatics, international influences, and improvisation.

“Some of the freshmen are put off,” she says, “especially those who are used to being asked to face front and mimic the teacher. I tell them, ‘You need to be exposed to this if you go out in the world and audition.’ When alumni visit and confirm this, you see the light bulbs go on over the students’ heads.”

Dance majors at UM are required to take a hefty 30-credit minimum outside the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “At UM,” says Chavasse, “you get the full university experience: top-tier faculty, collaboration across disciplines, football games, dance teams. It can present more opportunities or more distractions, depending on how you look at it.”

Many students in the dance program double major in dance and another subject. Aidan Feldman graduated from UM in 2010 with dual degrees in dance and computer science. Now a software developer, he lives in Brooklyn, New York, and dances in two modern companies: Artichoke Dance and danceTactics.

“Ironically,” he says, “I’m dancing more than a lot of my friends who are focused on a career in dance first and foremost. It’s almost impossible to dance full time, so you might as well pursue something in addition that you care about. I was lucky to find something that provides a comfortable lifestyle.” While Feldman’s software job is 40 hours a week, his schedule is flexible and allows for morning dance classes and rehearsals.

Feldman says he learned the elements of solid dance composition at UM but did not feel encouraged to “push the envelope.” He says his most valuable experiences were outside the classroom. During his senior year, Feldman produced a show on privacy and social media in collaboration with students studying theater, music, and tech. “UM is great about providing resources and facilities for student-led performances,” he says. “If you want to make a project happen, you can.”

Feldman, Hulen, and Kaufman-Gomez recommend that prospective students research and visit every school they are considering. As for the final decision, Kaufman-Gomez’s advice is to “go with your gut. People will have all kinds of advice from both the academic and dance perspectives,” she says. “But if you really want to dance, you’re going to find a way, no matter which school you go to.”

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Self Esteem And Separating the Dancer From the Dance

Many athletes and dancers wrongly determine their self-worth by how successful they feel about their career. When he or she performs well or feels successful, he or she feels good about him or herself. But the opposite is also true: despair and low self-esteem results when this person does not perform well or views him or herself as a failure. Self-esteem is a core issue because it affects every aspect of your life, not just dancing.

Society sends subtle signals that you must achieve in your career to feel worthy as a person and that is the trap that many athletes fall into. In addition, if you are perfectionist, it doesn’t help your self-esteem because you have such high expectations and are always so critical and hard on yourself. One day you have self-esteem and the next day it erodes due to what you think is a poor performance or practice. One dancer I know stated: “Even if I felt I had a flawless performance, if I did not get a good audience reaction or the reaction I was looking for, I feel like a failure.” This statement highlights how out of control one can feel about his or her success or failure in dance, and thus make negative judgments about one’s performance.

What is self-esteem? Self-esteem is the regard you hold for yourself. All of you have a concept of your person (self-concept). If you like your self-concept (who you think you are), then you have self-esteem. Self-confidence is different. Self-confidence is the belief in your ability to perform a task—it is not a judgment. You can have self-confidence, but not self-esteem, and vise versa. Optimally, you want both—high self-confidence in your abilities and self-regard.

Self-esteem should be based on who you are as a person instead of how well you can perform in dance or how high you go in a dance career. Think about this: if you take away the part of you who is a dancer, how would you describe yourself? What are your personal characteristics that describe you? This is what self-esteem should be based on. If you feel like you struggle with self-esteem, don't give up. Here are some ideas about raising self-esteem:

Switching Roles

When you are dancing, you are in the role of the ballerina, modern dancer, jazz dancer, ballroom, etc. You want to be into that role fully when practicing and performing, but when you leave the studio or stage, it’s time to switch roles into other parts of your life and let go of judgments. Don’t superimpose the role of a dancer (or how well you can perform) into other areas of your life.

True Friends

People who are your true friends and family members love you for who you are as a person. They don’t judge you based on your performance or change their view of you because of how well you can dance. If they do, they are not your true friends. They like you for who you are, not what you do.

Stop Any Comparisons

You do yourself harm by making comparisons to other dancers who you think are better or more talented than you. This only serves to hurt your self-esteem and confidence because you put others on a pedestal and criticize your faults. Everyone is unique. Think about how well you did compared to your last performance instead of making comparisons to others.

Accept Your Body Image

I know many dancers worry about their body not being the perfect type - too short, too tall, feeling too heavy or blah features. No one can be perfect or has the perfect body for ballet. Some people are born with more hand-eye coordination, stamina, or balance, but that’s what makes us unique. Accepting your body image is the first step to gaining self-esteem. Make the best of what you have by focusing on your strengths and capabilities as a dancer.

Balance in Life

If your life is dance, you are at greater risk for self-esteem problems because you have “all your eggs in one basket” and can’t separate the different roles in you life. Strive to find a balance in your life with your family, school, dance, friends, and other career aspirations. This will help take the pressure off your dance and allow your self-esteem to grow.

Be Your Own Best Coach

You are your own worst critic and your best friend wrapped into one. We are often harder on ourselves than we are on our best friends. What would you say to a best friend that is feeling down? Can you be at least that supportive of yourself? Always give yourself words of encouragement and reward after a performance or practice. Pretend you have the most positive coach on your shoulder giving words of encouragement.

Define Your Self-Concept Outside of Dance

A good exercise is to define who you are outside your dance career. Use only descriptions that apply to your personal characteristics that you bring to every aspect of your life. Make a list of these positive characteristics and review them every day. Do you like what you see? If so,great! Work on developing these traits further. Is there something you don’t like? Is so, work to change that aspect of you. With time, you can learn to develop both your dancing and your self-esteem.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Training the Emotional as Well as Physical Self in Dance

By Bill Evans

Dance students learn in many ways. Athletic trainers often refer to three categories of learning: knowledge, skills, and attitude. Professors of dance education like me often use Benjamin Bloom’s classification scheme, which identifies three domains of learning: cognitive, psychomotor, and affective.

This classification of the areas of learning was identified by a group of American college instructors led by Dr. Benjamin Bloom (University of Chicago) in 1956. It has helped to guide my teaching for many years. For every course I plan and every class I teach, Bloom’s work has given me a framework for considering the feelings and attitudes (the affective domain) through which my students learn, as well as their development of knowledge and skills.

All dance teachers rely on the psychomotor area of learning. “Psychomotor” refers to physical movement, coordination, and use of motor skills; development of these skills requires practice and is measured in terms of techniques, speed, or precision in physical execution.

What’s not always openly addressed in the dance classroom, in my experience, is the affective area of learning. The term “affective” refers to our emotions.

Most dance teachers also emphasize the cognitive area of learning, which refers to the recall or recognition of specific facts, patterns, and concepts that serve in the development of students’ intellectual abilities to embody dance skills and styles.

What’s not always openly addressed in the dance classroom, in my experience, is the affective area of learning. The term “affective” refers to our emotions, which are tied to values, appreciation, enthusiasms, and motivations. By considering my students’ feelings (as well as their thoughts and their bodies), I have guided them more successfully than I was previously able to do, and I have facilitated a fuller development of their potential abilities as dancers, choreographers, and future teachers.

When I was growing up, my teachers often told me to “leave my emotions outside the studio.” I discovered in my late 20s that if I invited my students to explore their emotions in technique class rather than ignore them, they danced with more richness and were more present in the moment. I saw them become more engaged and more fully invested in our explorations. When I worked with the master modern dance choreographers and teachers Anna Sokolow (in my 30s) and Daniel Nagrin (in my 40s), I gained added insight into the value of asking dancers to access their emotions to move with expression in each class and rehearsal.

One can approach teaching and learning through the affective domain in five staes: receiving, responding, valuing, organizing, and internalizing.


Receiving refers to students’ willingness to hear and see. I frequently ask them, “Are you open to the possibility of positive change?”

I ask myself, “What can I do to help each student understand the personal relevance of the movement concepts we are investigating?”

I encourage the students to approach each class as an investigation of new or deeper possibilities, rather than to try to impress their classmates or me with how quickly or well they might learn a movement sequence or skill.


Responding refers to active engagement. I frequently remind my students that learning is active and I invite them to be fully present—to really see and hear and to fully tune in to feelings and sensations.

I tell them that I consider myself engaged in reciprocal dialogue with each of them, and that their thoughts and feelings about our shared experiences are important. When I ask questions, I wait for the answers.

I ask students to work with a “study buddy” in each class to observe their partner’s movement explorations and then to share their non-judgmental perceptions in brief discussions with their buddies.

I continually try to figure out ways to motivate students to be fully present, engaged, and active. I explain that by responding they are developing more parts of themselves and taking personal ownership of the learning process.


Valuing is making personal meaning of shared movement experiences. I organize processes through which students can attach personal worth or values to concepts we are investigating.

I differentiate between activities and experiences; that is, I don’t believe that dance is only an activity within the psychomotor domain. For me, movement becomes dance when it is an integrated experience that involves all three domains: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor.

For me, a dance experience is not complete until a student has considered such questions as, “What does this mean to me at this stage of my journey as an emerging artist? How would I like to draw upon this experience to set personal goals for my future growth?”


Organizing is the stage of creating priorities. “Of all the things that are important to me now,” a student might wonder, “which would I like to attend to first?”

In each class, I facilitate opportunities for students, as a group, to investigate in their own improvisational explorations the concepts we are examining. I might say, “Of the concepts we have considered today, which two are most important to you? How can you delve into them in your own improvisational dance? How can you convert them to your own personal movement language, rhythms, and phrasing?”

This practice helps students understand that movement concepts are larger than any one personal style and that by drawing from each class, from any teacher, and from their own investigations, they can build a personal creative voice.


Internalizing is the process through which a student’s personally established values contribute to daily behavior. Questions to consider include: “How can you embody the concepts and practices you value so that they become part of your daily movement life, in and out of dance class?” and “How can you invite these new values to live inside you and guide you to develop patterns that will enable you 1) to solve movement problems effectively and 2) to dance in ways that will allow you to have a long and healthy movement life?”

For more than two decades, I have sought the opportunity—first at the University of New Mexico and now at The College at Brockport—to teach the entering freshmen dance majors. I ask these highly motivated students to share with me their thoughts and feelings on many subjects, including their pre-college dance teachers, in written letters and in face-to-face conferences. For most of our new students, the studio or high school teacher was also a “second mother,” and what the students learned from her was not merely how to dance but how to love dance, work hard, bring positive energy to the process of learning, and support peers.

I believe the most effective dance teachers intuitively approach learning through feelings and attitudes as well as through the acquisition of knowledge and the development of skills. I value Bloom’s taxonomy (classification) because it has helped me follow a systematic approach in each class as I try to make certain that I teach the whole student in a balanced way.

In my experience, students may not remember what we did in each class, or what I said, but they won’t forget how I made them feel.

Bill Evans is an internationally known choreographer, performer, teacher, administrator, writer and movement analyst. More than 200 of Evans' works have been performed by professional and pre-professional ballet, modern dance, and tap companies through the United States, including his own Bill Evans Dance Company, Repertory Dance Theatre, Concert Dance Company of Boston, Ballet West, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Ruth Page Chicago Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theater, Stars of American Ballet at Jacob's Pillow, Chicago Tap Theatre and many other companies. He has also created works for companies in Canada, Mexico, Europe and New Zealand.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Passport to Dance: Studying Abroad

Studying abroad has long been a staple of a well-rounded college experience. But in the past, the lack of dance-focused programs, together with the rigorous requirements of a BFA track, have made it impractical for many dance majors.

Yet studying in a foreign country can have a profound effect on a dancer’s artistry. “Immersing oneself in a community very different from your own and communicating with other artists about art—that’s a rich experience,” says Patricia Rincon, head of dance at the University of California, San Diego. “Your lens is expanded to new ways of seeing and approaching your work.”

More study-abroad opportunities are popping up for dancers. Some universities offer faculty-led summer intensives in prime dance locations, while others partner with foreign institutions for semester-long dance experiences. Even if a college doesn’t host its own program, it may offer resources for students to study abroad through another foreign or American institution. Here are three ways that programs are typically structured.

Summer Excursions

Each summer, University of South Florida associate professor Michael Foley leads a group of about 20 dancers from both USF and Barnard College to Paris, where they spend four weeks experiencing Parisian culture through the lens of dance. Students live in a residential area, study with European artists, attend performances and choreograph, in addition to writing papers and keeping journals. But Foley makes time for them to explore the city. “I try to find a balance, so it’s not just dance camp with a French twist,” he says. “They’re doing what they would do if they were professionals: taking class in the morning, working on repertory in the afternoon and living in the city.”

The intensive counts toward six credits, which can be applied to requirements in choreography, dance history or cultural studies, depending on the institution. Because the program happens outside of the normal school year, it doesn’t interfere with graduation timelines.

Florida State University hosts a similar Paris program, in partnership with the Académie Américaine de Danse de Paris. In addition to ballet, students experience dance history firsthand through classes in court dance and Duncan technique, take open classes around the city and tour art museums and famous dance sites, such as backstage at the Palais Garnier.

Katarina Bennicoff Yundt, an FSU student who attended last summer, says the language barrier made classes particularly fascinating. “To us, ‘plié’ means ‘do a plié,’” she says. “But to them, ‘plié’ just means ‘to bend.’ They’d be talking about the arm. You had to stay really focused to keep up.”

Semesters Spent Abroad

Some schools offer entire semesters abroad, led by a dance faculty member. (A semester-long USF Paris program is tentatively set to launch in spring 2015.) Often, these programs are held in partnership with a foreign university. This fall, Hobart and William Smith Colleges dance department, with associate professor Cadence Whittier, will lead one such program in New Zealand.

Geneva, New York–based HWS, which places a strong emphasis on community service, is teaming up with the University of Auckland, whose dance faculty is well-known for their arts and education programming. Auckland’s dance studies majors frequently go out into different communities, leading interactive sessions, for example, with elementary and special-needs students. Similarly, HWS students will gain hands-on experience implementing arts programming with local organizations. The university offers two courses to help students with the immersion process and to understand the needs of Auckland’s diverse populations. “They gain more experience observing how other people and communities do things,” says Whittier.

For semesters abroad, students have more opportunities to customize their experiences. In the HWS program, for example, attendees include other academic majors as well as serious dancers. Faculty will help those desiring more technique classes to find extra courses at local studios and at the university.

“Most of my students, when they come back, seem more grounded, and that permeates their academic and artistic studies,” says Whittier. “With that comes confidence in their ideas and interactions.”

Prepare Your Own Adventure

The most adventurous dance majors set out solo at a foreign institution. Being one of the only American students can be intimidating, but it’s also one of the purest ways to experience a new culture. Many of these universities facilitate connections among their American students and offer cultural workshops to help them adjust. If a dancer prefers a more guided experience, many U.S. schools (such as USF and FSU) welcome outside students into their group programs.

College study-abroad offices coach students through the process, often with the help of a dance faculty advisor. For instance, Rincon, at UCSD, frequently recommends the Instituto Universitario Nacional del Arte in Buenos Aires for those wishing to study ballet and contemporary. She draws on her own experience teaching abroad when making suggestions, but overall, student experiences are diverse and highly individualized. “It’s all tailored to their interests,” she says.

Sometimes students integrate dance into nondance programs. “I’ve had dancers go to Argentina with an economics teacher and study tango,” says Whittier. HWS’ center for global education helped another student studying academics in France secure a teaching internship and apply for a grant to fund dance classes.

“I feel like I’m a more well-rounded artist now,” says Bennicoff Yundt about her summer in Paris. The experience pushed her outside her comfort zone and broadened her perspective. In the end, these revelations are what make studying abroad so valuable. “There are moments of utter enlightenment,” says Foley. “To watch them find a sense of ownership of their identities and who they want to be as dancers is incredible.”

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