Teacher Voices
courtesy Gibbs

Dance has taken Donovan Gibbs all over the world. He's danced with big names like Janet Jackson, Becky G, J Balvin and Rihanna, choreographed halftime shows for college bowl games in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, and taught at conventions and studios across Los Angeles.

So it's difficult to imagine that as a teenager, Gibbs was homeless for almost a year, living in his parents' dance studio. Not only did Gibbs overcome this hardship to become an acclaimed teacher, but he's now a LA-based business owner, bringing master teachers to studios across the country through his Bridge Training Program.

Dance Teacher spoke with Gibbs about his training program, his experience with homelessness and why he thinks hip-hop teachers need to focus on the basics.

The teachers that inspired his journey

"I took a class from Mia Michaels at The Pulse when I was 16. (It was also my very first dance convention.) During her class, she said 'When you're feeling the most uncomfortable is when you're growing the most,' and that has stuck with me ever since. She was the first person to light the flame."

During the same weekend, Brain Friedman taught a class, and as the dancers were headed to their lunch break, he caught up with Gibbs, asking his name and leaving him with a crucial piece of advice: "Keep going. Don't give up on this. I see something special in you." "That was the wind igniting the flame even more," says Gibbs, "and the earliest memory I have of what really sparked the interest of pursuing a career in dance."

Jalen Jet Turner, courtesy Gibbs

No sleep in the studio

A couple of months after attending his first convention, Gibbs' life took a sharp turn. Falling on hard times, his parents had to make the difficult decision to sell their home and car, and move into their studio—which was still in the process of being built.

"I graduated as a junior by doing extra classes in the morning and after school," he says. "I'd get back to the studio and help teach classes from about 5:30 to 10:00 at night, and then stay up until about 3 AM helping my dad with construction. That cycle repeated for about 10 months."

"It's a pro and a con because now I'm such a hard worker. I definitely feel like that stems from that pivotal moment in my life."

About his training program

Gibbs had always wanted to start a training program, but it wasn't until he met his now fiancé, former dancer Autumn Snow, that their dreams became a reality.

In 2017, they launched The Bridge Training Program, an in-studio dance intensive for studio owners that want to bring the industry feel directly to their studio.

Last year, they connected with studios in 4 different U.S. cities. "This year, we have 7 events, and for me, that speaks volumes because we're in the middle of a pandemic," says Gibbs.

How he structures class

"Repetitive. Instead of teaching you two 8-counts back to back, having you run through it a couple of times and then try it with music, I'll spend a whole 5 minutes on one certain groove, really drilling it into your head. That way you can get the movement, the way the body moves and the feeling instead of it just being about the counts," says Gibbs.

Gibbs teaches a variety of styles, but when it comes to hip-hop—which he's most well-known for—he believes "there's a lot of choreography being taught, but not a lot of breakdowns of the fundamentals. I feel like that's what a teacher's there for. To take you from the beginning, explain how it should feel, where it comes from. Then the students are better able to understand and translate that into their own movement."

Gibbs always makes sure to incorporate hip-hop technique during warm ups. "Whether we're using popping elements, locking elements, breakdancing or memphis jookin', I feel like it's important as a hip-hop instructor to throw in some of these styles."

Be More Media, courtesy Gibbs

Adapting to COVID-19

Within the first month of quarantine, Gibbs taught around 60 free online classes between Instagram Live and Zoom. The Bridge Training Program also held virtual classes for about 2 months. He still teaches classes and 1-on-1 private lessons online, including for his parents' studio.

"Recently, I started teaching weekly in-person classes to 6 to 8 year olds in a park. It's been really fun and I've enjoyed teaching kids on a regular basis like I did when I was back home," he adds.

For Gibbs, getting through COVID-19 has brought about a new "attitude of gratitude"—and a determination to continue facing any challenge head-on. "My whole life and life story in general has been nothing but perseverance," he says. "I'm up for the challenge."

Teaching at the Kirov Academy of Ballet summer program. Photo by Paulo Galli, courtesy Djoulouokhadze

When Vladimir Djouloukhadze met Vakhtang Chabukiani (one of the first men to inject a sense of Georgian folk-dance tradition into 1930s Russian ballet), Djouloukhadze's life changed. His ballet career would be shaped by the bold and uninhibited movement power that Chabukiani, his teacher, made so globally famous when he staged ballets like La Bayadère. When ballet is combined with character folk dance accurately and without any mocking, the delicacies and manners of the royal courts are married with a more wild, personal spirit that is invited to shine through various social folk-dances.

Djouloukhadze came to the U.S. after dancing for the Georgian National Ballet and other companies, and launched what has become one of the most successful teaching careers combining ballet and character techniques. His students have gone on to become principal dancers and soloists of the major ballet companies—to name a few: Matthew Golding, Rasta Thomas, Melissa Hough, Rory Hohenstein, Brooklyn Mack, Brian Maloney and me!

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
Getty Images

For 10 years, Anthony Morigerato judged competitions using almost the same score sheets he got when he was a comp kid. "I thought to myself, 'Why haven't they changed at all? Why are they so general?'" As a tap dancer, Morigerato found that only one word ("feet") on the judge's sheet applied to him. "It's not useful to tell a person to go work on their arms, feet or legs. The competition should be as educational as possible," says Morigerato, executive producer and artistic director of AM Dance Productions.

The adjudication process provides crucial feedback for a dancer's development. How the critique is delivered, whether through handwritten notes, audio recordings or verbal discussion, can help artists and teachers work to improve their craft. But sometimes the feedback is limited or unhelpful, as Morigerato noted for his tap routines. How can the process be elevated so that it is most beneficial? What kinds of changes have already been made? Adjudication guidelines tend to be slightly different at each competition and convention, each with certain measures of success and drawbacks. Yet while the industry's process for providing critique might still be evolving, the dancers' need for useful and educational feedback remains constant.

Prep for Panels

A judging panel, typically composed of about three dance professionals, may be given strict guidelines for adjudication—or none at all. At Artists Simply Human Productions, all judges are on headsets and connected "ESPN style" so they can hear each other and engage in conversation during a routine. "This way is different from the traditional judging format," says Braham Logan Crane, director. "They are required to talk for at least 2 minutes and 15 seconds during a 3-minute piece, with each judge making individual suggestions." Recognizing that not every judge is an expert in all areas of dance, the panelist with the most knowledge in that genre will take the lead. "They provide ideas and concepts, not just simple corrections about how to improve the number."

At American College Dance Association (ACDA) events, adjudicators are selected in part because of their professional and educational backgrounds. But they are discouraged from knowing anything about the work being presented. "The requirement for anonymity has evolved and been refined over decades," says executive director Diane DeFries. "Adjudicators respond to seeing and hearing each work one time in the theater, without any connection to the process. It allows for the kind of feedback that's hard to get and closer to the audience experience."

Yet despite the different participation requirements of judging panels, Alex Prushinski of Star Dance Alliance emphasizes a universal need for judges to be on the same page, with similar expectations. "I would like to see a goal for the entire competition industry that all judges are informed about different genres of dance," she says. "We need the hip-hop teacher to know technical ballet and tap terms, even though everyone has a different background." Some panels are more well-rounded and adept than others when it comes to critiquing a variety of dance genres.

Feedback Formats

In response to this need for more genre-specific feedback from judges, Morigerato developed a system called CODA for Break the Floor. "Dance competitions are good at identifying the problem, but they're not so adept at offering the dancer a solution to that problem," he explains. The digital product has three components: judge training, educational video content, and data for teachers and studio owners. Judges are trained so they understand the foundational components for each genre. "Each score sheet is broken down so that even if you're not a tap dance person," he adds, "you still understand and can communicate what makes for a nice tap routine." Morigerato has worked with faculty to develop more than 1,000 instruction videos to accompany feedback from judges, so that dancers have additional tools to work on areas that need improvement.

At Youth America Grand Prix, judges may score both classical and contemporary pieces, but they use the same ballet vocabulary to identify steps and transitions in both categories. "What's also great about YAGP is that we get to see the dancers in class before or after they compete," says Anna Liceica, master teacher and competition judge. "I talk to them in class about things they should apply onstage during a variation, and after they've competed, I can help them with things they have to work on. Hopefully they take that feedback with them."

Feedback from YAGP is handwritten and personal for each contestant. Break the Floor's CODA system provides digital feedback with educational videos. Other competitions, like ones produced by ASH Productions, provide one video file per dance that includes audio feedback from three judges. "People can download it a few days after the weekend event," says Crane. "If each judge were to send out a separate critique, and a studio sends 50 dances, that would mean the teacher would have to sift through 150 videos. I don't think they would all be listened to or utilized to their full capabilities."

In-Person Discussion

Like YAGP's in-person class instruction, the opportunity for participants to engage directly with the judging panel could be an efficient and beneficial format. Artists performing at ACDA events receive six to eight minutes of feedback after their performance. "Each adjudicator has two minutes to talk, then two minutes to have a conversation amongst themselves about what one another saw," says DeFries. "There are also 50 to 100 people in the audience, so the adjudicators are also addressing these people and talking about the artform. Comments can be used by the people who were in the dance, and made the dance, and saw the dance."

Yet with nothing provided in written form or a digital format for takeaway, this kind of feedback is just as ephemeral as the performance. Dancers, teachers and choreographers could interpret the conversation differently; details or suggestions could be misheard or misremembered. But on the other hand, comments are timely and responsive. "It's hard for people to get this kind of feedback when they are developing work in an academic situation," says DeFries. "The work is being seen and reviewed in the moment, not over time by a mentor or peer group."

Judge the Performance, Not the Performer

According to ACDA's guide for adjudicators, its feedback model has strengths and limitations. "The Association recognizes that an adjudicator is seeing a dance only one time in performance, and responses come from the vantage point of an audience member, not a peer or mentor. The value of the structure," says DeFries, "is that it allows for responses free from the influence of personal involvement in the creation of the dance."

Crane agrees that the performance should be judged on the performance itself, and not influenced by what the teacher might have seen in class. "It's human nature to combine both experiences," he says. "We try to avoid having someone judge a participant in class, because if the dancer doesn't live up to that expectation in their solo, the score might reflect that."

In the end, the judging process should be a healthy experience for performers. Critiques—digital, in-person or handwritten—can be given in a way that provides useful tools for continued growth and the development of stronger future performances. Teachers can also help the process by receiving and interpreting the feedback constructively for students. "Everyone needs to remember that dance is an art and not a sport," says Prushinski. "When you put three different judges on a panel, you will have a completely different outcome. It's very subjective."

To Share With Students
Photo by Samantha Clink. Courtesy of BODYTRAFFIC

Tiare Keeno successfully straddles the worlds of concert and commercial dance. She began her training at one of the country's premier competition studios, Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, Utah, before eventually transitioning to a top-notch classical conservatory, Classical Ballet Academy. All the while, she kept a close relationship with the razzle-dazzle of conventions, attending many each year before joining Nevada Ballet Theatre in 2012. "I've always said I wanted to stay open and try new things," Keeno says. After graduating from The Juilliard School in 2016, she moved to Macau, China, to work on the creation of a new Cirque du Soleil show, and performed in Al Blackstone's Freddie Falls in Love at The Joyce Theater in 2019, before landing her current position with BODYTRAFFIC for the 2019–20 season.

Keep reading... Show less
Christopher Lam and Aria Gerking. Photo by Christian Peacock

In a spacious upstairs room in his San Francisco home, ballet teacher Christopher Lam gently holds on to an ironing board as he pliés, tendus and dégagés in his socks on the wood floor. He is leading students in a virtual ballet class on Zoom in light of the San Francisco Bay Area's shelter-in-place order that has closed the doors of every dance studio where Lam normally teaches. After a particularly speedy and challenging frappé exercise with fondus, he steps up to the camera and says, laughing, "Dancers, I think that one was a bit ambitious for home—juggling the slippery floor and ironing board."

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
Aiano Nakagawa leads creative-dance class. Photo courtesy of Nakagawa

In Aiano Nakagawa's creative-dance class at Acorn Woodland Child Development Center in Oakland, California, a student wanted to run really fast instead of exploring shapes as planned. Nakagawa didn't dismiss or correct the desire. Instead, she yelled, "Yeah! And can you try a sharp shape at the end?" Another time, teachers were asking students not to go underneath tables in the room, but students wanted to anyway. So, Nakagawa's next lesson involved a theme for dancing under things.

Nakagawa teaches ages 0 to 7 at Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley and has founded a publication and platform for QTBIPOC (queer/trans/black/indigenous/people of color) creatives to empower themselves and others through art, called Art for Ourselves. In this work with adults and teens, she says that "it's really about undoing internalized oppression. But young children have an innate sense of freedom, a deep connection to sensation." By promoting that autonomy, she believes that we can collectively dismantle oppressive systems from the ground up. For her, teaching dance is not just about students being creative or physically active, but a way of fostering critical thinking and social justice.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Getty Images

Just when young dancers need oxygen the most—during a challenging balance or speedy petit allégro—it often seems they instinctively hold their breaths. Sometimes this happens as a reaction to stress; other times it might simply result from a constant sucking in of the waistline. No matter, it is an important habit for dance teachers to break.

"Dancers do not want their bellies sticking out, so most of them never breathe deeply enough and only take very shallow breaths into their upper rib cage," explains Marika Molnar, founder of Westside Dance Physical Therapy. "This reduces the amount of oxygen that gets into the blood to nourish the working muscles." Limiting the breath can also bring aesthetic and functional issues, from appearing stiff or uncoordinated to experiencing fatigue and exhaustion from not getting enough oxygen to your working muscles. In order to start coaching a deeper breath or diaphragmatic breath, it is necessary to help students understand the muscles at work with every inhale and exhale. While much time is spent having dancers work on their core, most often the abdominals are the focus and the topmost muscle is ignored: the diaphragm. The diaphragm is best described as a thin, dome-like muscle that acts as a partition separating the thoracic cavity, or chest, from the abdomen.

"I think visualization helps a lot," says Molnar. "If you have a round, blown-up balloon, and you put your flat hand on top and press down, you will see that the balloon increases in circumference as the pressure on it increases. This is what happens when you inhale: The diaphragm descends and flattens out, the rib cage expands while the abdominal contents get pushed down and outward, and air rushes into the lungs." When you actively release the diaphragm through an exhale, it returns to its starting position and allows the abdominal muscles to contract.

"Using a correct breathing technique can help to stabilize the lumbar spine and distribute the forces of gravity more equally around the lumbopelvic spinal muscles through their fascial connection to the psoas muscles," says Molnar. Other benefits of diaphragmatic breath include slowing down the heartbeat, stabilizing blood pressure and encouraging a sense of calm by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Along with visualization, Molnar recommends palpating students' back ribs and explaining that they should direct the breath into that area, allowing the abdomen to rise and fall as needed. "Dancers tend to pick this up very easily, because they are very kinesthetic," she says.

Breath as a Practice

Though we conceive of breathing as a natural skill, many experiences as we grow tend to stifle our innate ability to breathe deeply. Molnar prefers to teach dancers to think of breathing as a practice: "Do it every day, just like your barre," she says. While there are many ways to improve your lung capacity through specific breathing exercises, here are a two of her favorites that can be practiced anywhere at any time, in 5 to 10 minutes.

Counting the Breath

1. Start by exhaling through your mouth. "Purse your lips to really call in the deep abdominals," says Molnar. You can place your hands on your abdomen to feel your abdominals contract.

2. Inhale through your nose, with your mouth closed and your tongue resting on the roof of your mouth, its tip behind the front teeth. Move the back of one of your hands to your back ribs and feel them expand (don't be concerned with keeping the belly tight; allow it to expand naturally).

3. Begin to count to four in each direction of the breath.

4. See if you can increase the length of each inhale and exhale by one or two counts. Eventually, you might increase the exhale to a count of eight.

5. Then add a one-count pause at the end of each inhale and at the end of every exhale. Slowly increase that pause to four counts as you get more proficient.

"In a group class the teacher could give a combination like this: Four counts to inhale through the nose, four counts to hold, eight counts to exhale through pursed lips," says Molnar.

Breathing and Walking

"One of my favorite exercises is to combine breathing and walking," says Molnar. "Let's say you can walk three steps on your inhale and three on your exhale to start; after a while you may be able to walk five or six steps on each inhale and exhale."

This exercise is a great way to bring mindfulness to the breath and encourage coordination of breath and movement. Use the same tactile cues as above if they are helpful.

Getty Images

Tip: If you get lightheaded doing this exercise in a standing position, try it sitting or lying on your back.

The Parasetter

After treating professional dancers and students for many years, Molnar developed the Parasetter, a patented roller that includes an elastic wrap for the waist, to assist in three-dimensional breathing exercises. "I love using the Parasetter," she says, "because it gives you great feedback from the posterior rib cage as you take deep inhales, and if you wear the rib wrap, you can get the sensation of the whole rib cage in motion."


Marika Molnar founded Westside Dance Physical Therapy in NYC. Photo by Rachel Papo

Studio Owners
Getty Images

I recently spent a Saturday night with my husband and my 17-year-old dancing daughter, who sobbed at the foot of our bed. My daughter revealed her experiences with implicit bias and overt racism in school, and especially in the dance studio.

For six years, she has danced at a classical ballet school tied to the city's ballet company. The previous six years were spent at a mid-sized recreational/competition studio. I want to recount a few examples of the racism that my daughter shared that night.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.