Teachers Trending
Courtesy Oleson

American dance educator Shannon Oleson was teaching recreational ballet and street-dance classes in London when the pandemic hit. As she watched many of her fellow U.S. friends pack up and return home from their international adventures, she made the difficult choice to stick with her students (as well as her own training—she was midway through her MFA at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance).

Despite shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders, she was able to maintain a teaching schedule that kept her working with her dancers through Zoom, as well as lead some private, in-home acro classes following government guidelines. But keeping rec students interested in the face of pandemic fatigue hasn't been easy.

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Teachers Trending
Chloe Hamilton, Courtney Schwartz

The first time Courtney Schwartz assisted choreographer Talia Favia at a dance convention, Favia didn't even want her onstage, according to Schwartz. Favia was convinced she didn't need an assistant that week, and had told Artists Simply Human convention staff that Schwartz was welcome to take class from the floor.

Somehow, the message wasn't relayed to Schwartz, who stepped onstage at the top of class and was met with a sharp look from the choreographer. Puzzled, she soldiered on in her standard assistant role, learning the combo for the first time with the class. Then, she heard Favia announce to the students that they should turn their attention to the stage to watch Schwartz do a run-through to the music.

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Teaching Tips

Louise Nadeau praises students for taking performance risks during her classes at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB

In today's dance world, there's no shortage of technical prowess, limit-pushing physicality and masterful musicality. What's harder to find? Storytellers.

The ability to embody a character is essential for dancers aiming for Broadway and classical ballet, but even dancers performing in abstract work can benefit from basic acting skills. And yet, acting is often neglected in dance training—partly because many teachers don't have much experience with it, and partly because they're a little busy teaching dancers how to soar in the air and turn like tops.

While dance educators shouldn't be expected to give full acting courses, they should be able to help their students marry technique with performance. Here's how to seamlessly incorporate acting and character into your technique class.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Dancer Diary
Claire McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

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Teachers Trending
Ray Garcia Photography, courtesy Rutledge

Chris Rutledge's professional dance career was one big, happy accident.

The Alabama native was raised an athlete, with aspirations of a professional baseball career. When that dream didn't pan out at the age of 18, he was devastated.

Thankfully, fate stepped in. His mother lived in Sheffield, Alabama, across the street from Valley School of Dance studio owner, Lisa Lyndon, who was going through a difficult time of her own. Rutledge's mother asked him to check on Lyndon in the evenings after his shift ended at a nearby restaurant. "I would knock on her door and we would talk about dance," Rutledge says. "That was how it started for me."

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News

Alex Stone, courtesy Stewart

You may know Britt Stewart as the first Black female pro in "Dancing with the Stars" history. But what you may not know is that this fan favorite didn't have any formal ballroom training until just four years ago.

Stewart trained as a competition dancer at Artistic Fusion Dance Academy in Colorado before moving to Los Angeles, where she's had the kind of career most commercial dancers only dream of: We're talking all three of the High School Musical movies, Teen Beach Movie, "Glee," multiple major awards shows, and backup dancing for stars like Janet Jackson and Katy Perry.

By the time the "DWTS" Troupe opportunity fell in her lap she was confident she had ticked everything off her commercial-dance bucket list. "I was craving a new challenge," she says. "And, boy, did I get it."


Stewart describes joining the "DWTS" Troupe in 2016 as totally serendipitous. "I was in rehearsal for Disneyland's 60th anniversary when Derek Hough and Mandy Moore saw me dance," she says. "They got me an audition for the Troupe and six months later I was on the show without any formal ballroom training." (The Troupe is a group of professional dancers who performed on "DWTS" but were not paired with celebrities to compete. Troupe has not been part of the show for the past two seasons.)

She has since thrown herself into the ballroom world, training and competing professionally, and finally earning herself the highly coveted role of pro on Season 29 of the series. "Becoming a pro has been a dream of mine ever since I joined Troupe," she says. "It's the opposite of anything I have ever done before, and I am totally obsessed with it."

Here, Stewart reflects on her training journey and the dance educators who have shaped her.

The most helpful correction she's ever received:

"Kenny Ortega used to tell me that it's all about the story, and to maintain an inner dialogue. Don't do choreography just to do choreography, but have something behind it so there's authenticity to what you're dancing."

On her dance-training turning point:

"Taking ballet as a young girl. My dance teacher didn't want me to fit a stereotype. Back then in the comp world, Black girls were known for great tap solos and being really good at hip hop. Even though I was skilled at tap, she pushed me to be really good at other things, as well. So, I started doing ballet and Pilates privates, and it changed my training. At competitions, judges would say I was a great performer but that I needed to work on my technique. I still remember the first time I got a note saying I had really good technique. My hard work had actually paid off."

On the worst advice she's ever gotten:

"When I was 8 years old, I was standing out in my competition number, and the judges kept pointing out the little girl in yellow. Instead of celebrating the fact that I was standing out, my teacher told me to hold myself back to fit in with the group. Thankfully, I was young enough that I wasn't too self-conscious yet, and was able to break out of that mindset shortly after when my mom and other teachers told me to just go for it."

On her most influential teacher:

"Jenny Jarnot took me out of my mold, and told me I could be amazing and that she saw potential in me. She shaped me into who I am. To this day she sends me inspirational quotes, and we talk all the time. I'm so grateful to be connected to this amazing, strong woman who is passionate about me and so giving."

On choosing a career over college:

"I got accepted to Loyola Marymount University. I've always loved school, but I always knew I wanted to dance. My parents are educated businesspeople who felt college was really important. So, I ended up going to LMU. I only made it a semester and a half when Kenny Ortega called and said they were making a third High School Musical movie and that I needed to be part of it. So, I left school and filmed the third movie, and after that I got an agent. I don't like not finishing things. I went back and forth about returning to school, but my parents finally said, 'God is clearly presenting these opportunities—the door is wide open to your dance career.' I haven't stopped dancing since."

Teachers Trending
Break the Floor Productions, courtesy Meismer

Revered NUVO convention teacher Mark Meismer has made a career out of not compromising his values—and it's paid off.

Take Meismer's practically unheard-of NUVO convention schedule—a weekly Friday/Saturday shift that's allowed him to prioritize time with his daughter and attend church on Sundays.


Though today Meismer has the loyal following to justify such a schedule, his beginnings were humble. He auditioned for the Orange County School of the Arts at age 14, with just two years of dance classes under his belt. "I had passion coming out of my bones, but no technique to back it up," he says. The director of the school saw something in him, and he was accepted to train despite being, as Meismer says, the least technically proficient boy there.

Fast-forward to Meismer's signing with what is now MSA Talent Agency at age 17, when he was sent to an audition and booked his first professional job dancing in Kenny Ortega's '90s teen drama, "Hull High." "I never looked back and danced professionally until I was 30," Meismer says. For roughly 13 years Meismer had the kind of big career most dancers only dream of. (We're talking dancing-behind-Madonna-and-Celine-Dion big.) He filled the time he wasn't dancing with teaching on the LA Underground convention circuit (now known as LA Dance Magic.)

At 30, everything changed for Meismer when he adopted his now-16-year-old daughter Ryan. "I was ready, and made the choice to transition the direction of my life," he says. He quit performing and teaching at conventions and focused on choreographing at local studios so he could be at home more.

But when Ryan was 2 years old, Break The Floor's Gil Stroming approached Meismer with an offer he couldn't refuse. "He knew I had a daughter that I wanted to be present for, and that religion was also important to me, so he offered me a contract that would allow me to prioritize both," Meismer says. For the past 15 years Meismer has flown into cities around the country to teach Friday nights and Saturday days for NUVO before heading home to put his daughter to bed and attend church the following morning—a schedule that is practically unheard of in the convention world.

Recently, of course, most of his teaching has happened at home, virtually—sometimes with up to 650,000 students from all over the world for Break The Floor Live events. "I thought teaching virtually would be uninspiring, but it's actually been wonderful," he says.

Even when dancers are able to return to the studio, Meismer plans to continue with some virtual teaching. "I get to teach dancers I never would have been able to before, whether because of financial circumstances or because they live far away," he says. "I have to work a little harder through the screen, but I know there are people on the other side of that camera who are looking for motivation. I intend to continue to do just that."

Dance Teacher asked Meismer how he prepares his body to teach, the snack that gets him through long days, and the dance attire he can't live without.

His warm-up philosophy:

"I am a very big advocate of doing a full-stretch warm-up before teaching. I take a lot of time to let my hips open and get my hamstrings warm so I feel ready to do the choreography without getting hurt. Beyond flexibility, it's really important to engage the core, so I do some ab work, as well."

His must-have teaching attire:

"I always wear Lululemon bottoms—I especially like the Pace Breaker shorts. I wear Apolla Shocks or Nike or Adidas soft sneakers. I've had some knee injuries in the past and they're supportive of my joints. I also like to wear Adidas T-Shirts—something soft that breathes."

His go-to snack:

"Turkey Jerky, or a ONE protein bar (coconut and lemon are my favorite flavors)"

His guilty pleasure:

"Shopping! I work hard, play hard and spend money."

What he never leaves home without:

"My S'well water bottle gives me life. I hydrate all day and night."

His lifeline food:

"Chips and salsa."

His go-to relaxation show:

"I come home from teaching and unwind by watching 'Friends,' or something else that is easy and light for an hour or so. My brain keeps going after I teach and choreograph, so it's nice to have that time to focus on something simple."

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