Professional Dancers Give a Shout-out to Their Favorite Teachers
December 1, 2015

For a dancer, there’s nothing quite as essential as finding a teacher who “gets it.” But, interestingly, the “it” varies from dancer to dancer—and the right connection can be elusive. From class structure and artistic approach to personality and communication style, each dancer has a personal preference. And when an instructor and dancer really click, the resulting partnership can spark expansive growth. Here’s what 16 performers of different backgrounds and styles have to say about their go-to teachers.

Creates a calm space

Wendy Whelan

Former NYCB principal, now freelance dancer

New York, NY

“I’m looking for someone who understands a body that’s had a long career and who doesn’t put pressure on me to be something I’m not. They work with each dancer as an individual and give them what they need—in that moment.

Zvi Gotheiner, who I currently take often, keeps the room calm, but we flow and move a lot. There’s no judgment in the room. He doesn’t talk or correct often, but when he does it, he does so very quietly so we have to listen hard. He’s always saying, ‘Don’t forget to breathe,’ ‘You’re already there,’ ‘You don’t have to try to be outside of yourself’ and ‘Trust your own body: It’s doing the work it’s supposed to do.’ They’re simple, essential tips: Let it happen.”



Gives me room to move

Chloé Arnold

Tap dancer, founder, Syncopated Ladies

New York, NY, and Los Angeles, CA

“I enjoy teachers who are confident and trained to understand musicality and phrasing. Their choreography should have room to move and be expressive. That teacher is also a trained improviser, because that’s a language you speak as a tapper. When it’s incorporated, we’re speaking that language together.

Ted Louis Levy has the full package, from technique to improv. His class challenges your awareness: listening and paying attention to detail. I’m refining my craft, so having someone who pays attention to what my options could have been in any given moment as an improviser is the best.”



Doesn’t forget to get you warm

Kyle Abraham

Modern dancer, founder, Abraham.In.Motion

New York, NY

“Teaching goddesses Christine Wright and Cherylyn Lavagnino always think about class structure with a beginning, a middle and an end, considering what they want you to get out of class. That helps bring the right information into your body for a strong foundation.

Many modern teachers are so caught up in the phrase work that they forget about getting you to the point of being warm. And if you’re going to a job after class, you want everything organized in your body so you can do your job well. I look for teachers who remember this.”



Doesn’t sugarcoat it

Dusty Button

Boston Ballet

Boston, MA

“I look for someone who will push me (versus a warm-up for the day), whether it’s a stylistic challenge or steps I haven’t done before. I also want the teacher to be direct: I don’t like sugarcoating. That pushes me to work harder than someone complimenting me. The Royal Ballet School had a great set of teachers, the late Gailene Stock and her husband Gary Norman: They were blunt. That works better for me because it doesn’t waste time. Time is very precious in our careers. The faster you can fix it, the faster you can progress.”



Challenges me—and herself

Natasha Adorlee Johnson


San Francisco, CA

“If they’re not asking me to challenge myself in some way, I’m disinterested. I prefer a teacher who says, ‘Let’s challenge ourselves, maybe add a clap in tendus! Let’s put our brains back into it.’”

Sandra Chinn challenges me just by who she is. She’s hilarious and offers a wealth of knowledge. She’s always looking to learn and create, herself. One day, she came into rehearsal to watch—and stayed. She created movement with us—so bold, fearless and ready to dive in. She isn’t afraid to be open. I thought, ‘I need to be open always, too.’ That’s a teacher.”



Connects the class energetically

Ashley Downs

Giordano Dance Chicago

Chicago, IL

“I appreciate a teacher who is nurturing but who holds me to the highest expectation, not too easygoing or too demanding. The teachers who walk this line have successful, energetic classes.

I also look for a teacher who embraces life: Nan Giordano embodies this. We come to class with individual energy, but she connects us on a communal energy plane. She says, ‘Anything can happen. You never know what’s around the corner.’ It’s all about presence, and Nan is a role model for that.”




Expresses their personality

Ching Ching Wong

Northwest Dance Project

Portland, OR

“I’m really interested in specifics, so I like to feel that the teacher is consciously choosing particulars. There’s no right or wrong, but if they want it a certain way, I love jumping on board.

Similarly, I love when teachers have unique personalities—hearing their background, jokes and what excites them. They love ballet and it shines through them. They are uninhibited in sharing their passion for what they are doing.”



Challenges me mentally

Matthew Rich


Los Angeles, CA

“I want to be challenged mentally, so I want a teacher who will put in the effort to change combinations. Choreographers are looking for people who can learn quickly. In class, changing combinations helps you train your mind.

Deborah Wingert in New York City helped me understand Balanchine’s technical and stylistic point of view—an example of a mental challenge that I like. And her language, energy and passion made me want to be a better dancer. A professional often uses class as a warm-up, but you can learn so much about yourself and artistry through class. She re-inspired me.”



Can articulate the movement quality she wants

Addy Chan

Freelance dancer and choreographer

Toronto, Canada, and Los Angeles, CA

“I want to walk away reminded of why I love to dance. Tatiana Parker is the type of teacher who, if you’re not going full-out, cares enough to call you on it. She wants you to get to that place.

Often it’s disappointing today: Some teachers just want to get 50 counts of eight out for their YouTube video, instead of assessing the room and actually teaching. So I look for somebody who teaches with the intention of nurturing the students, versus selfish self-promotion. Then, I want someone who articulates musicality and movement quality in some way, like saying, ‘I want to hit this as a rebounding moment, not staccato.’”



Renan Cerdeiro in Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. Choreography by George Balanchine ©The George Balanchine Trust.

Explains his choices

Renan Cerdeiro

Miami City Ballet

Miami, FL

“It’s interesting to see how a person can conduct a class, guide you through combinations and explain why they chose a step. I prefer when the teacher takes time to explain how a choice affects my dancing rather than just tell me what to do.

Carter Alexander did this as he guided me through the Balanchine style at MCB. He demonstrated every step in every combination, and he would also take my foot and place it where he wanted it. For music, he was active, too: He has marks on his fingers because he snaps the whole class to get the musicality. That’s his signature.”



Actively corrects me

Puja Mohindra

Bharata natyam dancer formerly with

Natya Dance Theatre

Chicago, IL

“It helps to have a teacher who’s really honest about whether you’re in the correct level. Recently, I was in a class where I felt I was too advanced for beginner, but not strong enough to be in that class. The teacher agreed, and I appreciated that candor so that I could adjust.

I also always want someone to assist me. When you dance as an adult, it’s a lot of drop-in classes, and often the teachers don’t correct you with such attention to detail. Over time, you can injure yourself. But I’m still an artist and dancer, and I want my technique to improve, so I find someone who will work with me and offer suggestions versus just ‘giving class.’”



Sets expectations for proper class behavior

Ashley Fitzgerald

Musical theater performer (recently in On the Town)

New York, NY

“I grew up in a strict ballet world with Russian teachers. They instilled the basic values of not talking during class, always listening and always making eye contact. It made me ready for everything that would come my way. Those teachers taught me how to be an asset, a good worker in an audition, in rehearsal, everywhere. People forget that in this industry, you are your business, so how you carry yourself is a priority.

Shannon Torres was also key. She helped me fix things that could have given me problems later, like hyperextended legs. She knew who I was and what I wanted: While keeping me grounded with all the technique I needed, she also helped to facilitate my dreams the way I envisioned them.”



Creates a safe space

Mallory Butcher

Freelance commercial, modern and musical theater dancer

Los Angeles, CA

“I ask: Does this teacher create a space where it feels competitive, or is it a great learning opportunity? In the latter category, Brinn Nicole Bierman teaches PUMPfidence (a pumps class) at Millennium Dance Complex. The first class I remember, we sat in a circle, legs in toward the center, already creating connection. She guided us through an exercise starting at our toes, then all the way up our bodies, giving thanks. It didn’t take long, but it was enough to appreciate our bodies, talents and time we had together. It created that kind of confidence and space to feel good in a class. In an industry where you already feel judged, that’s special.”



Helps me see the bigger picture

Ivory McKay

Musical theater performer

New York, NY

“I look for someone with a healthy perspective on encouraging artists to be better. I find some teachers are so concerned with things like lecturing on what to wear, etc., but they’re not encouraging the individual on quality and being a great dancer. I’m looking for someone who will guide me to layer performance quality on top of my technique, teachers who know how to inspire the room to work, like David Marquez, Diane Laurenson and Jeff Shade. They all create an atmosphere where I can dig deeper.”



Lets me know what to expect

Miko Fogarty

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham, UK

“I loved learning from Marilyn ‘Marny’ Trounson at Zohar School of Dance. Her class was always well-structured: We’d have the same combinations for two weeks and then change them. That way, I’d work on something consistently and then move onto new things, and she guided us through that. It’d sometimes be hard waking up to go to ballet in the morning, but as soon as you walked into the bright studio and started her warm-ups, it was refreshing and wonderful. I go back to take her classes whenever I can.”



Mixes techniques

Josh Nixon

Tap dancer

Washington, DC

“I like teachers who have trained in tap and other genres, too. Sometimes they will have mixed techniques: L.A. teacher Michelle May does a hip-hop/tap class that’s a blended approach. That gives me a different feel for the music and choreography. When you mash two genres together, it becomes something totally different, which I love to experiment with. Sometimes that changes my style in a regular class, and I notice new techniques and hints popping out.”



Photos from top: Nisian Hughes, courtesy of Whelan; by Kylie Shea, courtesy of Arnold; Steven Schreiber, courtesy of Abraham; Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet; Andres Weeks, courtesy of ODC/Dance; by Gorman Cook Photography, courtesy of Giordano; Renee Rioux, courtesy of Chan; by Daniel Azoulay, courtesy of Miami City Ballet; Susie Inverso, Crimson Cat Studios, courtesy of Silk Road Rising; by Loren Wohl, courtesy of Butcher; by Andrew Ross, courtesy of Birmingham Royal Ballet; by Colleen Nixon, courtesy of Nixon


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