Michèle Assaf Shares Her Vision for World Dance Movement
October 11, 2023

Every summer, dancers from over 40 countries travel to Castellana Grotte in Bari, Italy, for World Dance Movement—a two-and-a-half-week festival in which novice dancers to working professionals learn from top teachers, participate in a one-day competition, and network with dancers from all over the world—all while immersing themselves in Italian culture.

WDM began with artistic director Michèle Assaf, an international teacher, director, and choreographer whose credits include Broadway, The Mariah Carey Charmbracelet World Tour, and The Houston Grand Opera. For years, Assaf led Tezoro Productions—creator of the “LIVE at Broadway Dance Center” DVDs—with co-founder Allison Ellner, but in 2009 decided it was time to branch out.

Michèle Assaf. Photo by Mariagrazia Proietto, courtesy Assaf.

“Desmond [Richardson] and I were in the Mediterranean, living our best lives, and said, ‘Why don’t we do our own thing?’” says Assaf. Pooling their resources, Assaf and Richardson began planning the first festival [in 2009] with the goal to expand attendees’ training. “I wanted to create a way that dancers could meet other choreographers and dancers and network with different countries wider than the U.S., or wider than Australia, or wherever they come from,” she says.

Assaf aims to give dancers the best education possible, so she invites a variety of teachers and choreographers from all over the world to attend. This past July, WDM’s faculty included Nicola Monaco from the Akram Khan Company, Italian classical ballet teacher Clarissa Mucci, and American choreographer Tyce Diorio, along with exposure to less commonly trained techniques such as street dance, Gaga, and aerial dance.

Dancers have the opportunity to participate in a one-day competition to showcase their area of expertise, which can range from contemporary to traditional Chinese dance. However, Assaf stresses that WDM is “not like conventions in America with a thousand people in a ballroom.” Comparable to a summer intensive, WDM keeps class sizes small, holds classes in studios with mirrors and a marley floor, and schedules one-and-a-half- to two-hour classes with the same teacher or choreographer throughout the week. And, as an added bonus, participants have had the opportunity to audition for U.S. and European universities, Royal Caribbean contracts, and companies such as Complexions Contemporary Ballet.

Photo by Mariagrazia Proietto, courtesy Assaf.

Even after 15 years of WDM, the dance community and locals keep returning to support the festival. The city sponsors the event, constructs an outdoor stage for the gala, and fills every seat for the free performances. With the help of its sponsors, WDM also awards over $1 million yearly to talented young dancers for continued dance education worldwide.

Dance Teacher caught up with Assaf to get an inside look into her vision for WDM and why the festival is important to her.

What’s the biggest lesson you want to impart onto students who attend World Dance Movement?

I really just want to open their eyes to the opportunity of what is the dance world. It’s not competition land. This really is a whole other level for them to understand what there is in other countries and in the U.S., even.

All my colleagues and I want to impart what we know and what we have in our life and give it to them so they can fly with it. Whatever opportunity I can give them, I give them.

Photo by Mariagrazia Proietto, courtesy Assaf.

What’s the most important quality you look for when hiring faculty for the festival?

I really look for teachers who know how to teach dance. I know that sounds insane, but I don’t want teachers who come into the classroom and just dance themselves. I want people touching people’s bodies and correcting them. I really look for that kind of teacher. I just really want every kid to leave here and go “Wow, I learned something new.”

What advice do you have for dancers preparing to come for the first time?

I’d tell them to take Italian classes. Learn a little Italian so you can order your pasta. I would learn about the culture and the area a bit. Stay in class, study, train, and be the strongest you can be so you can get the most out of [the festival].

The classes are going to be technically difficult, they’re not going to be easy, and they’re going to be styles you’ve probably never done before, so you might want to go online and look up the teachers who are going to be there and get an idea of their work.

Photo by Mariagrazia Proietto, courtesy Assaf.

What’s your vision for the future of WDM?

I just want to continue and keep giving opportunities to dancers as long as it’s enjoyable for me, which so far it is. I love it. And my partner is fabulous. When you see the joy on these kids’ faces and the networking and the friendships, that’s why every year I go, “Okay, now I get it.”

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