Our teachers are the people who guide us, correct us, inspire us, mentor us, help us and, above all, educate us. Dance teachers, in particular, are a special breed because they’re not just showing us something in a book, but they’re passing down a living, breathing art, a technique, that can’t fully be learned any other way but through personal direction. Some dance teachers, though, go even further than technique. Those teachers reveal and expose us to true artistry – often through their own.
Broadway Connection focuses on this special quality when its teachers, some of Broadway’s best, lead master classes and workshops at studios around the country. It calls its faculty members “Teaching Artists” and not just “Teachers” because they bring the spark and energy from their current and past stage experiences to each class – creating magic, encouraging artistry and boosting enthusiasm in the students they teach.
Dance Informa caught up with three Broadway Connection faculty members to find out just what being a “Teaching Artist” really means and why it’s important.
Brian Martin, a performer touring in Tony Award-winning Director/Choreographer Susan Stroman’s production of Bullets Over Broadway, says, “‘Teaching Artist’, to me, simply put, means sharing personal creativity and educating others with my own pearls of wisdom. [It’s] using tools that have helped [me] pursue my career to give future professionals a helping hand and inspiration to succeed and grow as performers.”
Eric Johnson, currently the dance captain and a swing on the first national tour of Cinderella, explains, “For me, what makes a ‘Teaching Artist’ is someone who doesn’t say, ‘This is right and that is wrong,’ but someone who says, ‘Yes’ and ‘Let’s try.’ You have to let your students explore and fail, and try things that they’ve never thought possible. Really, it comes down to someone who’s willing to share their experience and their own integrity versus someone dictating what is correct and what is incorrect.”
On the other hand, Natalie Wisdom, currently performing on the first national tour of Matilda, says that teaching is an “art form” all its own, so ‘Teaching Artist” is “more to me than just an artist who teaches.” She continues, “I consider teaching itself an art form as well. To inspire students and create a lesson plan that helps them work toward and achieve their goals in any area is a skill that is very special and can be different for each individual teacher, and each student will respond in a slightly different way to each class and session, making it an exciting experience for all!”
The title “Artist” honors the unique and invaluable experience of someone who is currently creating and working professionally in dance and theatre. Not all regular teachers are still artists in this sense, at the cutting edge of what’s happening right now. (That’s not to say their teaching isn’t valid; rather, it’s just different.) Those currently performing on stage and sweating in rehearsals day in and day out are often the ones creating the newest trends, who are experimenting, who are being visionaries.
Wisdom began teaching with Broadway Connection in 2012 when she joined the national tour of Billy Elliot. “My professional experience in the industry propels and inspires me to provide the best classes possible for young people who are interested in the arts,” she says. “I believe that by sharing my personal stories and experiences through the Q&As, as well as giving specific advice and critique on audition technique and different dance combinations, I am cultivating the dancers of tomorrow to be even more prepared than I was for the challenging, yet rewarding, field of musical theatre dance. This kind of training not only helps them prepare for what’s ahead, but it also preserves and protects the art form for future generations, which is a powerful thing.”
Likewise, Martin says his professional experience — which encompasses “workshopping a musical, regional credits, as well as three national tours”, he points out — can be a real benefit to aspiring dancers. “Learning from numerous directors and choreographers has helped evolve my own artistry,” he adds. “With this knowledge and creativity, I communicate and share my methods and goals with my students and young artists.”
One aspect of Broadway Connection that really sets the organization apart is its full circle experience. It pushes the classroom experience even farther by connecting students with their Teaching Artist at the artist’s live show. Johnson, who first joined the Broadway Connection team in 2011 when he was performing on the first national tour of West Side Story (and he’s done five other national tours since!), thinks this is “refreshing”.
“Often times, there is a divide between the performers on stage and the audience, but through Broadway Connection, you can bridge the gap,” he says. “I believe that young students have a tendency to see successful performers as something that’s very far out of reach, but through Broadway Connection, it becomes tangible.”
This also positively affects the parents. Wisdom notes, “I think it’s great for the parents, too, because I know my parents were excited for me, but it was also a little daunting for them to anticipate me going into a career that is so competitive and, at times, unstable. When parents see friendly, supportive and successful actors at the stage door, it puts their mind to rest that if this is their child’s chosen career path, that it is possible to have a fulfilling, happy life as a musical theatre dancer. It helps wipe away the ‘starving artist’ idea that I think so many parents worry about when their kid says, ‘I want to do that!’”
While it may be impossible to ever know the full impact that Broadway Connection teachers will have on the future industry (how many students of today will become the performers of tomorrow?), it is clear that they can make lasting impressions. When asked if they had a “Teaching Artist” who had impacted them, each artist (Wisdom, Martin and Johnson) recalls someone in their young life as an aspiring performer.
While Martin shares that he had “numerous”, Johnson recalls one specifically. “Jeanne Gilbert pushed me out of my comfort zone and placed my first foot on the stairway to artistry,” he says. “She was always encouraging, always trying new things and, to this day, is one of the hardest working, passionate people I know.”
Wisdom also remembers one. “I did have a ‘Teaching Artist’ growing up,” she says. “Her name was Kristen Pelster. She was my music teacher in sixth grade, and her mother was my music teacher from kindergarten to fifth grade. While Kristen wasn’t performing in any Broadway tours, she was consistently performing locally in St. Louis where I grew up. She also was a dancer and would choreograph for local productions and show choirs in the area. I really felt like she was such a great role model. She taught me the discipline and commitment it takes to be a successful performer and dancer. She also was a wonderful person who always had a positive outlook and lots of energy when rehearsing. I try to keep that positive energy I learned from her when I’m working today. She and her mother, Susan, came to see me in Billy Elliot on Broadway years ago, and she came to see me in Matilda twice in St. Louis when we were there at the Fox Theatre! It felt so great to have a former teacher and role model in the audience after so many years. It was really special.”
For this reason exactly, Broadway Connection seeks to reach students in over 200 cities worldwide, to make a lasting positive impact! With 78 “Teaching Artists” and two directors, the organization is creating real waves in the dance and musical theatre industries. For further information, visit www.broadwayconnection.net.
Additional Tips and Advice from these Teaching Artists:
Martin says, “Connection is key in this business. Meeting and working with a variety of artists can only benefit you. Also, remembering that being a student and having the ability to gain knowledge is infinite in the span of life. Goals can always be set, and working with new artists helps keep your creativity alive!”
Wisdom notes, “Many teachers who still perform also choreograph or direct, or are on that path, and it’s always good to get to know positive, ambitious artists, as you never know when it could lead to your next job.”
Johnson shares, “Art is changing all the time, hence, an artist can never coast — who would want to anyway? As artists, we all have a responsibility to contribute to one another, to try new things and to learn from one another. You cannot be a selfish artist. You’ll never try new things. Think of it like this: your artistry is like building a snowman; you push your small snowball around in the snow collecting other snow to make it bigger and grow stronger. When you’re finished with one boulder, you start another and you stack it on top, and you continue this method and build as many snowmen as your heart desires. The point is: you have to share, and you have to be willing to put yourself out there in order to grow.”
By Chelsea Thomas of Dance Informa.
Photo (top): Broadway Connection Teaching Artist posing with students after a class. Photo courtesy of Broadway Connection.