Connecting in New Ways in the Time of COVID-19
Since March 2020, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT) School has transformed ballet learning into a virtual experience. Home Zoom classes became the norm for the end of the 2019-2020 school year, and continued into the fall even as studios reopened with limited capacity. During the pandemic, PBT School Instructor Jamie Erin Murphy seized the opportunity in remote learning as a chance to connect PBT School Pre-professional students (ages 13+) to a rich array of local artists and teachers.
In September 2020, Murphy created the Pittsburgh Connections Class Series, calling on the relationships she forged in her career as a modern, contemporary and jazz instructor for PBT School, accessibility program instructor for PBT’s education department, and freelance artist in the Pittsburgh dance community. Each Saturday, Pre-professional students – who spent most of their week in the studio – were digitally introduced to one of 18 guest teachers and artists, ranging in style from contemporary ballet and jazz to West African, Latin ballroom and Indian Kathak.
Guest artists slowdanger, a multidisciplinary performance entity co-founded by Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight, feel that exposure to diversified styles of dance is vital to the learning experience – especially within a ballet-focused curriculum.
“Codified dance training focused on Western forms of dance can often view or categorize embodied experiences through a hierarchical lens,” they said. “As we continue to examine how our worlds must be reoriented towards more equitable change, this series provided young dancers with a broad range of moving experiences. This is essential in setting young dancers up for the many possibilities that are currently unfolding within the dance field.”
“The breadth and depth of what other dance forms have to offer can be so enriching and expansive to one’s ballet training and to the formation of one’s burgeoning artistic voice,” added Former PBT Principal Julia Erickson. “Even if these students go on to join classical ballet companies, they will absolutely utilize these skills as they dance myriad styles within the scope of a modern day ballet company repertory.”
While learning new ideas and dance styles, students and teachers were also exploring what it meant to be physically apart. Despite the distance, guest artist Gia Cacalano still felt like connections were strong. Cacalano, a movement and visual artist, choreographer, instant composer, educator and performer, presented a unique class exploring a keener sensory awareness using proprioception, interoception and experiential anatomy.
“It was an honor to connect with the students and be challenged within the ‘limitations’ of our current situation in distance,” Cacalano said. “Our greatest opportunities to invent, evolve, explore and create derive from the challenges and perceived obstacles in which to problem solve.”
Shannon Murphy, a dance artist and educator living in Philadelphia, also used her class to connect the students to their body. Shannon is a certified practitioner of the Franklin Method, a somatic practice that combines Dynamic Neuro-cognitive Imagery™, functional anatomy and movement practices – and she’s Jamie Erin Murphy’s sister. Her class utilized the constraints of learning remotely by focusing on slowing down, noticing bodily sensations and sharing experiences. After a COVID-influenced year, it helped to relieve stress, take a break from the screens and focus inwardly in the moment.
“A career in dance has surprises and opportunities that change our lives just as much as the disappointments that make us question everything,” Shannon said. “Today’s dancer is a dancer that responds to the stresses of life, that takes care of themselves as much as they care for the dancer next to them, and can still see and feel the magic of dance. I hope that we can reflect on this past year from the future and understand that this did not ruin us but gave us skills to adapt, heal and thrive.”
“I think it’s important for not only the students to be able to learn from [the guest artists],” Jamie Erin Murphy said, “but also the staff and the organization can learn and grow from these different artists explaining their backgrounds and what we don’t know about what they do and what’s happening in Pittsburgh.”
Guest artist Naina Green, founding director of Courtyard Dancers of Pittsburgh, connected to PBT staff and faculty as well as PBT School students. She shared the history and future of Kathak dance around the world and in Pittsburgh through a virtual lunch and learn hosted by the PBT Equity Project Transformation Team, which strives to discuss and implement Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA) practices into the organization.
Katrina Chen, a 16-year-old Level 8 student from San Francisco, recognized the unique opportunity learning from Pittsburgh Connections Class Series guest teachers and artists.
“Not only does learning from a different dancer enhance one’s personal repertoire,” Chen said, “but learning the deep rooted culture that is embedded within the dance form is a way of honoring and passing down the tradition through dance. I am more intrigued with the sharing of cultural experiences through dance as a way to educate myself on another’s culture. The more we as a community can respect each other’s differences, the more we are able to unite as a society.”
In addition to learning different styles of dance, Murphy hoped the series would bring greater awareness to the dance scene outside of the PBT bubble. PBT School is eager to make the Pittsburgh Connections Class Series a Pre-professional tradition – a milestone for PBT School students in the Student Division to look forward to as they become Pre-professionals.
The series serves as a connection between students and teachers, staff and artists, and PBT and the community. Guest artists, such as Shanna Simons Dance collaborators Shanna Simons and Brady Sanders, and Michele de la Reza of Attack Theatre, will be part of Open Air: A Series in Celebration of the Performing Arts, a two-week outdoor series featuring more than 20 local performing arts organizations.
After a year of darkened theaters, supporting Pittsburgh’s performing arts community is more crucial than ever.
“It is getting the awareness out for our dance community that has struggled in the last year,” Murphy said. “We don’t have performances. If we get more awareness of what is happening with smaller companies or independent artists in the city, that’s huge for the dance community here. That’s one new face in an audience and or watching an online performance.”
Q&A – The Students’ Experience
Why is it important for you as a student to learn from dancers of different voices, styles and cultures?
Taking classes in such a wide selection of styles has the power to develop students’ ballet dancing. Different teachers may have a new way of explaining an idea that didn’t make sense before, make you think about your dancing in a new way, challenge you to really examine your relationship with the space around you. Every Pittsburgh Connections Class I attended, I was amazed at how each teacher brought something new to the table; every class added a new element to my dancing as well as myself as a person.
– Amelia Bandy, PBT School Level 6 student from the Greater Pittsburgh Area
Why do you think this type of learning and networking experience is important for ballet-focused students?
Ballet-focused students are usually very keen on becoming professional ballet dancers specifically. For some, this path is perfect. But, even among the small community of Pre-professional dancers, many will go into companies or performances that are not strictly ballet. It is important for these students to be exposed to other styles and artists in their area that can help expand their interest and artistic palette for non-classical styles. This way the students can start interacting with outside influences early on and enter other artistic communities in their area. They can then take part in educational opportunities and watch performances in other styles that they might end up auditioning for and performing in later in their careers.
– Caterina Baker, PBT School Level 8 student from Rochester, NY
Did you find connections with different dance styles throughout the series that you hadn’t experienced before?
Yes. I have definitely found many styles of dance that I enjoyed very much doing that I had never done before, like commercial jazz/musical theatre, learning how to move my body and help it heal if it’s sore, and improv class. These were some of my favorite classes that we learned, because they all taught me something that really interested me.
– Brady Allen, PBT School Level 8 student from Pleasantville, NY
Guest Artists Involved:
Michele de la Reza
James Washington Manning
Jamie Erin Murphy
Anna Thompson/Taylor Knight
A Conversation with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School Alumna Amy Herchenroether
Pittsburgh native Amy Herchenroether began training with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School in the late 1990’s in Creative Movement classes, eventually working her way up to the full time high school program. After attending the Boston Ballet School Trainee program for 2 years, she returned to PBT School as a Graduate student before being hired into St. Louis Ballet. Experiences such as performing The Nutcracker onstage with PBT company and training a variety of dance forms in the School helped to prepare her for the repertoire and roles she performed in her professional career.
PBT School caught up with Amy about her experiences as a student at PBT and as a professional at St. Louis Ballet. Listen to the interview below!
What I really appreciated about my training at PBT was just how well rounded it is. I think I see that now looking back, even more than when I was a student. You get a really strong classical ballet training, but you’re also exposed to contemporary, jazz and character, plus Pilates, conditioning. Looking back, I think the training is just unbelievable.
Cover Photo by Pratt Kreidich Photography
A Conversation with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School Alumna Rachel Foster
Rachel Foster began her dance journey with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School at the age of 12. Over the years, she worked hard to advance through the levels of the school and eventually was hired into the professional company by former PBT Artistic Director Patricia Wilde. After a couple seasons at PBT, she accepted a position with Pacific Northwest Ballet where she rose to the rank of principal dancer and remained for the rest of her 22 year professional career. Rachel attributes much of her strength as a dancer to her training with PBT School.
PBT School recently caught up with Rachel, now settling into her new role as a teacher, about her experiences throughout her career and how her training at PBT influenced them. Listen to the conversation below!
I feel like a lot of my experience with the school, with having such a well rounded training, was what really helped me. When I first went to Pacific Northwest Ballet [contemporary] was something new that they started to bring in and I feel like I had experience in that that others didn’t.
Cover Photo by Angela Sterling
A Conversation with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School Alumnus James Gilmer
James Gilmer has lived in many cities across the United States throughout his ballet career, but it all began in Pittsburgh. Beginning at the age of eight, James trained with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School until he graduated at 18. Since then, James has been taking the lessons he learned from the School, such as young mens classes with Alan Obuzor and Pre-professional classes with Janet Popeleski, to make his mark in professional companies.
PBT School recently caught up with James, now a dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, about his experiences at PBT and the career that followed. Listen to the conversation below!
I’ve always praised the instruction and the technique that I gained [at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School]. I think back on that stuff all the time whenever I’m in a professional setting. Even if it just takes a little minute to adjust something it’s like, oh wow, I’ve been thinking about that particular thing for years because of somebody at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School.
Cover Photo by Steven Vandervelden
On Stage with the Company: the Pre-professional Experience
For pre-professional ballet students, a spot in a professional company is the embodiment of all of their hard work. Being hired into a company opens the door to a world of opportunity to work alongside renowned choreographers and other talented dancers, and to dance their dream roles in modern masterpieces and esteemed classical ballets. So, how does a student land their dream job? It takes years of rigorous training, summer intensives and performance opportunities to hone their craft. Performing on stage is crucial to professional development, and the chance to dance alongside company members can make an even greater impact.
“There are nuances in artistry that can’t always be taught, but can be observed through example,” says Luke Mosher, a full-time Level 8 student in PBT School’s Pre-professional program. “Performing alongside company members gives me the opportunity to study up close these amazing dancers, their performances and their interpretation of a role. It also gives me a real sense of what a full-time career as a dancer will be like. Their example of work ethic and skill inspire and challenge me to reach my own potential.”
Student dancers are often cast in company productions of The Nutcracker, but in PBT School’s Pre-professional program, students also have the opportunity perform in other company productions throughout the season. This opportunity, seen as a privilege and honor to Mosher, reinforces the rigor and company culture to the students, and increases the roles they can add to their repertoire.
“I soak up every bit of wisdom I can from the dancers and the experience,” says Mosher. “To perform in additional productions not only gives me another chance to do that, but also the opportunity to work with different choreography.”
Fellow Level 8 student Jacqueline Sugianto performed with Mosher in PBT’s 50th Anniversary Season production of Beauty and the Beast. As one of the youngest dancers in the production, the experience was an exciting challenge to be treated as a member of the company.
“We were expected to pick up choreography or corrections quickly and stay on top of our schedule without reminders,” she said. “We worked alongside the company members in their rehearsals and even got our costumes labelled with our names. These privileges added another element to participating in this production, where I felt that I was trusted and responsible for my actions just like a professional.”
To be considered for a professional career, students need to leave an outstanding impression on an artistic director. Performing in company productions can help students push themselves to perform at the caliber of the company and distinguish themselves as professional-quality dancers to artistic leadership and to audiences.
In addition to the opportunity to impress on stage, PBT School Graduate students can get even more exposure in classes taught by company artistic staff. “The attention to detail and personal corrections given by each of my teachers has helped sculpt me into the dancer I am today,” says Graduate student Lily Miller. “I feel like I am pushed constantly to be the best version of myself in the school classes I take, which has helped me grow so much as a dancer.”
From the classroom to the stage, these students define their future as they transform themselves into the professional dancers they aspire to be. “Having the opportunity to perform in multiple company productions throughout the year has definitely improved my performance quality as a professional in training,” says Miller. “Being exposed as young dancers to the professional stage has given me experience I will carry with me through my entire professional career.”
Header and main image: Rich Sofranko; Artists: PBT Company members and PBT School Pre-professional students
Instructor Spotlight: Jonathan Breight
You may recognize Jonathan Breight from the stage, where he performs alongside fellow Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre company dancers. Jonathan, however, fills many roles at PBT. Apart from his professional dance career, he dedicates time instructing the Pre-ballet Boys classes in the Children’s Division and, just this fall, he became an instructor for Intermediate Ballet in the Community Division.
Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – Forest Hills
Family: “My Father, Rev. Ronald M. Breight, or ‘The Good Reverend’ as we like to call him, is the Pastor of Christ Lutheran Forest Hills. My Mother, Linda Breight, is a teacher assistant at The Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. I have one older and two younger brothers: Miguel, David and Timothy. My older brother, Miguel, is a specialist in the U.S. Army. David attends The Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf and enjoys competing in the Special Olympics. My youngest brother, Timothy, attends Woodland Hills High school and loves fishing with Dad. Our dogs Bailey and Bella add to the excitement of the house.”
Favorite food: “My favorite food is spaghetti with Alfredo sauce and garlic shrimp.”
Favorite musician/song: “It depends on the day – my music taste is always changing – but today I would say anything “Phantom of the Opera!” Yesterday I would have said Barrette Sisters, but tomorrow might be Rhianna. However, people who know me can tell you I NEVER know the right lyrics to songs, but can make them up as I go!”
Favorite form of exercise: “Pilates with Ann Corrado, our amazing instructor, or TRX with Kristy Boyle!”
Favorite ballet position: “It not a position as much as a step, but I love tour de force into a double soté basque. You feel like you’re just taking up the whole studio and flying through the air!”
How long have you been instructing dance classes?
“I started by assisting with the Pre-ballet Boys classes in 2015 with Andre Reyes. Then in 2017 added Pre-ballet, Preparatory and Level 1 classes. In 2018 I began subbing for open ballet classes at the beginning, intermediate and advanced levels. Now in 2019, I teach regularly on Tuesday for the Intermediate Ballet class.”
How do you find time to balance a professional career and teaching?
“[PBT School Co-directors] Margie [Grunvig] and Dennis [Marshall] are wonderful to work for. They understand that I have a passion for both dancing and teaching and work to schedule teaching hours around the company schedule.”
What’s is the most fulfilling thing about being a ballet instructor?
“I think for me, the most fulfilling part is seeing how much fun a challenging class can be – not only for them, but for myself teaching it as well. The joke about my class is that I teach a ‘ballet boot camp’ class.”
What are some of your goals as an instructor for Intermediate Ballet?
“I want for them all, each class, to leave feeling completely worn out and exhausted as if they have pushed themselves so far they couldn’t do another step.”
What advice would you give someone who wants to start ballet as an adult?
“Take it all one day at a time, because great things come slowly. A great dancer/mentor once told me when I was a student that, ‘every flower blooms at a different time for different lengths of time, as do beautiful ballet dancers.'”
What makes PBT a great place to practice ballet?
“PBT as an organization works to make the experience – from the moment you’re walking in the door to the moment you are walking out – a wonderful, well-thought-out experience that you want to experience over and over again! With great staff, great studios, beautiful accompaniment, wonderful changing area, ample parking – the list goes on with how great PBT makes the entire time that someone spends here.”
Instructor Spotlight: Jamie Murphy
Jamie Murphy does it all. Some days, she’s instructing contemporary and jazz classes to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School Student, Pre-professional and Community Division students, and working for PBT’s education department teaching accessibility classes within the Pittsburgh community. Others, she’s a performer, finding time to shine in the spotlight herself with dance companies around the region. Her enthusiasm and passion for dance make an impact on everyone she comes across. Get to know Jamie – who has been a part of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School family for 12 years – and check out her contemporary classes for ages 14+ on mindbody.com.
Hometown: Youngstown, Ohio
Family: “My awesome parents, Kathy and James, live in Ohio and my older sister and fellow modern dancer lives in Philadelphia.”
Hobbies: “I love crafting, baking, going to arts events and catching up with friends over a glass of wine!”
Favorite food: “Potatoes of any kind!”
Favorite musician/song: “I’ve been a hardcore Elvis fan since the age of 3.”
Favorite form of exercise: “Yoga and dance classes.”
Favorite music genre to dance to: “Anything with a good beat really! I love having an eclectic playlist in class.”
How long have you been instructing dance classes?
“I have been teaching for 14 years. This is my twelfth year with PBT teaching jazz, modern and contemporary in the school, as well as educational outreach and accessibility classes for our education department the past eight years.”
How do you find time to balance a professional career and teaching?
“This can be tricky sometimes. Because I teach a lot, sometimes it is hard for me to take classes for myself. However, I am very lucky to have incredibly supportive directors (Margie Grundvig and Kati Gigler) who allow me the space and time to keep rehearsing, performing and creating outside of PBT.”
Describe your career “epiphany” – the moment you knew this was what you wanted to do professionally.
“I can’t remember a time where dance wasn’t one of the most important parts of my life. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment, because it always just felt like dance was in my future. I will say that I didn’t always intend to become a teacher. After I graduated from Point Park University, I was dancing with a few Pittsburgh-based companies and decided to try teaching to supplement my income. I really unexpectedly grew to love teaching and watching young dancers grow. It was my second year at PBT that really sealed the deal of me wanting to be an educator. It was the first time that I was part of a young dancers “a-ha moment” and I think I was more excited than them about their success.”
What’s the most fulfilling thing about being a dance instructor?
“I really think that my favorite part of being a teacher is watching the students experience new parts of themselves. For example, with the younger students, you see pure joy when watching them stick a pirouette for the first time. Getting to be there to witness their successes is a feeling like nothing else. With the older students, it’s watching the moment they turn from students into artists. Some of the students at PBT, I have had the chance to work with from Level 2 through the grad program. You watch them develop their skills over the years and then there is this beautiful moment where you can see all of that hard work turn into artistry. Getting to be a part of that is pretty awesome.”
What advice would you give someone who wants to try contemporary dance as an adult?
“DO IT!! If you have an interest in something, give it a shot! Contemporary dance really allows you to be expressive and connect to your emotions. You might discover parts of yourself you never knew existed while in the dance studio!”
What are the advantages of taking dance as an adult?
“While, of course, dance provides benefits to one’s health and fitness, I think the biggest advantages are having fun and expressing yourself. My community classes at PBT are always one of the highlights of my week, mostly due to the fact that the people that come are there to have fun and experience something for themselves. We get so busy with our everyday lives and all of the heaviness that the world throws at us. I believe that dance can give us a moment of escape and freedom to experience joy.”
What makes PBT a great place to dance?
“A combination of things makes PBT a great place to dance. We are so lucky to have a great facility that is big enough to offer so many experiences for so many people. Since I started 12 years ago, the Community Division has grown so much with so many different types of classes to choose from. I also love that PBT is making a huge effort to be inclusive by offering so many accessible classes for differently-abled bodies and people with neurodiversities. On top of all of that, I think it is really awesome that PBT is able to offer so many classes with live accompaniment. Whether it is percussion or piano, the students are so lucky to have the opportunity to learn in an environment with live musicians. I’m so proud to be on staff at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.”
Instructor Spotlight: Kristy Boyle
You may recognize Kristy Boyle from a Pilates or barre fitness open division class at PBT Studios. What you may not know is that she is PBT School’s dance and fitness programs manager. She puts in the work during class and behind the scenes every day managing dance and fitness programs for the hundreds of Community Division members who walk through PBT’s doors weekly. Get to know Kristy here, and check out the class schedule on MindBody.com to meet her in person!
Family: I have one sister and an extremely large extended family. I am one of 21 cousins on my dad’s side alone!
Hobbies: Swimming, paddle boarding and hiking in the summer, skiing in the winter. I am not much of a cook, but I do love to try new local restaurants. In my down time I like to read and catch up on sleep.
Favorite food: Shrimp tacos
Favorite musician/song: Anything Justin Timberlake
Favorite form of exercise to teach: It’s a tie between Barre Fitness and TRX
Favorite form of exercise to do: Strength training
Favorite Pilates stretch/position: I love the side leg series!
How long have you been instructing dance and fitness classes?
I started teaching in college at Slippery Rock University.
Describe your career “epiphany” – the moment you knew this was what you wanted to do professionally.
I always knew that I wanted to help people and to teach in some capacity. Dance has been a constant in my life since I was 3 years old, so it only seemed natural to combine my love of dance with teaching and helping people to meet their health and wellness goals.
What are some of your goals as Manager of Dance & Fitness Programs?
My goal when I took on the position was to expand on the current class schedule, offer a wider variety of classes that complemented our already popular ballet classes, and to give Pittsburgh the opportunity to train like a dancer. The Community Division continues to multiply in attendance every year, and I want to continue to expand our teaching staff and to bring in a wider range of clientele.
What’s the most fulfilling thing about being a fitness and dancer instructor?
I had a dance professor in college who said, “If you can walk, you can dance.” That quote has stuck with me ever since and is perfectly applicable for my role with PBT in the way that we open our doors to everyone to dance and move! I also feel most fulfilled in experiencing the positive results of my students and clients. Whether it be an adult client who is reaching their fitness goals and feels happier and stronger or my Pre-professional students who are working to improve their technique and keep their bodies injury free through cross-training, I get to see the positive outcomes of so many different people here.
What advice would you give someone who wants to be a fitness and dance instructor?
Educate yourself. Take the time to receive the correct training and certifications. Always continue to grow as an instructor by attempting to read everything that you can about the ever changing industry.
What are the advantages of group classes? How about private personal training sessions?
Group classes give you a welcoming community atmosphere to keep you motivated to exercise while you are being led by a top notch instructor. If you have a personal training session scheduled, you know that your trainer is going to hold you accountable for showing up and making the most of your workout time. The exercises will be catered around your goals and will give you exactly what you need to improve.
What makes PBT a great place to sweat?
The Community Division gives you so many options! And you do not have to be a dancer! PBT has high quality, dedicated staff who will provide quality instruction. Bonus: you get to take class in the same beautiful studios that our professional company rehearses in!