Mentoring Dancers Into Their Destiny

Learn Why Mentors Are So Important For Your Dance Career

Guest Authors: Sue Sampson-Dalena, Owner/Artistic Director, and Martha Allen, Office Manager, of The Dance Studio of Fresno

I was honored to be asked to share my thoughts on the importance of mentoring dancers with Francisco Gella Dance Works. As a studio owner and teacher for 38 years, I have enjoyed great success, taught more classes and team rehearsals, and mentored many more great dancers, than I could have ever imagined. We now have two and three generations of families dancing at our studio, as we have grandparents who danced here bringing their grandchildren in for classes.  

Photo courtesy of The Dance School of Fresno

As I began my dance journey, I did not enjoy having a mentor per se… although my mother has always been an outstanding role model as both a parent and a business owner. Therefore, my expertise in dance is the result of trial and error, dreams, innovation, continuing education, and the inspiration of others in the dance world.

My Journey to Mentorship

While teaching is phenomenally fulfilling and profitable, there has to be more. This is not just a business – it is my life’s work. I want to “go deeper” to see dance change the lives of those open to the journey. I long for students to find their own fulfillment in this world of ongoing challenges and creativity. To satisfy that longing, I mentor those who are willing to dream with me. Mentoring has become a large part of who I am, and I hope it is part of my future legacy.

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Planning Ahead for A College Dance Major

Beginning Early Makes a Huge Difference

By Julie Friedrich, Associate Director for College and Career Programs
Francisco Gella Dance Works

Parents and students always ask me, “How early is too early to begin preparing for the college admissions process and for life after high school?” The honest answer is that it is never too early. There are elements of early preparation that have benefits throughout your training and will help keep you on a focused path towards a larger goal. It makes a huge difference when a student starts thinking of long term goals and preparing for them early on. 

I have had numerous students come to me as they are entering their senior year of high school for their college prep consultations, and sadly that is too late. Yes, we can still make successes out of students who begin that late, but there is too much haste and pressure that goes into the application process when it is done so last minute. By the end of your junior year, you should have your college list complete, and have already begun thorough work on your college dance portfolio that summer. 

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Creating Dance To Take You From The Studio To The Performance Stage

Be in command of your performance…

By Julie Friedrich, Associate Director for College and Career Programs

“To enter a theatre for a performance is to be inducted into a magical space, to be ushered into the sacred arena of the imagination.”
Simon Callow

As a 7 year old child my mother took me to see Don Quixote in Los Angeles with American Ballet Theatre (ABT). I was completely captivated by the dancing, costumes, lights, and sets. Most of all, I was mesmerized by the allure of the stage and the wonderful performance. Dance stole my heart.

Some experiences change you, or plant a seed that grows over time. I remember this moment as if it was yesterday. This performance was a defining moment in my life that I can point to as the start of my long dance journey. 

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Standing Out As A Dance Performer

Dance can be a powerful, life changing art form… when your audience feels it deeply.

By Francisco Gella, Chief Creative Officer

“To stand out as a dance performer, you must first stand out as a human being we can believe and relate to. You have to be real.”
– Francisco Gella

I never would have been a dancer if it hadn’t been for one spectacular dance performance in 1992.

During the spring quarter of my freshman year at the University of Washington, I was struggling. I was bored solving mundane math problems in my differential equations class – the same type of left-brained work I was doing in most of my major-required classes. I was accepted into the university on a full academic scholarship with the intent of majoring in Aerospace Engineering (it pleased my parents). Too many late nights of studying forced me to question whether I wanted to spend the rest of my life building planes and spacecraft. As it turned out, I WAS interested in making things; I hadn’t yet discovered just how different those creations would be from my field of study at the time. “Taking flight” would take on an entirely different meaning for me.

Being done with something frees up space to fill that emptiness with things that matter to you. 

– Francisco Gella

I began to explore other classes at the encouragement of an academic advisor. It turned out that one of the first, an Art 101 class, excited my innate sense of curiosity. Soon after that I took my first formal dance class – ever. I registered for Dance 101. I grew up training in gymnastics, so I loved the idea of doing something physical. My right brain was having an awakening that semester: I knew I couldn’t continue on the path toward becoming an engineer.

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The Importance of Body Care and Awareness for Dancers

Notes from my Dance Bag to Yours: Tips,Tools, and Exercises for Dance Training

By Yusha-Marie Sorzano, Associate Director for Community Engagement

As a young dancer, I’d just hop into class without much preparation and go directly home without cooling down following the day’s work – which was almost always very demanding. Looking back now, I can see that I was lucky; I got away with this routine for many years. When I finally became a professional in a company setting, I was fortunate that there were physical therapists on staff to take care of those aches and pains that came along with the hard work. Admittedly, I took this necessary part of my dancer’s life for granted, and I soon learned that, although necessary, it was a luxury and not a part of every dancer’s experience.

As dancers, our bodies are our instruments. We have to care for them and make sure that they are “well-oiled” and that our muscles are being treated properly. Strength training and stretching are certainly essential for a dancer’s regimine, but maintenance between these exercises and in the “down-time” is just as important. 

A Dance Injury Reminded Me of the Importance of Body Care

“As a dancer, you know your body well. This means you can describe clearly what you’re feeling, and that’s great. But you dancers are also some of the most determined people around. I’ve seen you use sheer willpower to persist in doing something that’s painful and possibly damaging.” – ​Gregory Rakowski

Fast forward a few years to when I began freelancing. I found that I reverted back to my childhood routine of just jumping into class — and that’s when my luck ran out. I fully ruptured my Achilles’ tendon and have spent the last year learning how to better prepare and repair my body for a healthy physical journey in dance. I spent that difficult and trying year learning how to fully appreciate and celebrate my body, which means I listen more carefully to what it is telling me.

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Preprofessional Dancers… Job or College?

It’s time to choose a path

By Julie Friedrich, Associate Director for College and Career Programs

Upon graduation from high school, dancers are often forced to choose between going to college and pursuing a job at the professional level. A career in dance is short and often begins at a young age, some choose to put college on hold and wait until after their career is over to begin a college education. But, in today’s world, there are many viable options for dancers wanting to become professional performers. More and more dancers are choosing to educate themselves first while still dancing, and then make the leap into the professional world after completing their BFA or BA. In the end, each dancer must choose the best path to meet their own goals and satisfy their own welfare. There are so many pros and cons to consider on this subject. Our goal is to equip students and parents with information so that they can choose the path that best suits them as an individual and embrace the opportunities that come their way.

The Pro Argument for Attending College

It is imperative to understand why a dance degree at the BFA or BA level is of great benefit.  An undergraduate degree, or even a graduate degree if one so chooses, is extremely beneficial to have in today’s workforce, whether or not you choose to perform professionally.  To teach in all academic and university settings; to educate, choreograph, direct, the list goes on and on, you will be required to show that you have a degree.

Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but a very large majority of working artists do have a college education in their art field. In reality, it is very rare for students graduating from high school to go immediately into a company. In the ballet world this happens occasionally, and in the contemporary world this rarely ever occurs at all. I’ve seen it happen, but after over ten years of teaching, I can count those students who have successfully made that transition on one hand.

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Inspired by the Art of Making a Dance?

The Keys to Building Dance Composition for Beginner and Emerging Choreographers

Interview by Jeffrey Hoffman, Francisco Gella Dance Works Chief Executive Officer, with Francisco Gella, Choreographer and Chief Creative Officer

Renowned choreographer Wayne McGregor once noted that ‘‘the job of a choreographer is to find what’s personal to them.” Powerful stories – told literally and non-literally – and the dances created to communicate them are rooted in the personal experiences, beliefs, interpretations and feelings of the choreographer. Without the deeply vulnerable, personal, and introspective  work that it takes for the choreographer to create something memorable and powerful, the work presented moves along without life.  Do You Want to Know What It Takes to be a Professional Choreographer?

I sat down recently with Francisco Gella, Choreographer and Chief Creative Officer for Francisco Gella Dance Works, to delve into his own beliefs about his creative work. A self-described life-long learner, Francisco has been honing his craft for nearly twenty-five years beginning when he first experimented with choreography in his undergraduate composition classes. As a choreographer, Gella also understands his role as an educator, coach, mentor and provocateur – he believes that it’s important that artists not get wrapped up in their own ego or stuck inside their head. When a choreographer enters the studio s/he must respect the humanity and the essence of the dancers performing the work. That energy comes from the heart.

This interview comes on the heels of a new initiative Francisco is undertaking to nurture out-of-the-box creative voices through New Century Dance Project (NCDP). For Francisco, the work itself that he creates is not the only thing that’s personal to him. Nurturing aspiring choreographers and opening up opportunities for established dance makers whose talent hasn’t yet been discovered inspires him deeply – in part because of his own journey. From his perspective, many companies have historically made ‘safe’ choices in well-known commodities, at the expense of true innovation and the embracing of diversity. So in the last part of the interview, you’ll learn more about the exciting things he is up to – and they might just involve you!

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Official Launch of Dance Scholarship Equity Program

Tackling the Lingering Issues of Inclusion and Diversity in Dance Programs  

By Jeffrey Hoffman, CEO, Francisco Gella Dance Works

Francisco Gella Dance Works proudly announces the ‘official launch’ of our Dance Scholarship Equity Program! The need is great. The inequality of opportunity is real. You can find  hungry students wanting to pursue their dreams just about anywhere you go. Unfortunately the chances for a good many of these students to succeed are diminished due to circumstances they were born into – not ones they chose.  But with a dancer’s strong desire and a persistent willingness to sacrifice just about anything to get there – and with the the combined creative efforts of individuals and organizations who care about removing barriers for any student struggling to make it happen – a whole lot of good can happen to change the landscape, to build a more inclusive dance community. Dance Scholarship applications are now being accepted.

As a a professional working in education for more than half of my life and since graduating with my undergraduate degree, my entire working life, I am deeply committed to challenging the systems, decisions, beliefs and attitudes that we still often use as excuses for accepting the status quo. It is our own thinking that often gets in the way of real and lasting change.

Jeffrey Hoffman, CEO

In my nearly 30 years as an educator, I can recall countless  conversations with students, faculty, and colleagues about the rising cost of education, and the impacts on student access to opportunity. I have been part of numerous organizational efforts to reduce the opportunity gap – a gap which exists in good part because of persistent systemic inherent bias and in my opinion, a lack of will and persistence to effect change. I have seen talented, smart and motivated students dropout of college because they ran up against  the wall of unaffordability or because they struggled to find their place and the support to succeed in learning environments that didn’t embrace their differences. Statistics show a clear link between a person’s race and ethnicity, and their access to a quality education. This sheds light on the opportunity gap that exists. To remove barriers for fuller participation from all students regardless of background we must first accept and acknowledge this truth.

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The Art of Properly Using your Turnout

The issue of improperly using your turnout and over-rotating in the feet is a worldwide issue

Written By Julie Friedrich, Associate Director for College and Career Programs, Francisco Gella Dance Works

As a teacher, I see this on a daily basis. As someone who has sustained a major knee injury and had major reconstructive surgery as a result, I am adamant that students use turnout from the proper placement and do not over rotate.  

I am grateful that I had a teacher who demanded using turnout from the proper place. This emphasis on proper alignment in the body is crucial to being an injury-free dancer. I remained injury-free until I was 17 years old – while dancing full time, all day long. In today’s environment, I am seeing too many young dancers with injuries that could easily be prevented by maintaining proper alignment and not over-stressing the body by forcing it into positions that are not suited to their anatomy.

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Why Your Technical Training Is SO Important

Mastering technique… and the art of movement.

What separates dancers who have mastered technique, from those who have mastered the art of movement is clear. Movement mastery requires that dancers couple their technical training with control, strength, and artistry.

With technical expertise comes a refinement that allows dancers to speak clearly and eloquently through their movement, but it’s not enough. A dancer must learn to express themselves through these movements versus mastering the steps themselves. Think of technique as the vocabulary and grammar that you in need in order to properly formulate a sentence. Similar to the tone or resonance of your voice, a dancer must understand how to layer their artistry with their movement and technique in order to be seen, as an orator who uses intonation to evoke emotion within their audience.

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