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Dance Teacher Magazine

Billy Smith is featured in the October 2017 issue of Dance Teacher Magazine.

The article, written by Rachel Rizzuto highlights Billy's unique and joyful teaching style.

Read the full text of the article and watch the accompanying instructional video below!

Billy Smith 

HOW I TEACH MODERN

BY RACHEL RIZZUTO

PHOTOGRAPHY BY KYLE FROMAN

Billy Smith is about to push his modern students past their comfort level. After teaching them a brain teaser of a phrase to warm up their feet-in a five, no less-he added port de bras, an announcement that was met with a good-natured groan from the dancers. Now he's tacked on one more layer of difficulty: He wants the dancers to pair up and face each other to do the phrase, so that they're mirroring one another. His students take up the challenge warily, but are quickly won over by the unexpected pleasure of tackling the tricky combination as a team. Their memory stumbles are balanced by smiles at the combination's quirkiness, like a quick jump paired with an overhead clap.

Smith's classes are full of unexpected flourishes like that-moments and time signatures that nudge the dancers past rote memorization. That's not a surprise, considering he is a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, a company which brings to life the complex musicality and singular movement-lush phrases juxtaposed with the pedestrian and the peculiar-that epitomize Morris' choreography. But Smith's commitment to creating interactions between students feels unique. Frustrated by performances he's seen in which the dancers don't seem to connect with each other, he's made it part of his mission to teach dancers how to dance with each other. After all, he says, "it makes you happier to dance with someone else, so I try to give exercises that make you notice other people."

His weekly class at the Mark Morris Dance Center, full of swingy, circular phrases and off-kilter falls, comes equipped with an accompanist, which helps him be as spontaneous as he likes. It's a preference he gets from Morris himself, who insists on live music not only in class but also performance and rehearsal. Smith admits it's a privilege not all teachers have. "I don't have to have a playlist or find a song with the right meter or tempo or quality," he says. "There's a musician there who's talented enough to play what you want." Communicating with an accompanist was a bit of a learning curve, he admits, but he quickly figured out that directness is key. "It's about not being afraid to say what you want-or to say you don't know what you want," he says.

 

Another privilege is his access to the Morris repertory. The excerpts he teaches near the end of class foster interactions that lead to pure delight. As he coaches the dancers through a fast-paced, multi-metered section of Morris' Numerator (2017), he throws out fun imagery, like a "clown walk" and "claw-crab hands." as well as a direction to start the phrase as if "your arm is falling off."

"I pick pieces that might be a little tricky, but they're also going to be engaging in a musical way," he says. Plus, he's got plenty of rep to choose from: "I've pretty much taught one of Mark's dances at the end of every one of my classes," he says, "and I've yet to get through a third of his rep." DT