Dance Workshop for Singers & Actors
with Haila Strauss

back stage magazine

March 30-April 5, 2006

Dance Training for Actors by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Do you advertise yourself as an “actor who moves well”? Oh, come on, we all know what that really means: You can’t dance. Or can you? Maybe you were just never taught properly. Perhaps your experiences in even the most basic, beginning-level dance classes left you feeling overwhelmed, uncoordinated, and unable to contend with the kinesthetic approach to learning that dancers embrace so naturally. But if you are serious about advancing your career as a professional actor, it can be extremely beneficial to be able to dance with skill and confidence. And if you plan to work in musical theatre, it is imperative that you be able to dance with at least a minimum level of technical expertise.

So, what you need is to find dance classes designed specifically for actors – classes that will move at a pace you can keep up with and present dance material in a style conducive to the learning sensibilities of performers more accustomed to verbal interaction and in need to supportive, individualized instruction in a comfortable environment.

Translating Acting Training Into Dance Training

“When teaching actors how to dance, it is very important to understand their training as actors and respect how it translates to dance training,” says Haila Strauss, who has been teaching specialized dance classes for actors in New York City for the past 30 years. “Actors are often very verbal people and respond to a more verbal approach to teaching. So when I teach them, I talk like mad throughout the class. I’m constantly verbalizing how to think about the steps, explaining everything, giving lots of verbal feedback, unlike in a typical dance class, where there can be very little use of the spoken word.”

There used to be several instructors in New York who specialized in dance training for professional actors, but Strauss is perhaps the only one still teaching today. “When I first started, there was another very popular teacher here named Jerri Garner,” Strauss says. “She taught dance for actors for many years, but she closed her business, moved to Colorado, and sent all of her students to me.” In addition to having choreographed more than 150 musical theatre productions, Strauss earned an M.A. in dance education from Columbia University’s Teachers College and founded the dance department at Marymount Manhattan College, where she currently supervises and teaches the theatre department’s coursework in movement for actors.

The reason Strauss feels it is so important for actors to have their own dance classes – classes tailored specifically to their needs – is because “when actors take class alongside dancers, it’s very hard for them to accommodate the fast pace of it all, so they never get to feel the sensations of having learned the dancing. They’re always just breathlessly catching up. A lot of the actors who’ve come to me are terrified of being in a dance class, oftentimes because they’ve been burnt badly somewhere along the way, so I create an atmosphere in my classes that is extremely friendly. And I keep my classes very small – never more than 14- so everyone gets lots of individual attention”

While it is possible to find basic dance classes – sometimes called “absolute beginners” classes – at some of the major dance studios in New York, actors often complain that even these classes move too quickly and are much too crowded.

Learning How to Look at Choreography

Many of the students in Strauss’ classes are musical theatre actor-singers who may have had a modicum of dance training but essentially learned to dance just by doing choreography in shows. “So they’re not really equipped to attend professional dance calls, which can be very technical and are run very quickly,” she explains. “In my classes I try to teach the actors not only how to dance, but how to look at choreography they might be given in auditions, in such a way that it doesn’t just seem like a big blur.”

Strauss’ classes are based in ballet and jazz technique, emphasize how to learn audition combinations, and range from very basic to intermediate. “And I have a substantial number of students who feel more comfortable studying privately, so I also offer hourlong or half-hour-long private sessions,” she says. “Particularly when they first start, some people just aren’t ready for the momentum of a class situation.”

Many actors in New York have continued to study with Strauss for years. “The goal is not for them to move from my classes to regular dance classes, but for them to move from my classes to professional dance calls. Many of my students are highly accomplished performers who’ve had impressive careers but wouldn’t go to an audition that had any mention of dance in it, which really eliminates a whole part of their marketability.” One of Strauss’ former students, Stu James, played Benny in the Broadway production of Rent. But perhaps more noteworthy, and delightfully ironic, was the day he came to class and told Strauss he was performing in a musical theatre showcase and had just been appointed dance captain.

Speaking the Actor’s Language

Anne McGreevey, who has played roles in numerous Broadway musicals, has high praise for Strauss’ dance classes for actors and singers. “Haila has a tremendous knowledge of dance, but more importantly, she knows how to speak the actor’s language,” say McGreevey. “Whenever she teaches a step, she always gives an image, or an ‘as if’ example, that allows you to characterize the movement and do it ‘like’ something. And she explains the subtext behind it, the reason for doing it. She uses a teaching technique that makes sense to actors.”

“Haila’s classes have been invaluable to me,” she continues, “whereas so many other dance classes I’ve taken have just left me feeling disheartened and confused. And performers really need to be in dance classes all the time, throughout their entire careers, because you need to be continuously in charge of your body, not matter what your capacity or roles are onstage. I think the acting community needs more dance teachers like Haila.

Anthony Morelli, a character actor who works in musical theatre, says, “I feel like I wasted 10 years of my career not knowing how to dance. I know I missed out on getting roles that I could have done if only I’d had the confidence to make it through the dance calls. That’s the most important thing I’ve gotten from Haila – confidence! I started attending her classes about five years ago, and it has made an amazing difference in my career. And I see so many actors out there who are just like I was. They consider themselves strong movers and think that’s all they need. But even thought these actors move well, when they’re presented with the confines of choreography, they freeze up and lose their ability to be physically expressive, which is really what it’s all about for actors. But studying with Haila gives you the tools to understand how choreography is structured, how the counts are organized, and how to approach specific steps. Once you feel like you have a command of the dancing, then you can really put yourself – and your acting – into whatever choreography you’re given.”

Morelli also appreciates that Strauss teaches you how to learn choreography quickly. “So many times I see actors fail at dance calls because they can’t pick up the combination fast enough,” he says. “But Haila will teach you how to do that. She breaks everything down and teaches it slowly and in a completely stress-free environment. She doesn’t even make you wear dance clothes if you don’t want to – you can come to class in sweats – and you get lots of personalized feedback because the classes are very small. “Actually,” Morelli says, “I hate to publicize her classes too much for that very reason. The intimate atmosphere is so important. I think these classes are one of the best-kept secrets in town.”

Sorry, Anthony, I have to let readers know that if they’re interested in getting more information about Strauss’ dance classes for actors, they can call her at (212) 388-7967 or visit her website at www.hailastrauss.com.