Dancing from the Heart

“I remember a child who came to me at six years old and was so shy that she never spoke to anyone, including me,” says dance teacher Ellen Robbins, whose new classes at the Gelsey Kirkland Academy start on Monday, Sept. 16. “It took her over a year till she started to engage socially. However, she was a born mover who grew to be a terrific dancer whose compositions always related directly to her feelings all through her growing up. There have been so many instances where children made compositions that helped them express their feelings about situations in their lives. In fact, I’ve taught several dyslexic students who were brilliant dancers.”

Lower Manhattan is in the middle of a children’s dance bonanza—I can’t imagine there have ever been so many excellent options—and Robbins is one very notable newcomer. She has been teaching dance for more than four decades, with 34 years as the resident dance educator at Dance Theater Workshop. Her alumna include Claire Danes (Robbins is mentioned in the New Yorker‘s recent profile of the actress), Julia Stiles, dancer Maggie Thom, and Pele Bauch of The Field.

1. What do kids get out of modern dance?
Modern dance, as I see it, gives kids a direct experience in self-expression through movement, with a backbone of technical control. It’s fun and it’s satisfying. My aim is not to impose a style of movement on my students but to give them technique that enables them to move well and find their own voice. My students look like themselves when they dance—because they perform their own work. It comes straight from the heart.

5 year olds courtesy Ellen Robbins2. Can children really choreograph?
Of course! We start with very small pieces that are simple and structure-oriented. As they get older their ideas become more specific: Some go a dramatic route, some lyrical, and some prefer abstract ideas. I can see some children’s tastes starting as young as six years old.

3. Why move to Tribeca? Why the Gelsey Kirkland Academy?
For 35 years, my classes were located at New York Live Arts in Chelsea, so many of my current students are from the downtown and nearby areas. I have continued to present bi-annual concerts of student choreography at New York Live Arts’s Bessie Schönberg Theater. My work is well known here. And the Gelsey Kirkland Academy is a serious dance organization with several studios in its building. Their administration finds my program to be compatible with theirs because my thrust is towards dance as a theater art. I’m looking forward to being in one of their beautiful, large, and quiet studios, in an atmosphere devoted to dance.

For information on classes, which are for five-year-olds through teenagers, see ellenrobbinsdance.com or call 212-254-0286.

Faye Ellman courtesy Ellen Robbins



  1. What a great article! Ellen is a master dance teacher for children.
    My older daughter Ajda, studied with Ellen for 6 years. As a shy young girl Ellen taught Ajda how to express herself freely by using technique and her own movement and theatrical ideas to create and choreograph her own dance pieces. This experience was very empowering for my daughter and not only helped her to build her confidence but also taught her how to follow through with an idea and a piece of music and learn how to create a full formed and realized dance piece. The camaraderie and encouragement between Ellen and the students in this creative process is a beautiful thing to witness. First, the dancers perform simple solos in the studio and then as they grow and learn more they work towards a professional production at NY Live Arts. They learn how to choreograph their own work as well as costume and title it. They are very involved in the creative process. My younger daughter Mavi has been studying with Ellen for seven years. Like many young dancers Mavi is a natural improviser. Ellen has taught her how to harness and structure her natural physicality and theatricality in the most interesting and challenging ways for her development. Ellen also has a profound knowledge and understanding of the importance of music and dance. She insists that her students learn how to full experience music and sound as an integral part of their dance training. From her many years of teaching and choreographing Ellen has a rich trove of dance repertoire that includes elaborate costumes, props sets and musical scores. Each class is lucky enough to learn a different piece of repertoire and perform it each semester.

    As a professional dancer and choreographer I have witnessed my own daughters and tons of my friend’s children grow as dancers, choreographers and individuals over many years under Ellen’s direction. But perhaps most importantly these days is to watch them grow and develop a love of movement and understanding of the art of dance. Ellen is a treasure, it is an honor to have my children work with her. We need teachers like Ellen to keep the art of modern dance and joy of movement alive and growing. It’s so nice to have you back downtown again!

  2. Ellen Robbins, one of NYC’s greatest modern dance and choreography teachers for kids, is moving her studio back downtown! When I was pregnant the first time, the choreographers I worked with told me that Ellen would be THE teacher for my child to study with. Both girls have studied with her since they were six years old and continue to this day with my oldest beginning her ninth season. Ellen teaches excellence in pursuit of one’s goals and imbues her students with this quality.

  3. My three daughter have studied with Ellen from six years old through high school. The part of the class that I value most and which gave them an experience that they didn’t get elsewhere was the ability to conceptualize, write and perform their own dance or piece of theater and be taken really seriously as artists. By serious, I mean that Ellen demanded that they make it interesting and thoughtful art and that they had to grow an idea over time until it had layers and richness. They had to struggle with a blank slate every year and come up with something different. They struggled to find music that would work. They struggled with how to make an idea danceable. They worked out all the little details of choreography and expression. They had to consider costumes. After months of work, they got real stage time, with a lighting crew and had to work out all of the stage logistics. Many of the dances are pretty incredible and my kids had a lot of pride that they could make something so interesting. If they don’t become dancers, it was still a great training in the creative process.

  4. Having read this story about Ellen Robbins, I wish even more that my grandchildren lived in NYC so that they could take classes with Ellen.