Five Teachers, Five Venues: Sue Sampson-Dalena
The job of dance teacher is as varied as where it is practiced.
Ever wondered what it would be like to walk in a colleague’s shoes? There might be few professions where the basic job description varies as greatly as that of dance teacher. The tasks and objectives can be as different as the settings where they are practiced: studio, high school, university, conservatory, company, festival, summer intensive, community rec center. Here, five educators talk about the challenges and rewards of their particular career paths.
At any given workshop or convention, you’ll often spot Sue Sampson-Dalena taking tap or jazz classes alongside a group of her students. “That’s a big mistake a lot of dance teachers and studio owners make—they don’t make time to keep themselves in shape,” says Sampson-Dalena, though she admits that a blown disc keeps her from dancing as often as she’d like.
It’s more than physical wellness that drives the energetic owner of The Dance Studio of Fresno. Her actions stem from a commitment to surround herself and her students with the best in the business. She regularly commissions choreographers like Tyce Diorio, Tessandra Chavez, Dee Caspary and Cris Judd for master classes and more: “I bring L.A. and New York to us,” she says. “You have to stay on top of what’s out there; otherwise, you get old and turn into Dolly Dinkle.”
Sampson-Dalena’s love affair with teaching started in her teens when she trained under vaudeville tap legend Jimmy Powell. At 16, she began teaching jazz classes in the back room of his studio during off-hours. Within four years, she’d struck out to start her own studio in a Fresno strip mall with 40 students—thanks to financial assistance from her family and an oversized helping of determination. “It was one room, barely 1,200 square feet,” she says.
While launching the studio, she made time to commute from Fresno to L.A. every Monday to take master classes with Doug Caldwell and Jackie Sleight. “I was wise enough at that age  to know I didn’t know anything, and that I needed to keep training as a dancer,” she says.
It took at least seven years before the business took off, and studio growth has steadily climbed ever since. In 2001, The Dance Studio of Fresno relocated to a spacious 12,000-square-foot facility with seven classrooms, parent viewing areas, snack bar and private dressing rooms. With the help of SBA loans, Sampson-Dalena was able to purchase the property and design and build her space from the ground up, a move she highly recommends to others in her position. “I see women who work so hard and all they own at the end of the day is used equipment,” she says. “I want to encourage folks not to be afraid of owning property—take the plunge.”
Her enthusiasm is somewhat surprising, given the initial challenges she faced. Construction began the summer of 2000, and Sampson-Dalena spent mornings onsite and the rest of her time conducting business as usual at the old location. Though the building process seemed to go smoothly, massive thermostat and flooding issues developed after the new studio opened. The problems were so severe that they required years of litigation and costly repair services. “I put a lot of trust in the architect and general contractor,” she explains. “I wish I’d been more educated about the process.”
Now that the issues are resolved, Sampson-Dalena has no regrets. She can once again fully focus her efforts on her studio business, where 1,000 students are enrolled and 150 classes are offered every week. Supporting her efforts are 22 dance teachers and six office staff, but the owner herself can still turn in as many as 60 hours weekly during busy periods—whether creating choreography, rehearsing for competition or recitals or teaching class. She accompanies her 51-member competitive company to at least five regional and national events annually, and she’s also focused on a growing program that caters to younger girls who compete locally.
“I love my building: its look, its vibe, its energy,” she says. “It’s such a great place and home to so many young people. Even though there have been ups and downs, I wouldn’t trade this for all the tea in China.” DT
Also in “Five Teachers, Five Venues”:
Photo: courtesy of the Dance Studio of Fresno