To hear Kim McSwain tell her Lifetime movie–worthy story brings to mind the cliché, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Having overcome the tragic loss of her husband and a crippling dance injury that almost halted her career, this dynamic dance teacher is proof positive that it can be done—and she’s done it all with a smile. “People remark all the time, ‘You’re so positive in spite of all the stuff you’ve gone through,’” says McSwain. “Though I wouldn’t wish these things on anyone, they helped me realize just how strong I was.”

That strength and shine is exactly what inspires the hundreds of students who pack McSwain’s classrooms at the JUMP convention weekend after weekend. McSwain uses her own experience of having been partially paralyzed to elicit appreciation for movement in her students: “I always sit the kids down and say, ‘Imagine that this combo is the last time you will ever dance.’ Then I turn on the music and tell them to picture what they’d look like the last time they get to do something they care about. Dancing isn’t about trophies, turns in second or recognition—it’s about that feeling right there.”

McSwain has been cultivating that feeling all her life, having danced since the age of 3. Growing up in Garland, TX, McSwain did it all, from gymnastics to ballet to pageants to twirling. Though six days a week of various classes might be overkill for some kids, McSwain loved every minute of it. “For me, dance was an escape,” she says.

Since her training at Dallas Dance Academy was almost exclusively ballet, she jumped at the chance to spend her 18th summer in California training at Dee and Tina Caspary’s Studio C learning new genres. “I remember walking into my first jazz class with Tina, who is gorgeous and amazing,” says McSwain. “She told me to take my hair out of the bun, and I did because I wanted to be just like her!”

It wasn’t long before McSwain did follow in Caspary’s footsteps, teaching classes and acting as assistant director of a studio when she returned to Dallas. McSwain was on the verge of opening her own studio with a group of friends and investors when tragedy struck: Her husband of three months, a Navy fighter pilot, was killed in a head-on jet collision. “It was the worst time of my life. I quit dancing; my heart just wasn’t in it,” she says. “I decided I didn’t want to own a business. But I did want to teach, to dance.”

Opportunity presented itself again when friend and convention director Jeremy Keeton enlisted McSwain to teach classes at Adrenaline Dance. She also got the chance to sub for Mia Michaels one weekend at JUMP, and afterward she was hired as faculty. That was when life intervened again. In July 2005, McSwain demonstrated a piece of choreography with disastrous results. “I did a head roll, heard a pop and suddenly felt lightning down the left side of my body,” she says. She didn’t think much of the incident until she awoke the next morning unable to lift her head from the pillow. She sought the help of a chiropractor, who placed her in a neck brace (which she promptly decorated with a bow tie and rhinestones).

Thinking she was on the road to recovery, she soon discovered otherwise. “I was standing in front of 200 kids at an in-studio convention and my left arm started to throb,” she recalls. “It dropped and just stopped working. Here I am in this neck brace, doing a combo full-on with floorwork, and my arm is flopping around like it’s detached.” This time there was no ignoring the severity of the injury—McSwain had ruptured a disc in her neck. It was embedded in her spinal cord, paralyzing the entire left side of her body. A risky surgery would be required that could leave her fully paralyzed for life.

“I was in complete and utter denial—losing the ability to dance was like losing a part of me,” says McSwain. “I wrote my surgeon a letter saying, ‘This is all I have and all I care about. Dance is the only thing I know how to do. Please fix me.’”

The surgery was a success and a relieved and grateful McSwain took the two following years to recover and give birth to her daughter, Bella. In late 2007, McSwain returned to the JUMP stage to teach jazz and hip hop. Though she hasn’t looked back since, she says that at first it was somewhat daunting: “I was scared that if I did one chaîné, my head would roll off!” she jokes.

Today, McSwain considers herself a survivor, and that perspective helps her relate to dancers of all ages, shapes and sizes. Known to teach class by candlelight, she calls on her hard-earned sense of empathy and compassion to create a supportive environment: “If I see a girl flailing around in the back, I will stop the entire class and let her perform. I tell them to look at her soul, passion and heart, and it’s amazing what happens to the room,” she says. “One time, a 16-year-old came up to me and said, ‘This class was the first time I have ever felt pretty,’ and she just lost it. Those are the kids I give extra attention to.”

McSwain’s knack for making meaningful connections with students hasn’t gone unnoticed by JUMP founder Gil Stroming. “Kim has a unique ability to inspire dancers of all ages and levels,” he says. “I’m not a fan of dance teachers who cater only to the top 10 percent of the class and neglect the other dancers in the room. Kim treats every dancer she’s teaching like they could be the next superstar.”

Of course, McSwain’s classes aren’t all sentiment and no sass. She insists that dancers go full-out—in performance and in life. “I tell them, ‘If you don’t like this combo or this class and don’t want to give me every bit of your body and soul, then you need to go out in the hallway and make room for the rest of us who want to get down right now,’” says McSwain. “If they’re at a 7, I try to bring them to a 12!”

As for McSwain herself, moving forward with gusto has been exactly what the doctor ordered. She and her family recently relocated from Dallas to the New York City area. “I feel like I’m starting to live again,” she says, “and I know 100 percent that this is where I’m supposed to be and that dance is what I’m supposed to be doing.” DT

A former hip-hop, cheerleading and dance fitness instructor, Jen Jones has a BS in magazine journalism and is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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Photos by Amy Kelkenberg

Whether a dancer has too much or too little, turnout can be one of the most frustrating aspects of technique. Students often feel they must achieve 180-degree rotation to become successful in the field. In reality, the average person only has 45 degrees of external rotation in each leg, meaning their first position should be no greater than 90 degrees.

Because range of motion in the hip is ultimately determined by the joint's structure, it is impossible for dancers to increase their structural turnout. Often, though, students do not use what they have to the greatest potential. By maximizing their mobility they will find greater ease within movement, improve lines and, most important, prevent injuries caused by forcing the joints.

Deborah Vogel, co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine in New York City, says the best way to unlock external rotation is to balance out muscle strength and flexibility. “Dancers are working the turnout all the time. They're always engaged and focused so much on using it. The minute they learn how to release those muscles they bring everything into balance," she says. “That middle is where dancers last the longest."

Here, Vogel suggests exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles that activate turnout:

Sitting Stretch: For Stretching Turnout Muscles at the Back of the Pelvis

Sit on the edge of a chair with knees at a 90-degree angle and feet flat on the floor. Cross the right ankle onto the left knee. Lace your hands together and nestle them under the right knee, lightly pressing energy into your hands and toward the floor (though the knee should not actually move). Sit up straight—some may already feel tension here.

With a flat back, bring the belly button toward your legs. Continue gently pressing the right knee into your clasped hands.

Experiment with turning the upper body toward the knee or the foot to stretch different muscles.

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Ashley Wheater, Joffrey Ballet

"I want to develop and nurture artists," says Wheater, seeking "people who are not afraid to be expressive, and understand all the layers that go into making a work above and beyond the steps."

Ingrid Lorentzen, Norwegian National Ballet

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Via Kenedy Kalls Instagram

Dancers have a language all their own. From French technical terms to scatting out choreography dynamics, it's a wonder any nondancers understand a word we say! Perhaps some of the most confusing dancer terms are the various foods we use to describe our feet. To help dance outsiders out, DT broke down the foods that are commonplace in dancer lingo. Share them with your loved ones, so they can better understand the weird and wonderful breed of dancer that you are.

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Injuries can be devastating to a dance career, but you can reduce their occurrence or avoid them—if you know what to look for. To learn why certain injuries happen and what can be done to prevent them, we consulted a group of experts: Jacqui Greene Hass, director of Pilates and Dance Medicine at Wellington Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine Therapy Services; Marijeanne Liederbach, director of research and education at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries; Jennifer Deckert, assistant professor at University of Wyoming (holds an MFA in ballet pedagogy and has presented at the International Association for Medicine and Science); and Michael Kelly Bruce, associate professor at The Ohio State University (certified in Pilates and specializes in conditioning).

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Image via Michaels' Instagram

We all know and love Mia Michaels. She's a fearless choreographer and teacher, who's inspired a generation of dancers with her unique style, grace and brilliance. What's not to love? And now we can't help but gush over a personal confession she recently shared on Instagram.

Bottom line: No matter your age, size or shape, don't wait to love your body or yourself.

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I recently started back in modern dance after a long hiatus—I stopped dancing at age 11 and went back two years ago at age 24. I've found that when I'm on the floor, I can't open to a very wide second. Also, if I'm sitting in butterfly on the floor with my feet together, my knees are some distance from the ground. What can I do to loosen my hips?

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Standing on stage is as important as moving. Photo by Arthur Coopchik

When your students are onstage, every dance step matters, of course. But so does every non-dance step. The simple act of being onstage—whether standing still, walking to a position or running from one place to another—requires a constant presence. And as Kitty Carter, of Kitty Carter's Dance Factory in Dallas, Texas, points out, "walking and running are actually part of the dance. They act as transitions from step to step." So teaching your students to understand the importance of active stillness and pedestrian choreography is essential, and it will help them see the "big picture" of a performance. But it's not easy.

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