Our 2017 DT Award Winners: Sue Sampson-Dalena

Photo by Naserin Bogado, courtesy of The Dance Studio of Fresno

When she was 20, Sue Sampson-Dalena rented a single room in a strip mall on the deserted north side of Fresno, California, with a simple dream. "I wanted to create a dance school where all disciplines were taught at a high level," she says. "In those days, you were either a ballet school or a tap-and-jazz school. So many people told me it couldn't be done that I decided I was going to try."

Thirty-five years later, The Dance Studio of Fresno has a faculty of 25 and a beautiful seven-studio facility. "I never envisioned I'd have this when I was 20 years old," she says of her 13,000-square-foot space. "But I did know even then that I loved education and all forms of dance and that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life." In 2015, Sampson-Dalena earned a rare honor. Her school was named Studio of the Year at The Dance Awards (produced by Break the Floor, NUVO and 24 Seven Dance conventions) and a top school by Youth America Grand Prix—a well-deserved validation that she'd indeed achieved her early goal.

She started with 40 students and grew her school slowly. "Only when I was overflowing with kids would I expand," she says. After 19 years in the strip mall, she'd saved enough to build a school. "From the ground up—it's my dream school," she says. She chose to keep her studio in her hometown. "My studio's known outside Fresno," she says. "I hope I'm helping make people aware of the talent in Fresno."

Photo by Naserin Bogado, courtesy of The Dance Studio of Fresno

That talent, Sampson-Dalena insists, extends to her faculty and staff. "Most of these amazing, brilliant people have been with me for more than 15 years," she says. "All real credit belongs to them." Many of her faculty members are former students. "They believe in my philosophy," she says. "We think alike." Martha Allen, a former student, has worked with Sampson-Dalena for 16 years as her office manager. "Sue has encouraged and trained every teacher she's hired over the last 16 years," Allen says. "Not only to do things the way that she does them, but to do them in a way that is appropriate for their personality and teaching."

Mentoring is important to Sampson-Dalena. She's eager to share the teaching and business skills she's learned through her own challenges—like discovering construction defects in her facility, which forced her to close for a summer to fix the issues. "I could have put my kids through college with the money I had to spend to fix the problem," she says. "Now I love to share my story. Knowing what I know now, I would have done a lot of things differently in terms of getting it built. Maybe I was meant to go through that so I could help people." Allen says this hard-earned wisdom is part of Sampson-Dalena's success: "She has a unique combination of understanding how to run a successful business, of being an excellent teacher and having true joy in the accomplishments of her students."

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How does your studio handle enrollment for boys? Photo courtesy of Shona Roebuck

I recently set up a classical ballet partnering master class for my youth dance company. A pas de deux class, if you will—think Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, etc., chock full of promenades, pirouettes and lifts.

I knew we would have plenty of girls interested in signing up, but enlisting boys is always a challenge.

Without much thought, we offered it for free to boys who attended because, here's the thing: no boys = no class. At least, in a ballet partnering class—every Sugar Plum Fairy needs a Cavalier, right?

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Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Sean Boyd, courtesy of White

Julie Hammond White is an associate professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she directs the dance education BFA. Here, the mother of two (Townsend, 10, and Dominic, 7) takes us through a typical week of juggling her personal and professional life. We caught up with White in October on the first day of work after her fall break. —Jill Randall


6:30–10 am Up and trying to rouse the boys. Throw in a load of laundry, pack lunches, set out uniforms. Drop kids off at school and head to the library. Finish planning advanced ballet.

10:30–11 Read 99 (?!) work e-mails. Taking a few days off is a bad idea…

11 am–12:30 pm Teach advanced ballet. I'm doing what I call "vitamin phrases": 2- to 3-minute phrases that focus on one aspect of ballet (this week, petit allégro).

12:40–1:55 Teach Methods in Dance Education. This is a course that all juniors, regardless of their major (performance/choreography or dance ed), must take to learn how to effectively teach dance in K–12, studios, higher education or community programs.

3:30–4 Grab a quick salad at restaurant across the street. Read letters from the promotion committee—passed the first stage of being recommended for full professor!

4–6 Grade DED 360 papers. These take a while. DED 360 is one of two writing- and speaking-intensive classes for the major. In their papers, students comment on eight areas of diversity as defined by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and find a media resource that addresses each to compare and contrast their views.

7–8 Grocery: bread, cantaloupe, Go-GURTS, apples, bananas, peanut butter, Nutella, pasta, cheese and oatmeal.

8–9 Laundry. Three loads. Also do a quick pickup of the house.

9 Boys home from day with Dad. They shower, brush teeth and set out their clothes for tomorrow. I sign homework and read them a story. Hugs and kisses, then bed by 10 pm.

10–10:30 More e-mails. Bed.

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Depending upon whom you ask, there are different approaches to mastering the art of turning. Whether it's fouetté turns or a single pirouette, every teacher tends to have their own unique way to break down the physics of pulling off balance, strong arms and quick spotting to students. And here's one more visual to consider, courtesy of master ballet teacher Finis Jhung.

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DaSilva (center) teaching at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts Center in NYC. Photo courtesy of DaSilva

Chanel DaSilva has two pillars of focus for every class she teaches: performance quality and musicality. The former Trey McIntyre Project dancer asks her students to really listen and be the music, emphasizing the importance of being expressive artists. She wants students to find that euphoric place dancers feel when they're under the lights with an audience watching. "I want that in class," she says. "Don't wait for the stage."

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