"When I was 15, my mother decided that I should get a job," says Tauna Hunter. "She said, 'Do what you know how to do.' So I started teaching children in my basement and decided then that dance was going to make me a living."
Now in her 60s, Hunter has never had a job outside the dance field. After receiving two degrees from the University of Utah, dancing as a principal with Ballet West and owning and operating a dance-networking business, Hunter became chair of the dance department at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania. For the past 23 years, she has drawn on her entrepreneurial spirit, vast network and diverse professional experiences in service of one of the nation's hidden gems for ballet-based training. Mercyhurst graduates go on to careers in ballet companies, commercial dance, dance pedagogy and other fields, thanks to Hunter's comprehensive curriculum and unwavering dedication to her students. "This program is really a culmination of my positive experiences in the field," says Hunter. "I've tried to take the best of everything I experienced and implement that here."
Hunter has always been a multitasker. At the same time the 15-year-old was establishing her basement dance studio just outside of Salt Lake City, she also began dancing with Ballet West, first as a trainee and then as part of the professional company. Under then-artistic director Willam Christensen, she excelled in Cecchetti technique but also demonstrated her versatility in Balanchine and Bournonville ballets and rose to the rank of principal in five years. She managed this while also completing her bachelor's and master's degrees in dance at the University of Utah.
Hunter performing with her husband, Michael Gleason. Photo by John Russell, courtesy of Hunter
Though she closed her studio after joining Ballet West, she kept teaching. "Whenever there was a need for a master class or a substitute teacher for the company, I always raised my hand and took advantage of those opportunities," she says. "By doing that, I developed a large network."
In 1985, Hunter and her husband, Ballet West dancer Michael Gleason, founded a networking service for dancers, teachers and companies. "This was all pre-internet, so we would enter individuals' resumés into the computer. Then a company would call and say, 'I need guest artists for The Nutcracker,' and we would send them—via snail mail—a set of resumés that they could contact," says Hunter.
The two ran DANSOURCE for 10 years, connecting hundreds of dance professionals to each other. Her biggest personal payoff, however, came in 1994 when she retired from performing and applied for the chair position at Mercyhurst. "One of the faculty members here had been one of our clients," she says. "She saw my resumé on the pile and said, 'We should bring this woman in. I know her.'"
Photo by Angela Zanaglio, courtesy of Mercyhurst University
Today, Hunter focuses her networking skills on the 68 dance majors at Mercyhurst. In addition to overseeing four faculty members, Hunter teaches ballet, pointe, variations, pedagogy and seminar classes. She also creates new work each year and chooses the annual guest repertory—like this past year's Concerto Barocco and The Sleeping Beauty, Act III.
"By the time the students have been here for four years," Hunter says, "they'll have been exposed to at least eight guest artists of international stature and learned different kinds of repertoire." This past year's graduating seniors, for example, worked with Broadway legend Chita Rivera; former New York City Ballet dancers Nilas Martins and Amanda Edge; Cuban master teacher Laura Alonso (daughter of world-famous ballerina Alicia Alonso); former Limón dancer Daniel Lewis; former Forsythe dancer Elizabeth Corbett; former Nederlands Dans Theater dancer Rick McCullough; and Dance NOW! Miami directors Hannah Baumgarten and Diego Salterini. Students also have an opportunity to get professional performing experience as apprentices with Lake Erie Ballet, thanks to the partnership Hunter established.
Trevor Sones landed a role on the national tour of CATS right after graduating in 2010, which he says he couldn't have done without such a strong ballet foundation. "For me to enter such a strong ballet-based program—taking ballet six days a week, doing men's technique and partnering—it forced me to be at my A-game," he says.
"Tauna developed a program that helps dancers find their place in the dance world," says Kerry Skuderin, a 1997 alumna who is now the owner and artistic director of Cleveland Ballet Conservatory. Skuderin was a sophomore when Hunter arrived at Mercyhurst. "When Tauna came in, that's when they incorporated more classes that would help not only if you wanted to be a professional dancer, but if you wanted to be a choreographer or a teacher," she says, referencing dance history, arts management, music for dancers, backstage production, marketing and curriculum development. "That all-encompassing curriculum really set me up for success."