Denise Wall brings a unique voice to dance training.

“What’s in the water in Virginia Beach?” In October 2008, the Dance Teacher cover story opened with this quote from Nigel Lythgoe, a question he posed after three dancers from Denise Wall’s Dance Energy made it to the Top 10 of “So You Think You Can Dance” for the second year in a row.

The studio co-owner and single mother of five boys first gained national attention when former student (and her adoptive son) Danny Tidwell took the silver medal at USA International Ballet Competition in 2002 and subsequently joined the corps of American Ballet Theatre. Her 24-year-old son Travis has made a name for himself as a choreographer for “SYTYCD” and others, including his own company, Shaping Sound.

Wall herself never experienced the kind of performance success her students now achieve. She made herself into a teacher with shrewd observation and a big heart. With her, the passion is exclusively about the students—she doggedly gives her all to the dancers she shapes. She can’t help herself.

Today, in addition to running her studio, Wall tours with the NUVO convention, where her workshops are overflowing with dancers and teachers who want to experience her brand of intuitive coaching, delivered with just a hint of Southern drawl and the natural storytelling ability of a raconteur. This month Denise Wall will accept the 2012 Dance Teacher Lifetime Achievement Award.

As a child, Wall studied with Thelma Olaker, Christine Parks and Carol Farmer. Later, Wall pursued master teachers Frank Hatchett, Michèle Assaf, Finis Jhung, Chet Walker, Gus Giordano and Marcus Alfred. The studio, opened in 1993 with business partner Victoria Flores Cooke, is well-known for its invitation-only competition dance company of students ages 9 to 18.

Though Wall prefers conventions, where her students learn to audition and take classes from a broad spectrum of teachers, she finds competitions valuable for the performance experience and for the exposure. “I’m throwing them out there so that maybe the judges will see something I’m missing and that I want to fix,” she said in a Dance Teacher interview in 2008.

And fix it she does, with an uncanny ability to phrase a correction so that the dancer is able to take it in. To do this, she goes out of her way to get to know each dancer individually. “I figure out their thought process, so I can make them understand their own bodies,” she says. Her strategies have famously helped Tidwell, Travis and others find greater flexibility and range of movement, and she now shares her series of alignment studies with dancers and teachers across the country.

In May 2010, Wall was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. In the past 18 months, she has had eight surgeries and undergone chemotherapy and radiation. The parents of her students past and present rallied around her and created Branches of Hope to raise money to help with medical expenses. Wall is now cancer-free, but the experience has changed her. “Every morning I wake up and wonder if this is the day it’s going to come back,” she says, adding that she considers this a positive occurrence. “I live my life according to that. I make sure I don’t waste a moment.”

Related: Densie Wall: How I Teach Alignment

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