Four incredible educators: Joanne Chapman, Claudio Muñoz, Pamela VanGilder and Kathleen Isaac foster their students' love of dance, whether instilling artistry, offering rigorous training or giving special needs students an outlet through movement.


Joanne Chapman

Keeping it all in the family in Ontario

If you'd told the teenaged Joanne Chapman that her future lay in owning a studio, she'd never have believed you. After all, she only started teaching classes—as a high school junior, out of her parents' home in Ontario—to fund her own dance training. But just before she left for university to study psychology, she had an unexpected change of heart. “I said to my mom, 'I don't think I can give up teaching,'" says Chapman.

Now, 42 years and thousands of students later, she finds it difficult to envision any other path. She's outgrown three spaces and opened a second studio (which she later sold to a former student), all while cultivating a reputation for producing well-rounded dancers, demanding excellence and taking no guff from anyone.

Competition has always been a big part of her studio, even as far back as year one. Chapman finds it a great stimulus for her dancers to work harder. “When they see someone else who does what they do," she says, “it inspires them to be better." But her approach to competition has always been unique: She doesn't hold auditions to select her team. Instead, she and her staff invite students to participate, after careful observation, and it's never about winning. “I tell my students, 'I never remember what you win. I only remember how hard you worked to get there,'" she says. “I've never, in 42 years, said, 'Go out there and win.'"

“It's always been more about, 'What are the kids learning from being at a competition and working with this choreographer? Is this going to benefit them in the long run?'" says Chapman's older daughter Dana, who helps run the competitive program.

Chapman credits much of her success to her family—her husband Barry is the office manager, and her younger daughter Jessie co-directs the comp team with Dana. The ripple effect of such a family-run business is that, despite its size—600 students—the studio feels like a family. “Sometimes studio owners get really wrapped up in the competition scene and forget they're raising kids," says Jessie. “We get a lot of comments from other people at competitions, when the kids are crawling all over us and we're doing their hair. They'll say, 'You guys really are one big family.'"

Sometimes, that sense of family expands in unexpected ways. Sonia Metheral, a student of Chapman's from the studio's earliest days, lost both her father and mother to cancer before she was 19. “I went through a difficult time," says Metheral. “I don't remember a lot. But I do remember making a phone call, and Barry came to the house and picked me up. Joanne let me live with her—she gave me a room in her home." Metheral, who now owns her own studio in Canada, knows it must've been a sacrifice for the Chapmans to take her into their home. “I was a difficult teen, struggling with a lot of stuff," she says. “But there's so much love in that house—so much warmth around Joanne."

For Chapman, it was never a question of if. “That's what you do," she says, “when someone needs you." —Rachel Rizzuto

Claudio Muñoz, here with Houston Ballet II dancer Jack Thomas, places equal emphasis on technique and artistry. Photo by Cameron Durham, courtesy of Houston Ballet

Claudio Muñoz

Training the next generation of ballet stars in Houston

Houston Ballet's Claudio Muñoz claims he'd be a chef if he weren't a ballet master and often uses food metaphors to describe the learning process. “It's not enough to have the right ingredients," he says. “You need to know how to put them together." Muñoz has been putting dancers together at Houston Ballet Academy for 17 years, with a stunning record of former students in the company. From principals to corps de ballet members, more than half the company has spent time in Muñoz's classroom. He beams with pride when he thinks about the mark he has made on the institution. “When the audience claps, some of those are for me," he says with a sly smile.

The Chilean-born dancer-turned-teacher is known for his humor, warmth and ability to draw the best out of a dancer. “Fear has to remain on the outside," he says. “We must be rid of the fear of failing. When we fail, we learn."

Houston ballet principal Connor Walsh recalls that very experience during his first try at contemporary partnering. “I tried to hide, but Claudio brought me to the front of the class. I was terrified. He made it OK not to know how to do something, to be comfortable in the learning process." Walsh credits Muñoz's teaching as one of the reasons he stayed at Houston Ballet. “He taught me to self-correct," says Walsh. “He teaches the mind as well as the body—to always see the big picture, to engage your technique and your artistry."

Muñoz has fought tirelessly against the fixation on legs in today's young dancers, working hard to shape their port de bras to create polished performers. “This is what fills out the stage," he says. “It's through the port de bras that the story gets told." He's also a stickler for artistry. “Technique is not dancing," he says.

An impressive list of his students has been selected to compete at Prix de Lausanne, a respected international competition for young dancers. Several have returned home with honors, including Madison Young, who won second place this past year. Muñoz emphasizes the experience over winning. “I tell the students to relax and have their inner light on at all times," he says. “Let people be drawn to you. Be calm and have fun."

Like any good teacher, Muñoz knows he owes much to his students. “What's extraordinary is how much I have learned from them over the years," he says. “If they don't understand something, I need to find a new way to explain it." —Nancy Wozny

After her daughter Sarah (pictured here with her mom) was born with Down syndrome, Pamela VanGilder shifted her focus to special needs education. Photo courtesy of VanGilder

Pamela VanGilder

Teaching life skills to special needs students in Memphis

Pamela VanGilder was working as Ballet Memphis' educational outreach director, helping teachers bring dance into their classrooms, when her daughter Sarah was born with Down syndrome. As she watched Sarah grow, VanGilder became increasingly inspired by her developmental pathway and began to delve into special needs education. By the time Sarah was 5, VanGilder had shifted her educational focus completely. “Having a child with disabilities and seeing how she was growing informed me quite a bit," she says. “I try to meet kids where they are and build from there."

VanGilder spent the past decade at the Madonna Learning Center, a private school in Germantown, Tennessee, until her retirement last year. There, she helped children and young adults with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and other disabilities develop creativity, coordination and communication skills through dance.

“Pam is a visionary," says Anne Froning, VanGilder's frequent collaborator. “She cannot not see where things need improvement. If she feels it will enhance the lives of her students, she's going to find a way."

VanGilder feels her students' victories keenly, because even the smallest success can be a breakthrough. “One student had a hard time finding where his body was in space," she says. “When he saw an empty room, the first thing he wanted to do was run up against a wall because it gave him feedback to stop." To help the boy anchor himself, she used the environment, a school cafeteria, to her advantage. “We would do locomotor movement and then stop and put our hands on one of the cafeteria tables to ground us. Then we would make a shape and hold it with our bodies while holding on to the table. That was this little boy's place-maker."

That ability to tap into her students' creativity and spirit is one of her greatest gifts as an educator. With special needs children, “one has to look beyond what one might see from the outside and really see what talents they have, what they're trying to tell you," says Froning. “Pam is able to see what their strengths are and allow them to express themselves."

Her contribution to education hasn't been limited to the special needs realm. She's established several children's arts programs, like Ballet Memphis' Discover Dance program and Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts' stART smART program, both focused on bringing dance to preschoolers. She also served on the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards dance task force, helping write the national standards for public school dance education.

She's proud of her impact on individuals of all ages and abilities. “Kids I taught at Madonna for all of those years developed an awareness of themselves in space and an awareness of how they could move," says VanGilder. “They developed a creativity about the way they moved." —Rachel Caldwell

Kathleen Isaac transforms artists into K–12 educators, imparting rigor and joy. Photo by Julie Lemberger, courtesy of Isaac

Kathleen Isaac

Training superstar K–12 educators in New York City

Kathleen Isaac's first full-time teaching job was at a middle school in a rough Bronx neighborhood, where street drug deals and dirty needles were commonplace. She would pray daily, “Please, God, help me know what to do with this class." Swing dance, as it turned out, was the key to gaining her reluctant students' interest. “The boys got to lift the girls," she says, “and that was the ticket."

Her persistence and unique approach to trouble-shooting impressed Joan Finkelstein, then-director of dance for New York City public schools. “She has stick-to-it-iveness," says Finkelstein. “She finds the most creative way to deal with the challenges, either head-on or by going around them."

Now the director of Hunter College's Arnhold Graduate Dance Education Program, Isaac draws on her two decades in public schools to train K–12 educators. “It's a certification program," she explains, “so they have to know the language of education, but at the same time, you don't want them to feel like they're not artists. Our goal is to take highly trained dancers and develop them into effective educators. Students in public schools deserve that."

She has shaped the program accordingly. Students have room to stretch their creative legs: A guest choreographer has been brought in to create work on the participants, who, in turn, create work on each other and on K–12 dancers—all showcased in a fully produced spring performance. It's a rigorous program, one that Isaac spearheaded from the ground up. She's particularly proud of each graduate (40 so far) who has passed the edTPA, a demanding teaching assessment required by the State of New York for certification.

“New York State teacher education has become much more subject to scrutiny," says Jennifer Tuten, Hunter's acting dean of curriculum and teaching, “and Kathleen has worked very hard with her students to prepare for that assessment. She really wants them to go out in the world and be superstars at what they do."

One of Isaac's achievements during the first five years of the program has been to build the iDanceEd initiative, a website where students share ways they've applied the use of the digital tools and technology in their teaching practice. She also helped the effort to separate dance from the music department as a free-standing entity at Hunter.

“The main thing I want to impart to my graduate students is that as difficult as teaching is, you must maintain joy," she says. “And that joy comes from knowing how to effectively plan—preparing your classroom for instruction that supports all students."

Show Comments ()
Dance Teachers Trending

In February 2017, 88-year-old master ballet teacher Sheila Rozann became an internet sensation when a short video about her, made by family members, went viral.

There have now been nearly 3 million views of the under-three-minute video that captures Miss Rozann's raison d'être: teaching ballet. She's been a teacher for 67 years, and her reason for being has never changed. At almost 90, she says, "For dance, I have energy."

Keep reading... Show less

So you've achieved your dream of owning a studio. Congratulations! Once that initial excitement wears off, we're betting that you'll discover just how overwhelming the day-to-day operation of such an endeavor really is. When you choose to run your own business, you're bound to encounter challenges, but with a unique business model at the center of it all, studio management certainly comes with its own hurdles, creating a perpetual learning curve that keeps both new studio owners and veterans on their toes.

Although a certain amount of this difficulty is to be expected for any studio, there's no longer any reason for you to suffer needlessly through each step of the way. All you have to do is reach out for a tool you can use to take your studio to the next level, namely studio management software.

Tools like our very own acclaimed Studio Director software can make a world of difference in virtually every aspect of your business. Let's run through some key ways in which this tool can revolutionize your studio.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Thinkstock

Summertime is notoriously slow for dance studio owners, but bills don't take a holiday. Learn from three studio owners who figured out how to keep the buzz and cash flowing without breaking a sweat. Their secret formula? Creative summer programming too good for parents to pass up—coupled with quick and easy camps as bonus business builders. Not only do these owners keep their revenue rolling in summer, they use the season to boost enrollment come fall.

Keep reading... Show less

A popular and highly sought-after dancer and choreographer, Geo Hubela has worked with stars and productions all over the world from French pop star "Lorie" to the MTV show BeComing. Geo isn't just a choreography sensation. He has also danced on film, onstage, and on TV. He was worked with everyone from *NSYNC to JLo. On top of his incredible professional career, Geo owns a dance studio called Icon Dance Complex.

Owning and running a successful dance studio is not an easy task. Showstopper got together with Geo for his advice on going from a professional dancer to studio owner.

Keep reading... Show less
Jay Sullivan Photography, courtesy Julie Granger

Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Via Mia Michaels' Instagram

Beloved three-time Emmy Award–winning choreographer Mia Michaels returned to teach at Broadway Dance Center for the first time in a decade and brought the house down with her emotive and inspirational choreography. Set to the Harry Styles hit "Sign of the Times," her combination challenged dancers to fight their inner demons and recognize the legends that they truly are.

For the first two verses of music, Michaels asked the dancers to spell the words "I am," along with their own descriptor of choice (i.e. enough, resilient, whole), with their bodies, reminding them of their worth and potential for improvement. From there the choreography dove into swirling movement that pushed dancers off balance and out of their comfort zones. Shifting between fluid release and violent shakes she created a physical depiction of a common human experience—overcoming hardship.

Just as the group round of class was beginning, Michaels requested that the dancers be open and pour their whole selves into the choreography, citing her own history of doing so. "I've been completely open with you all. I've told my life's story through bodies around the world. That's why I'm Mama Mia."

When class finished, Michaels sat down with students for a Q&A; and book signing to promote her new book, A Unicorn in a World of Donkeys: A Guide to Life for All the Exceptional, Excellent Misfits Out There.

Check out some key takeaways from her discussion!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Kyle Froman

The back is an essential focus of Cynthia Harvey's ballet classes, especially as a part of port de bras. Here, she offers "plain," en face port de bras, followed by the same position with épaulement, to show the difference the back (and head and neck) can add to any position. Aspirational imagery helps students find their best épaulement: "Feel as if you have a tiara on," says Harvey. "Don't look like a student—look like a ballerina."

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun

The World Cup captivates soccer fans this time of year. But if football (as most outside of the U.S. refer to it) isn't your jam, this hybrid of disco dancing, ballet and soccer just might be more intriguing.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored