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."

Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine

When choosing music for tap, Jason Samuels Smith encourages teachers to start with classic jazz music. Improvisation, call and response, and syncopated rhythms embedded in the genre and its history, in general, help students to understand the structure of tap, which is different than other styles of dance. "Tap dancers have the responsibility to be more than just a visual artist," he says. "They're an instrument and a sound."

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo Courtesy of Ballet Next

In 2011, when former American Ballet Theatre principal Michele Wiles departed the company and formed BalletNext, she found an artistic freedom she'd been longing for. Along with new collaborations with choreographers and musicians, she began working with trumpeter Tom Harrell, who introduced her to the multilayered sounds of jazz. "The dancers are another instrument to a jazz musician," says Wiles. Pairing this music genre with her classical foundation has been pivotal in defining her style. "I have this classical facility, but my mind is more contemporary. Jazz is a good intersection for my work," she says.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo by Rachel Papo

Martin Harvey brought a little movie star charm into morning ballet class at our New York Dance Teacher Summit. (His acting credits include Gossip Girls, All My Children, Dirty Dancing, A Chorus Line, Carousel, plus Metropolitan Opera productions of Carmen and Manon Lescaut.) Educated at the Royal Ballet School in London, he danced many principal roles for The Royal Ballet during his 12-year career.

Mark Your Calendar

Join us in Long Beach, CA, July 26–28, or in NYC, August 1–3, for our 2019 Dance Teacher Summit.

Dance Teacher Tips
Thinkstock

Q: What suggestions do you have for dancers to get their shoulder blades to lie flat on their backs?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo by Sarah Ash, courtesy of Larkin Dance

Ask Michele Larkin-Wagner and Molly Larkin-Symanietz what sets them and Maplewood, Minnesota–based Larkin Dance Studio apart, and they immediately give the credit to their mom. Shirley Larkin founded the school in 1950 and continued to oversee the growing business until she passed away in 2011. "She put Minnesota on the map for dance training and made other local studios step up to the plate to become as strong as we are," Michele says. "A lot of people's lives are better because of Shirley Larkin."

For Michele and Molly, following in their mom's footsteps was a no-brainer. "I knew I was going to be a choreographer and take over the studio," Michele says. To Molly, seven years Michele's junior and the baby out of six siblings, the studio was always a second home. The two sisters trained across genres but had distinct specialties: Michele found her niche in jazz, musical theater and lyrical, while Molly excelled in tap. In the summers, they'd travel for workshops in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. While Michele was in class with jazz legends like Gus Giordano, JoJo Smith, Luigi and Frank Hatchett, Molly was taking tap classes with the likes of Brenda Bufalino and Phil Black.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Gandarillas

In Macarena Gandarillas' jazz class at California State University, Fullerton, a sign in the studio reads, "Never underestimate the power of determination." This simple mantra embodies what has made this self-described "danceaholic" such an impactful teacher.

When Gandarillas came to Los Angeles at age 6 with her family from Santiago, Chile, the language barrier was beyond overwhelming—until her mom enrolled her in ballet classes. Gandarillas found an instant love. "There were no Spanish-speaking kids at my school," she says. "But with dance I could communicate with my body. I'd finally found my voice."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Is teaching for an after-school program a good way to find a job in K–12?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Summit
Photo courtesy of Inspire School of Arts and Sciences

It was the morning of November 8, 2018, and Jarrah Myles' first-period choreography students were in last-minute rehearsals for their fall dance concert that evening. "All of a sudden my students' phones started ringing like crazy," says Myles, a teacher at Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, a Chico, California, high school whose dance and theater programs Myles helped establish in 2010. "And once they answered, I saw these tragic faces staring back at me."

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox