Dance Teachers Trending

55 Years Later, Nan Giordano Is Keeping Her Father's Legacy Alive—and Planning Its Future

"We hire dancers based on more than skill," says Nan Giordano. "I ask myself, 'What are they like as people?" Photo by Quinn Wharton

It's no easy task to follow in the footsteps of a legend. It's harder still to not just follow but also take the lead. Nan Giordano, daughter of jazz-dance icon Gus Giordano, has done just that, and she's doing it with unwavering dynamism and a tenacity that has kept her father's company, Giordano Dance Chicago, not only alive but thriving after 55 years.

Gus Giordano, a venerable founding father of jazz dance, traveled the globe teaching his iconic technique, inspired generations of dancers at his school and founded a company that became a staple in the Chicago dance scene and known around the world. Nan has been part of this company for 40 years—as a dancer, a partner to her father and now as artistic director. Today, she has cultivated an eclectic repertoire for its dancers, who have a full performance and tour schedule; she is fostering a growing education-and-outreach program; and she is overseeing the planning of a new home. "We're not just perpetuating my dad's name," Nan says. "We're elevating his legacy and building on the foundation he created."


The Giordano organization today includes 16 dancers, eight administrative staff, plus board members and donors, who respect Nan both as the daughter of a hero of American jazz dance and a trailblazer in her own right.

The Giordano Legacy

Gus Giordano stood at the forefront of jazz technique: a dancer, a master teacher, a renowned choreographer and a company director. He studied with dance greats, including Hanya Holm, Katherine Dunham, Peter Gennaro and Alwin Nikolais, and performed on Broadway. In 1953, Gus opened the Gus Giordano Dance School in Evanston, Illinois, with his wife Peg. In 1963, his company was born: five dancers who toured the country in a station wagon. It was one of the first to bring jazz dance to the concert stage. Gus' drive was tireless, and his technique was precise: a strong core, isolations of the hips and shoulders, energetic jazz hands, a regal, lifted chin and a piercing gaze.

"The company created a niche in the dance field," says Glenn Edgerton, artistic director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. "This form of jazz is completely unique to Gus Giordano, and its high energy and high impact has always been infectious."

In 1990, Gus started the Jazz Dance World Congress, a five-day gathering of hundreds of jazz dancers, master teachers and professional companies from around the world. Seventeen congresses took place over the next 24 years—both in numerous U.S. cities and in countries including Mexico, Costa Rica, Germany and Japan.

Photo by Quinn Wharton

Raised to Reign

Nan grew up by her father's side, witnessing his company's rise. "I experienced the world with my dad," she says. "I loved the vibrancy and excitement of dance. And I was really proud. He was an incredibly charming man who was so handsome, warm and friendly. Everyone idolized him."

She trained extensively with her father, often sticking to the back of his class so others wouldn't guess she was anyone special. And after college, she joined his company. She watched her father demonstrate strict leadership in the company, while her mother had her finger on the pulse of the studio, running the administrative side. "I learned young that I loved both worlds—the artistry and the business," says Nan. "At heart, I am the combination of both my parents."

Devin Buchanan and Linnea Stureson. Photo by Quinn Wharton

After an injury sidelined Nan's dance career in 1985, she embraced her administrative instinct. While Gus remained the company's leader, Nan began to take on more responsibility, focusing on bringing the company structure up to not-for-profit standards and establishing a board of directors. "Oh, I was scared at first," she says. "He was strict, and he had this green vein on his forehead that would get prominent when he was upset. There has been a lot of growth since then to become a leader."

Gradually, Gus stepped back, letting Nan take the lead, and officially named her artistic director in 1993. With her never-quit attitude and contagious energy, she was a natural. "Gus' presence commanded respect, and that's exactly what Nan does now," says choreographer Ray Leeper, who trained with Gus as a teenager. "She's a taskmaster. She's exuberant. She's passionate. And she demands excellence."

Ryan Galoway, Jacob Frazier, Ari Israel (obscured), Mariterese Altosino. Photo by Quinn Wharton

Life After Death

Gus taught for the last time at age 81, at the 2004 Jazz Dance World Congress in Costa Rica, and his health rapidly declined over the next few years. Still, he watched every performance and offered Nan counsel and advice until he passed away in 2008. Nan's world was shaken. "Everywhere I looked, he was there," she says. "Then there were times I'd have to leave rehearsal because it was too much. I lost my dad, but I also lost my partner, my advisor and my mentor. His soul was my soul."

There were other personal and professional struggles that came within a few years: Nan and her husband divorced in 2008; in 2009, GDC executive director Ben Hodge stepped down; and in 2011, the school and company moved to separate locations. Nan took on the added challenges with gusto, stepping in as both executive and artistic director, and the company didn't skip a beat.

"If anything, I think the understanding of what the organization was built on and our responsibility to continue his legacy was made stronger after that loss," says Maeghan McHale, who's been dancing with GDC since 2007. "We were on tour in Hawaii when Gus died, and we wanted to come home. Nan said, 'No, stay. It's what my father would have wanted.'"

"We want our audiences to not just see that the dancers are good, but to also feel something," says Nan. Photo by Quinn Wharton

Michael McStraw came on board as executive director in 2010, and Nan credits him with the organization's continued strength and growth—most notably, a doubling in its financial size in the past seven years. With Nan dedicated to the artistic side and with more financial flexibility, she focused on growing her father's dream of being a true repertory company. She brought choreographers on board who truly expanded the meaning of the word "jazz," including Ray Leeper, Rennie Harris, Alexander Ekman, Liz Imperio, Davis Robertson, Peter Chu and Ray Mercer. "Nan builds a true connection with people she brings into the company," says Mercer, who first choreographed for GDC in 2015. "Ever since we first spoke on the phone, she's felt like family."

The Dancers

GDC presents performance series at The Harris Theater in the spring and fall, and one in the summer at the Auditorium Theatre, and frequently tours for performances and residencies (this year to Indiana, Michigan, Alabama, Iowa and Tennessee). They've maintained a structure of five women and five men since before Gus' death—currently adding two Giordano II dancers and four "performing associates," a transition step between Giordano II and GDC. Nan expects dancers to rise through the ranks, so she pairs each Giordano II member with a mentor from the main company to guide them.

Zachary Heller lifts Katie Rafferty. Photo by Quinn Wharton

Nan carefully chooses dancers who she thinks can handle both the technical difficulty of the repertory—with a strong base in jazz, ballet and modern—and the family-like dynamic she cherishes. She also appreciates dancers with college degrees, which she says adds a level of maturity. "We hire dancers based on so much more than just skill," she says. "I ask myself, 'What are they like as people?'"

As a result, the dancers are versatile and strong as individuals, but also work as a captivating and dynamic unit. "We want our audiences to not just see that the dancers are good, but to also feel something," Nan adds. "There's so much darkness in the world, but the crazier it gets, the more it propels me. I want people to leave our performances feeling good. We strive for an experience of warmth."

Education and Outreach

Even without a brick-and-mortar school, Nan remains passionate about training the next generation of Giordano dancers, so in recent years, she's increased her reach as a teacher, traveling to conventions and teaching master classes internationally.

Nan's classes are deeply rooted in Giordano technique, but they are also playful, offering opportunity to develop improvisational skills. "After 11 years, Nan still surprises me by pulling combinations out of the vault that I've never seen before," says McHale about Nan's weekly company class.

Natasha Overturff Denny. Photo by Quinn Wharton

GDC's intensive six-day summer workshop offers teens, college students and pre-professional dancers the chance to be immersed in Giordano technique. And last year saw the start of a college mentorship program, which allows college students to be paired with company dancers for a full year, receive full scholarships to the summer workshop and get a behind-the-scenes look at the company. "College graduates often haven't seen what company life really looks like," says artistic programs manager and former GDC dancer Cesar Salinas. "This is something I wish I'd had as a young dancer."

Another program, called The Giordano Experience, invites studio and high school groups to spend a day with the company. Dancers take class with Nan, chat with company members and watch rehearsal. When GDC tours, it brings aspects of The Giordano Experience to local high school and college dancers. Nan often teaches during these company residencies, including a trip this year to Butler University's dance department. (Her son Keenan, not a dancer, is currently a student there.) "Even dancers in ballet companies need more than just beautiful technique," she says. "They need to be able to move."

Jacob Frazier and Ari Israel. Photo by Quinn Wharton

Community outreach has become a staple of the Giordano mission. In the spring, Nan keeps the company's touring schedule light to facilitate Jazz Dance/Science and Health, an eight-week movement-based curriculum for fourth- and fifth-grade science classes at four underserved Chicago public schools.

Nan also hopes for a return of the Jazz Dance World Congress in the near future, which was last held in 2012 in partnership with Point Park University. But her focus recently has been the five-year development of the Nan Giordano Certification Program, a training curriculum for teachers in Gus' iconic technique.

Sweet Home

GDC has lived a nomadic life since moving away from its former suburban home more than five years ago, with the company renting studios throughout Chicago, and the administration in a small office space. They're currently in the process of purchasing a permanent home, thanks to an individual donor: the Hermon Baptist Church in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago.

"We've persevered for 55 years, and we deserve a home," says Nan, who hopes the building will house studios for rehearsal and classes, office space and a black-box theater for informal showings, but the organization is only at the beginning stages of developing a timeline and financial strategy for the move. "We're going for the gold, but the scope of it will depend on how much money we can raise," Nan says. "My goal is to have a place where the Giordano technique thrives, where it's known throughout the world that this is where jazz dancers go to study."

Her confidence in the vitality of jazz dance is palpable, her excitement contagious and her mission clear. "Jazz dance is alive, and I need to be one of the voices that carries it out into the world," she says. "This is not fad. This is foundation."

As a reminder of the responsibility of carrying on her father's dream, Nan keeps a few letters from him framed in her office. One of those notes, dated December 12, 2000, simply says, "Nan, What a pleasure for me to have my daughter as my legacy. You are doing a wonderful + beautiful + talented take over. I love you, Dad."

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

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
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

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

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: I'm looking to create some summer rituals and traditions at my studio. What are some of the things you do?

A: Creating fun and engaging moments for your students, staff and families can have a positive impact on your studio culture. Whether it's a big event or a small gesture, we've found that traditions build connection, boost morale and create strong bonds. I reached out to a variety of studio owners to gather some ideas for you to try this summer. Here's what they had to say.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Sam Williams and Jaxon Willard after competition at RADIX. Photo courtesy of Williams

Self-choreographed solos are becoming increasingly popular on the competition circuit these days, leading dance teachers to incorporate more creative mentoring into their rehearsal and class schedules. In this new world of developing both technical training and choreographic prowess, finding the right balance of assisting without totally hijacking a student's choreographic process can be difficult.

To help, we caught up with a teacher who's already braved these waters by assisting "World of Dance" phenom Jaxon Willard with his viral audition solos. Center Stage Performing Arts Studio company director Sam Williams from Orem, Utah, shares her sage wisdom below.

Check it out!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance studios are run by creative people with busy schedules, who have a love-hate relationship with props and sequins. The results of all this glitter and glam? General mass chaos in every drawer, costume closet and prop corner of the studio. Let's be honest, not many dance teachers are particularly known for their tidiness. The ability to get 21 dancers to spot in total synchronization? Absolutely! The stamina to run 10 solos, 5 group numbers, 2 ballet classes and 1 jazz class in one day? Of course! The emotional maturity to navigate a minefield of angry parents and hormonal teenagers? You know it!

Keeping the studio tidy? Well...that's another story.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox