Growing up at her mom's dance studio in Pittsburgh and being exposed to top choreographers on regular trips to New York City, Broadway veteran Rachelle Rak was practically groomed to be a professional dancer. She landed her first show in the national tour of Cats at age 17, and she hasn't stopped since. She was an original cast member of Fosse and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and was on the first national tour of Starlight Express.
Aside from her busy, not to mention impressive, performing career, she teaches master musical theater classes at studios and conventions across the country and has appeared as a panel judge on "Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition."
Dance Teacher: What's something you've noticed from teaching around the country?
Rachelle Rak: It bothers me when a room full of students doesn't know, for instance, who Jerome Robbins is. That means we're not sharing the history of dance. This frustration triggered me to realize that dance history is so important and has to be continued. Not just through the Broadway revivals or shows in the style of, or taught only at conventions, but actually taught in the dance room at the studio. That's where we spend most of our time.
Photo courtesy of Break The Floor Productions
DT: Why isn't musical theater more popular with young dancers?
RR: If I see one more lyrical contemporary number where an 11-year-old is grabbing their face and looking tortured, I'm going to jump out of my skin. A dance teacher recently said to me, "Musical theater never wins overall," and I thought, "Who cares?" It's not always about winning. I don't want to knock teachers, because they have a full plate, but when I was a kid, I learned the most after losing at competition. I was trained to be resilient from my mom, to pick myself up, work harder and do better.
DT: How can teachers make it more appealing?
RR: The dance community needs to stay on top of what's going on with musical theater. It's no longer the Charleston and the tapper's time step; it's totally evolved. It's all over the map, from Hamilton to the Cats revival. We have to be the educators, the ones sharing the knowledge. None of the contemporary styles would have existed without the likes of Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Jack Cole, Michael Bennett or Luigi. If you investigate Broadway, you can figure out a way to present musical theater in your school. Have a movie night and show your students clips from old musicals with Cyd Charisse, Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. Give them inspiration, rather than presenting it as a bore.
Check out her demonstrating the "The Cell Block Tango" at the Dance Teacher Summit.