Judy Rice bridges the disparate realms of competition and college dance; modern dance and ballet.
After only two seasons performing with the Joffrey Ballet, Judy Rice fell and tore a tendon in her ankle. This came on the heels of being denied a contract with The National Ballet of Canada after training most of her young life with its affiliated school. Even for Rice, a petite spitfire who usually sports a beaming smile, the weight of those setbacks was heavy. She feared she was too far behind her peers, who had all nabbed jobs years before she had even dipped her highly arched feet into a career. “I started studying for my SATs,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to have to do the college thing.’”
At the time, Rice could not have foreseen that the “college thing” would become a significant part of her life. Since 1990, she has been an associate professor of performing arts, teaching ballet at the University of Michigan. She now splits her time between Ann Arbor and Los Angeles. Weekends and summers, she teaches on the competition and convention circuit, acting unofficially as a recruiter for the U-M dance department. In other words, this devout ballet classicist spends the better part of her time teaching, counseling and advocating for modern dancers and comp kids who would never dream of becoming bunheads.
Leading a classroom wasn’t really part of Rice’s life plan, especially not in a university setting. Her first teaching gig was at the Joffrey Ballet School. “I remember walking into the room to teach, looking at the pianist and saying, ‘Look, I have no idea what I’m doing,’” she says. And though she had studied for those SATs some years ago, Rice never enrolled in college. It’s almost unprecedented that an applicant without a master’s degree, let alone a bachelor’s, would be green-lighted to teach in higher ed.
“There were some kinks to work out in terms of how the university evaluated her for the job,” says Peter Sparling, who was department chair when Rice came to U-M as an adjunct to fill in for a faculty member on maternity leave. “But the department was able to hire her based on her professional expertise.”
Teaching ballet to modern dancers was a bit shocking at first for Rice, who until then had been immersed almost solely in the ballet world. “I just didn’t get modern dance. It’s a really different animal,” she says. But it didn’t take long to come to appreciate the students she was working with, even if their goals didn’t include pink tights and pointe shoes. “If people are interested in making themselves stronger and more aware of their bodies, then I’m interested in teaching them.”
The competition exposure came when she was asked to sub one weekend as a judge. She soon found regional jobs at several dance competitions. In 2003, Co. Dance asked her to teach a handful of regional convention classes on weekends. Five trips with Co. Dance snowballed into an annual tour of 17 cities, flying from Michigan on Fridays and making it back on the red-eye just in time to start the new week of classes. At first, she was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the conventions—150 students crammed like sardines into a room with teachers shouting counts into microphones. But she soon realized she could really influence these dancers’ futures, not just by raising their excitement for ballet, but by advocating for a college degree. “I don’t want any kid to end up in the position I had been in,” says Rice. “I’m very grateful for what good things came to me, but my career opportunities are limited without a degree.” She often goes as far as to single out kids in class and encourage them to apply to U-M. She didn’t realize the impact she was having until the U-M admissions team called her one day to tell her how many dance department hopefuls had indicated they heard about the program through her.
That’s not to say she hasn’t gotten any flack from her university colleagues who thought her work with commercial dancers was beneath her expertise. “I remember when I first started out in this world, someone scolded me for being a judge, like I had sold out,” says Rice. “But where do people think we get great dancers from—the Martha Graham School of Idaho?” It’s this kind of open-mindedness that Sparling says is one of Rice’s greatest strengths: She is able to see the bottom-line potential of each student. What her colleagues sometimes dismiss as mugging and tricks, she views as raw potential. “Judy is very quick to turn to us and say, ‘OK, remember that this kid is from competition and that’s all she knows, but we can work with her,’” he says. “It has actually become a running joke—can Judy fix this kid? She taught us that it’s about working with talented dancers who need to be tuned.”
In fact, Rice prefers to keep quiet about her recruits until the other faculty members see them audition. She wants their talent to speak for itself. “Judy is prescreening for us,” says Sparling. “It’s an unexpected benefit: We have an ‘in’ in the competition world. And that’s extraordinary in terms of mining an amazing resource of talent. Whatever she does outside the department circles back, and it’s essential to the success of the department.”
Katie Muth, a senior BFA candidate at U-M, is one of the many Rice scooped up off the convention floor. At the time, Muth was considering moving to L.A. after high school to work in commercial dance. Rice picked her out of the crowd and urged her to apply to U-M, even though the deadline was the next day. “I spent all of Monday morning writing my essays and overnighted my application,” says Muth. “Without Judy, I wouldn’t be here.”
“When she walks into the room she seems seven feet tall,” says Muth describing the 5' 2" Rice. “Her energy and personality completely fill the room, and that makes everyone ready for class.”
Sparling says that’s what initially struck him about Rice as well. “I remember her first few classes. I was so impressed with the animation and joy of teaching. The students looked like they had been jolted by an electric shock. She’s brought a new level of excitement and engagement to ballet in the department.”
Between her full-time work in Michigan, her weekends at conventions and summers in L.A., Rice’s routine sounds exhausting. But she says this frenetic lifestyle gives her much more peace than she felt when she was a performer. “I’ve tried several times to be ‘normal.’ I’ve never had a personal life—can you buy one at Target?” she quips. “There was a time when I didn’t want my life to be all about dance.” She’s referring to a period when she was married and tried working in real estate. “But the force of dance was greater than me, and I finally let it take me on this path.”
She goes on to say, “I’ve always felt a little bit like an outsider in the university family town, but I can’t imagine giving up this job. Yet, I feel so at home in California.” She slows down a little in what has been a rapid-fire nonstop conversation. With a bit of a sigh she muses, “I have a funny feeling life will just fall into place.” DT
Associate editor Kristin Schwab is a member of Summation Dance Company in New York City.
Photography by Peter Smith