Dance Teacher Honors Michele Larkin-Wagner and Molly Larkin-Symanietz at the 2019 #DanceTeacherSummit

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.

After assisting at LDS throughout their childhoods, both began teaching in earnest as teens. Michele also got an early start guest-teaching and choreographing at various conferences and workshops, including Dance Educators of America, Professional Dance Teachers Association and Dance Caravan USA. The sisters inherited their mother's love of the artform and her passion for helping kids, as well as her tireless work ethic. When Shirley died, Molly says, "everybody knew Michele and I were going to keep things going. We were already there seven days a week. It was a natural transition."

Michele and Molly now head up an organization that is known not only for winning competition titles, but also for producing dancers who are ready to work. LDS was named Studio of the Year at The Dance Awards in Las Vegas in 2016. Students and alumni have competed on "So You Think You Can Dance" and NBC's "World of Dance," and have performed with Cirque du Soleil, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, L.A. Dance Project, Travis Wall's Shaping Sound and on Broadway. "Our dancers are well-rounded," Molly says. "They take ballet for strength and technique, tap for timing and rhythm, stretch and strengthening classes to avoid injury—it all works together."

LDS has grown significantly since its early years, and in 2014 moved to its current location, a state-of-the-art facility with eight studios. But while the space has changed, the signature Larkin energy has not. Shirley Larkin's portrait hangs by the studio's entrance, and Michele and Molly strive to maintain the family-friendly environment she fostered. "Our first slogan was 'Praise His name with dance,' from the Psalms," Michele explains. "We pass that on by teaching our students to be driven, persistent and dedicated. Mom said students were to be nice people first, and good dancers second."

Many Larkin alumni return to teach; Michele estimates that the faculty is 75 percent former students. Molly's daughter, Mackenzie Symanietz, is being groomed to carry the torch when her mother and aunt step down. "Everyone at Larkin is family," says Jenny Johnson, who trained at LDS for 13 years, was on faculty for 20 and sent two children to classes there; her mom also trained with Shirley. "It's a place where parents can see their children learning and growing not only as dancers but also as individuals. Michele and Molly are an integral part of their students' lives, sharing in disappointments as well as successes and teaching so much more than dance."

They call it the "Larkin legacy," this potent blend of multigenerational history, top-notch dance training and important life lessons, and it all traces back to the matriarch. "Everything we have now is because of how Mom raised us and taught us," Michele says. "I know she's looking down on us, and I know she's proud."

Mark Your Calendar

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

Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy TUPAC

When legendary Black ballet dancer Kabby Mitchell III died unexpectedly in 2017, two months before opening his Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, his friend and business partner Klair Ethridge wasn't sure she had what it took to carry his legacy. Ethridge had been working with Mitchell to co-found TUPAC and planned to serve as its executive director, but she had never envisioned being the face of the school.

Now, Ethridge is heading into her fourth year of leading TUPAC, which she has grown from a fledgling program in an unheated building to a serious ballet school in its own sprung-floor studios, reaching hundreds of students across the Tacoma, Washington, area. The nonprofit has become a case study for what it looks like to carry out the vision of a founder who never had the chance to see his school open—and to take an unapologetically mission-driven approach.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.