Dee Hillier's Dancers Honor Their Beloved Teacher With a Scholarship in Her Name

Dee Hillier (center) with some of her former students at her recent surprise 80th birthday party. Photo courtesy of Dan Watt

When 15-year-old Dan Watt found his first dance teacher, Dee Hillier, in Cleveland, Ohio, he didn't know he'd also found a life-long friend. "She influenced me so much in my career," says Watt. "We then just became friends years later."

Watt wasn't alone. Hillier, who started teaching dance in her basement with only a handful of students in the 1960s, went on to impact the lives of countless dancers. Her students, who still share bonds with one another and Hillier, have gone on to become successful teachers, choreographers and performers all over the country.

Part of her teaching style, which enforced solid technical training and professional classroom etiquette, was exposing her students to the professional world of dance. Regularly, she'd take groups of young dancers to New York City introducing them to the teachers she'd studied with.

She was also committed to those students who couldn't pay for tuition. "My parents could only afford three classes a week," says Watt. "Dee gave me a scholarship to continue taking class."

Known for her quick-witted correction style, like "if a bug lands on your nose, don't move an inch," Hillier also truly acknowledged the power of dance training to her students. Watt recalls her regularly saying, "We are the lucky ones. We may have the lowest lows, but boy, do we have the highest highs."

Hillier recently celebrated her 80th birthday. Photo courtesy of Watt

Over the years, former students, known as "The Dee Hillier Dancers," continue to carry her legacy and teachings on to future generations of dancers, including Watt, who founded The Art Attack Foundation in 2004. In line with its mission to provide financial support to performing arts students, the organization announced this year the first-ever Dee Hillier Scholarship. The scholarship, funded by former Dee Hillier dancers, will provide one student in need of financial assistance full tuition for Broadway Dance Center's summer program in New York City. "Dee touched so many dancers and people in her life; thousands of us that are working in the profession," says Watt. "She gave us the confidence to follow our dreams and always encouraged us. This is our way of giving back."

Dan Watt with The Art Attack Foundation's chairperson Chita Rivera. Photo courtesy of Watt

Below is a slideshow with a handful of Hillier's lessons recalled by former students that were forever-changed by her unique style of teaching.

"Remember the legends. Keep their memory alive in the dance world."

Frank Hatchett, Dee HIllier and Dan Watt. Photo courtesy of Watt

Before Hillier moved to Ohio with her husband Jack, she grew up in New York studying with dance legends like Luigi, Phil Black, June Taylor and Charles Kelley.

"Dee introduced us to her teachers like Frank Hatchett, Jo Jo Smith and Luigi. She also introduced us to the real world of dance, and we either embraced it or went 'heavens no, this competition is ridiculous.'" —Dan Watt

"Dee Hillier is the one who first introduced me to NYC and Broadway Dance Center. It was on these trips that I realized the importance of some of the lessons Dee had been teaching us. Working on a strong and thoughtfully prepared warm-up, as well as technically focused combinations at home in Dee's classes, gave me the confidence I needed to feel at home taking class in NYC. Classroom etiquette and the importance of acting professional within the dance community are also lessons from Dee that I have tried to pass on to my students." —Michelle Barber, teacher at BDC

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Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.

His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.

"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

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