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.
"Compete with yourself."
Dee with pop star Ricky Martin in Las Vegas. Dee's daughter Jill Hillier was the assistant director, along with Jamie King, of Martin's latest show Vegas. Photo courtesy of Watt
"She inspired and encouraged me to follow my dreams and reach for the stars, but also prepared me for the hardships, rejection and reality of the business. She instilled an impeccable sense of work ethic and taught all of her students the importance of jazz technique, style and performance." —Jill Hillier, daughter and former student
"She invited me to teach at her studio, and I was so impressed with the talent, technique and passion her students exuded. Dee is a master teacher in her own right who instilled the proper technique and passion in her dancers to be able to adapt to any style and any job that came their way. So many incredible dancers were homegrown in her tiny little studio in the basement of her home (i.e. Jill Hillier, Joshua Widick, Laurie Sposit-Reid, Michelle Barber, Mary Jo Rimke and so many others). The dance world is a better place because of Dee Hillier!" —Michèle Assaf, master teacher