When Steps on Broadway founder Carol Paumgarten called Joe Lanteri several times in a row in February 2018, his first guess was that she wanted to get him back on the faculty roster. "For decades, I taught jazz at 4:30 pm at Steps," he says, "but a couple years ago, I had to let go of that class to free up some time."
To Lanteri's surprise, Paumgarten told him she was ready to move away from her place at Steps' helm. He was on her list of possible successors. "When she brought it up, I laughed," he says. "My life was already so full. But it took about 10 seconds for me to know I had to seriously consider it. Steps on Broadway is such an important part of the footprint of New York. It had to continue—and it had to remain recognizably Steps."
Since taking over as executive director and majority owner in October, Lanteri has been working behind the scenes to bring a renewed vitality to a beloved organization that's celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. "Steps doesn't need me to run the business," he says. "The team is very good at what it does. My role is to use my contacts and resources within the industry to create opportunities for the next generation."
A Deep History
In the early 1980s, after graduating from the University of Southern California as a theater major, Lanteri moved to NYC and started studying at Steps, Broadway Dance Center and elsewhere. One of the teachers he connected with in his 20s was Michele Kadison, who taught at Steps and a now-defunct studio called Fancy Dancer. When Kadison was invited to teach a two-week workshop out of town, she asked Lanteri to cover her classes. After his substitute stint concluded, he was offered his own slots at both studios.
Although he was performing, choreographing and producing events in the NYC area, Lanteri jumped into teaching. His classes were soon packed with jazz, Broadway and concert dancers, all of whom were attracted by his unique blend of L.A. and NYC sensibilities. "In the '80s, New York jazz dance was embodied by wonderful teachers like Phil Black, Luigi and Frank Hatchett," Lanteri explains. "My style was just as technical, but had a different sense of athleticism and sensuality, because I was also influenced by what was happening on the West Coast."
Even as he was earning a devoted following as a jazz teacher, Lanteri continued making waves (and building a valuable network) in the commercial world, working as dance supervisor for "Club MTV" and as the NYC dance talent scout for "Star Search," among other gigs. But it was the launch of New York City Dance Alliance in 1994 that set him on the path toward what he feels is his true calling.
A Sampling of Steps Classes
Photo by Eduardo Patino, courtesy of Steps
Theater Jazz with Richard Pierlon
A Clear Focus
Since NYCDA's inception, Lanteri's philosophy has been not only to hire stellar teachers across an array of dance genres, but also to prioritize scholarship and audition opportunities. The creation of the New York City Dance Alliance Foundation in 2010 took this effort even further. As of 2019, NYCDAF has awarded more than $2.65 million to dancers pursuing college degrees, in addition to millions offered by NYCDA Foundation partners.
"NYCDA has helped me understand that what I enjoy most is investing in people," Lanteri says. "The teachers we remember are the ones who we feel are invested in our future. That's who I want to be."
That passion for his students' best interests, combined with his entrepreneurial spirit, is what helped Paumgarten see Lanteri as the right fit to move Steps on Broadway forward. "Joe has worn many hats and is able to juggle it all. He has good ideas and a kind soul," Paumgarten says. "He cares so much about the training and the careers of young dancers. I know he'll respect, maintain and extend our culture."
A Fresh Vision
Before the paperwork was even finalized, Lanteri was in meetings with key players at Steps, including Paumgarten, artistic director Diane Grumet and managing director Jameson Gilpatrick. "Joe brought so many ideas to the table," says Grumet, who's been an administrator at Steps for more than 25 years. "He has a broad reach and wonderful connections, and thanks to his work with the younger generations through NYCDA, he understands what they want and how things in this industry have changed."
Early in the transition, the leadership team set three overarching goals. "One, to broaden the community. We want to welcome the full spectrum of the dance world at Steps," Lanteri says. "Two, to diversify the culture. People often look at Steps as a ballet school, and it's true that the ballet training is second to none. But Steps is so much more than that. We can become even more eclectic in what we're offering. The last piece of the puzzle is to create more ways for dancers to plant seeds for a career."
These ideas are being made manifest through new programming. The School at Steps has begun offering Youth Performance Workshops, which let students work closely with a teacher for 12 weeks, culminating in a studio showcase. Professional Performance Workshops will provide the same opportunity for more advanced dancers, in four-week chunks—and PPW-showcase audiences will include invited industry pros, such as casting directors, choreographers and company directors. Steps' new Thursday Spotlight Series, meanwhile, brings in guest instructors each week 8 to 10 pm. Teachers have included Chase Brock, Joshua Bergasse, Desmond Richardson and Sonya Tayeh. All three efforts are aimed at attracting new students, as well as shaking things up for existing patrons and enticing those who may not have visited in a while.
One initiative Lanteri is particularly excited about is the Professional Work Sessions for advanced and professional dancers ages 17 and older. Professional Work Sessions run longer than a standard open class, clocking in at 6 to 12 hours across 2 to 4 days. Hosts thus far have included Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater 2, Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Rockettes, Broadway choreographer Warren Carlyle and Cirque du Soleil.
"Professional Work Sessions put you in the studio with a decision-maker, learning rep and demonstrating your work ethic to a potential employer," Lanteri says. "It's a different educational opportunity. What exactly does this choreographer or company want? Here's how you can find that out."
Steps Conservatory performs a showcase of choreography by Jenn Rose. Photo by Jaqlin Medlock, courtesy of Steps on Broadway
A Life's Work
Lanteri has not stepped back from his duties with NYCDA since his new role with Steps. In general, he's holding tight to the commitments that matter to him. For instance, he hopes to keep his weekly class at Juilliard, where he's taught since 1992. "It's not only that I thoroughly enjoy teaching there," he says. "Many of the people I'm now inviting to teach at Steps, I met through either Juilliard or NYCDA—or both!"
It's a busy life, but Lanteri is proud to say he's never stopped striving to fulfill his purpose. "I think I have a responsibility to do what I'm doing," he says. "When people respond to my ideas in a positive way, it becomes a driving force: This is working, so how can I improve? I always want to take what's good and make it better."
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