To hear Kim McSwain tell her Lifetime movie–worthy story brings to mind the cliché, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Having overcome the tragic loss of her husband and a crippling dance injury that almost halted her career, this dynamic dance teacher is proof positive that it can be done—and she’s done it all with a smile. “People remark all the time, ‘You’re so positive in spite of all the stuff you’ve gone through,’” says McSwain. “Though I wouldn’t wish these things on anyone, they helped me realize just how strong I was.”

That strength and shine is exactly what inspires the hundreds of students who pack McSwain’s classrooms at the JUMP convention weekend after weekend. McSwain uses her own experience of having been partially paralyzed to elicit appreciation for movement in her students: “I always sit the kids down and say, ‘Imagine that this combo is the last time you will ever dance.’ Then I turn on the music and tell them to picture what they’d look like the last time they get to do something they care about. Dancing isn’t about trophies, turns in second or recognition—it’s about that feeling right there.”

McSwain has been cultivating that feeling all her life, having danced since the age of 3. Growing up in Garland, TX, McSwain did it all, from gymnastics to ballet to pageants to twirling. Though six days a week of various classes might be overkill for some kids, McSwain loved every minute of it. “For me, dance was an escape,” she says.

Since her training at Dallas Dance Academy was almost exclusively ballet, she jumped at the chance to spend her 18th summer in California training at Dee and Tina Caspary’s Studio C learning new genres. “I remember walking into my first jazz class with Tina, who is gorgeous and amazing,” says McSwain. “She told me to take my hair out of the bun, and I did because I wanted to be just like her!”

It wasn’t long before McSwain did follow in Caspary’s footsteps, teaching classes and acting as assistant director of a studio when she returned to Dallas. McSwain was on the verge of opening her own studio with a group of friends and investors when tragedy struck: Her husband of three months, a Navy fighter pilot, was killed in a head-on jet collision. “It was the worst time of my life. I quit dancing; my heart just wasn’t in it,” she says. “I decided I didn’t want to own a business. But I did want to teach, to dance.”

Opportunity presented itself again when friend and convention director Jeremy Keeton enlisted McSwain to teach classes at Adrenaline Dance. She also got the chance to sub for Mia Michaels one weekend at JUMP, and afterward she was hired as faculty. That was when life intervened again. In July 2005, McSwain demonstrated a piece of choreography with disastrous results. “I did a head roll, heard a pop and suddenly felt lightning down the left side of my body,” she says. She didn’t think much of the incident until she awoke the next morning unable to lift her head from the pillow. She sought the help of a chiropractor, who placed her in a neck brace (which she promptly decorated with a bow tie and rhinestones).

Thinking she was on the road to recovery, she soon discovered otherwise. “I was standing in front of 200 kids at an in-studio convention and my left arm started to throb,” she recalls. “It dropped and just stopped working. Here I am in this neck brace, doing a combo full-on with floorwork, and my arm is flopping around like it’s detached.” This time there was no ignoring the severity of the injury—McSwain had ruptured a disc in her neck. It was embedded in her spinal cord, paralyzing the entire left side of her body. A risky surgery would be required that could leave her fully paralyzed for life.

“I was in complete and utter denial—losing the ability to dance was like losing a part of me,” says McSwain. “I wrote my surgeon a letter saying, ‘This is all I have and all I care about. Dance is the only thing I know how to do. Please fix me.’”

The surgery was a success and a relieved and grateful McSwain took the two following years to recover and give birth to her daughter, Bella. In late 2007, McSwain returned to the JUMP stage to teach jazz and hip hop. Though she hasn’t looked back since, she says that at first it was somewhat daunting: “I was scared that if I did one chaîné, my head would roll off!” she jokes.

Today, McSwain considers herself a survivor, and that perspective helps her relate to dancers of all ages, shapes and sizes. Known to teach class by candlelight, she calls on her hard-earned sense of empathy and compassion to create a supportive environment: “If I see a girl flailing around in the back, I will stop the entire class and let her perform. I tell them to look at her soul, passion and heart, and it’s amazing what happens to the room,” she says. “One time, a 16-year-old came up to me and said, ‘This class was the first time I have ever felt pretty,’ and she just lost it. Those are the kids I give extra attention to.”

McSwain’s knack for making meaningful connections with students hasn’t gone unnoticed by JUMP founder Gil Stroming. “Kim has a unique ability to inspire dancers of all ages and levels,” he says. “I’m not a fan of dance teachers who cater only to the top 10 percent of the class and neglect the other dancers in the room. Kim treats every dancer she’s teaching like they could be the next superstar.”

Of course, McSwain’s classes aren’t all sentiment and no sass. She insists that dancers go full-out—in performance and in life. “I tell them, ‘If you don’t like this combo or this class and don’t want to give me every bit of your body and soul, then you need to go out in the hallway and make room for the rest of us who want to get down right now,’” says McSwain. “If they’re at a 7, I try to bring them to a 12!”

As for McSwain herself, moving forward with gusto has been exactly what the doctor ordered. She and her family recently relocated from Dallas to the New York City area. “I feel like I’m starting to live again,” she says, “and I know 100 percent that this is where I’m supposed to be and that dance is what I’m supposed to be doing.” DT

A former hip-hop, cheerleading and dance fitness instructor, Jen Jones has a BS in magazine journalism and is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

The Conversation
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When it comes to running a thriving dance studio, Cindy Clough knows what she's talking about. As executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner for more than four decades, she's all too aware of the unique challenges the job presents, from teaching to scheduling to managing employees and clients.

Here, Clough shares her best advice for new studio owners, and the answers to some common questions that come up when you're getting started.

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Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. The list goes on—and you have to decide not only what type of presence you'll have on each platform, but also whether you and your faculty will network with students and family members. How can you set boundaries for yourself and your faculty on social media?

The easiest option may be to prohibit these interactions entirely. At the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, staff and faculty may not "friend" or otherwise connect with current students or those under the age of 18 on social media, explains Gordon Wright, Harid's executive vice president and director.

At the Dance Zone in Henderson, Nevada, the handbook states that social media should be handled "in a professional manner." Owner Jami Artiga encourages students and faculty to share photos and tag the studio, but prefers not to "friend" kids from her personal account. "Of course, my son dances at the studio, and we have teachers with kids who go here, so sometimes the line gets blurry," she says.

Robin Dawn Ryan of the Robin Dawn Academy in Cape Coral, FL, also has a few students on her Facebook friend list, "but I don't put a lot about my personal life on the site," she says. She uses the platform more to keep track of what dancers and their parents are posting about the studio. "If they put up something they shouldn't," she says, whether that's a bullying post or an unflattering image, "I'll ask them to take it down."

Ryan tends to keep her social-media shout-outs generic: "So proud of this year's graduates!" and "Our dancers looked beautiful at prom!" That way, she can show support without spending hours online or worrying about missing any one student's achievement.

Dancer Health
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When ballet star David Hallberg sought out the medical team at The Australian Ballet to help him recover from his ankle surgeries, one of the things rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly had him learn was to jump from his hips. By doing so, he learned to put less stress on his lower legs and feet and access the powerhouse group of muscles surrounding the hips, most commonly referred to as the glutes. While many parts of his rehab were particular to him, understanding how to properly engage the glutes is something many professional and pre-professional dancers can stand to gain from.

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Studio Owners
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Many a studio owner might agree that the idea of maternity leave is laughable. "So many people say, 'I was back after two weeks—we had a competition,'" says Meagan Ziebarth, a former owner who sold her studio two years ago. "If that works for you, and you feel great, wonderful. But I feel passionately that having a baby is one of the most transformational life events, and you don't need to put that kind of pressure on yourself and accept that that's the norm."

So how can you take the maternity leave you want and make sure your studio doesn't run itself into the ground? We asked three who did it for their best advice—including what they wish they'd done differently.

Be OK With Crazy

Suzana Stankovic and Natalia.

Suzana Stankovic
Wild Heart Performing Arts Studio
Astoria, New York
Enrollment: 500 (drop-in)
2 years in business

Suzana Stankovic signed the lease on her New York studio a mere 10 days before she gave birth to her first child. The space she'd been renting hourly for private and group lessons unexpectedly became available for a lease takeover, and, despite the timing, it felt like the right decision. "I said, 'This is happening for a reason,'" she says.

For the first two months after her baby was born, Stankovic recovered (she'd had a C-section). She held a soft opening in mid-November (2 1/2 months postdelivery) for existing students and officially opened her studio—with a drop-in class format—to the public the following January (4 months postdelivery).

  • Figure out your childcare. "It's the most important thing. You've got to figure that out, whether that means visiting daycare centers and finding one you're comfortable with or involving your entire family," she says. Stankovic's parents are retired and live near her, luckily, so they became her nannies. "That's the major reason I was able to do this," she says.
  • Expect to feel different after giving birth. "When I had my baby, and it came time to leave her and go to work, it was very, very difficult," says Stankovic. "I wasn't prepared for that. I was texting my mother constantly: 'Is she OK? Did she have her milk? Is she colicky?' It was hard to be fully present, initially. Be prepared for the effects of sleep deprivation and not eating well and the postpartum blues."
  • Have a support system in place. That's how Stankovic got through the roughest times, postbirth. "Have a friend or your husband or partner," she says. "And know that the very difficult times are temporary. They do abate. And if they don't, there are resources. There's help out there."
  • Be OK with crazy. "I would plan my lesson and do my combos in the shower," she says. "On my way to the studio, I'd finish up my grand allégro in my head. I'd send e-mails in the middle of changing her diaper—I'd write two sentences, change the diaper, write two more, then hit send." The result of so much multitasking? "I realized, 'Wow, I can do so much more than I thought I could,'" says Stankovic. "I'm ready for anything."
Dance Teacher Tips
International performer Joy Womack balances flexibility and strength to maintain her turnout. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

Turnout is one of the defining characteristics of classical ballet and the foundation of your technique, but the deceptively simple concept of external rotation can be hard to execute. For those born with hip joints that don't naturally make a tight fifth position, it's tempting to take shortcuts in the quest for more rotation, but you'll end up with weaker technique and a higher risk of injury. We asked top teachers and physical therapists to break down the meaning of turnout and offer safe ways to maximize your range.

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Just for fun
Photo via @sparklethetinychi on Instagram

In our not-so-humble opinion, dancers and dogs should rule the world. So, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to hear that we are positively obsessed with all things that are dog and dance at the same time. Namely, puppies dressed up in tutus. OMG—so cute!

We couldn't keep our knowledge of this perfect combination of dreaminess to ourselves. So we decided to share with you some tutu-wearing dogs from Instagram that we will never get over.

You're welcome!

Get ready to experience a level of cuteness that is almost too much to handle, ladies and gentlemen!

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Dance Teachers Trending
FreeVerse photography, courtesy of Quenga

As a hula instructor at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Hawaii native Kaina Quenga is committed to sharing the traditional dances and culture of Polynesia with the people of the Big Apple. Through training with famed kuma hula (master teacher) Johnny Lum Ho of Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua, Quenga developed a respect for and understanding of the artform that has carried her through the nearly 20 years of her professional career.

In spite of her success as a teacher at 92nd Street Y (she also teaches at Concourse House Day Care in the Bronx and Spoke the Hub Dancing in Brooklyn, and offers free classes in various parks around NYC during the spring and summer), Quenga never anticipated becoming an educator. "I really just lucked into it—I'm not a kuma hula," she says. One can only become an official hula master teacher when their own kuma hula bequeaths knowledge to them through a formal ceremonial ritual after years of training. "But when I came to New York, everyone kept asking me if I would teach classes. There was a need for it. So I started teaching the basics."

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Dancer Health
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Q: I'm an older dancer/teacher and have some pain under my heel bone and Achilles tendon. I feel it most in the mornings and when I'm walking down stairs. Would wearing teacher shoes with heels help me?

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Dance News
Carol Channing in the original 1964 production of Hello, Dolly! Photo by Eileen Darby, courtesy of DM Archives

The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.

Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.

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Editor's List: The Goods
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Here at Dance Media, we think everyone's list of New Year's resolutions should include reading more 💁♀️. And aside from reading Dance Teacher magazine (which should, of course, be a resolution in and of itself), we recommend some seriously wonderful dancer memoirs.

Here are three interesting books we think you should check out (or re-check out) in 2019!

Share your favorite dancer memoirs in our comment section! We can't wait to hear what you're reading!

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Dance Teachers Trending

When it comes to Broadway, Becca Petersen does it all. Not only is she a swing learning multiple roles for Mean Girls on Broadway as well as understudy for the principal roles of Cady Heron and Regina George, but she also plays an administrative role as the assistant dance captain. When she's not onstage dancing one of the 10 different tracks she covers, or acting out two of Broadway's most notorious mean ladies, she's in the audience, taking notes in order to clean choreography in the next rehearsal. "Once the show opens and the creative team leaves, the dance captains, stage managers and associates keep things running," Petersen says. "I help teach choreography to newcomers when there is turnover and make sure the dancing looks good from day to day."

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Dance Teacher Tips
Joanne Chapman teaching turns (photo by Dan Boskovic, courtesy Joanne Chapman School of Dance)

Think back to your newbie dancer days. Can you remember your introduction to spotting? It might've involved staring hard at your own reflection in the mirror as you wrestled with your first pirouette. Or maybe your teacher had you put your hands on your shoulders as you attempted a series of half-chaînés across the floor.

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