Our 2017 DT Award Winners: Sue Sampson-Dalena

Photo by Naserin Bogado, courtesy of The Dance Studio of Fresno

When she was 20, Sue Sampson-Dalena rented a single room in a strip mall on the deserted north side of Fresno, California, with a simple dream. "I wanted to create a dance school where all disciplines were taught at a high level," she says. "In those days, you were either a ballet school or a tap-and-jazz school. So many people told me it couldn't be done that I decided I was going to try."

Thirty-five years later, The Dance Studio of Fresno has a faculty of 25 and a beautiful seven-studio facility. "I never envisioned I'd have this when I was 20 years old," she says of her 13,000-square-foot space. "But I did know even then that I loved education and all forms of dance and that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life." In 2015, Sampson-Dalena earned a rare honor. Her school was named Studio of the Year at The Dance Awards (produced by Break the Floor, NUVO and 24 Seven Dance conventions) and a top school by Youth America Grand Prix—a well-deserved validation that she'd indeed achieved her early goal.

She started with 40 students and grew her school slowly. "Only when I was overflowing with kids would I expand," she says. After 19 years in the strip mall, she'd saved enough to build a school. "From the ground up—it's my dream school," she says. She chose to keep her studio in her hometown. "My studio's known outside Fresno," she says. "I hope I'm helping make people aware of the talent in Fresno."

Photo by Naserin Bogado, courtesy of The Dance Studio of Fresno

That talent, Sampson-Dalena insists, extends to her faculty and staff. "Most of these amazing, brilliant people have been with me for more than 15 years," she says. "All real credit belongs to them." Many of her faculty members are former students. "They believe in my philosophy," she says. "We think alike." Martha Allen, a former student, has worked with Sampson-Dalena for 16 years as her office manager. "Sue has encouraged and trained every teacher she's hired over the last 16 years," Allen says. "Not only to do things the way that she does them, but to do them in a way that is appropriate for their personality and teaching."

Mentoring is important to Sampson-Dalena. She's eager to share the teaching and business skills she's learned through her own challenges—like discovering construction defects in her facility, which forced her to close for a summer to fix the issues. "I could have put my kids through college with the money I had to spend to fix the problem," she says. "Now I love to share my story. Knowing what I know now, I would have done a lot of things differently in terms of getting it built. Maybe I was meant to go through that so I could help people." Allen says this hard-earned wisdom is part of Sampson-Dalena's success: "She has a unique combination of understanding how to run a successful business, of being an excellent teacher and having true joy in the accomplishments of her students."

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By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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