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Meet High School Teacher Stephanie Kersten Teacher: Mentor, Mom and Survivor

Photo by Kim Lobato, courtesy of Kersten

We're privileged to honor four extraordinary educators with this year's Dance Teacher Awards in August at our New York Dance Teacher Summit. The awardees include Julie Kent, Djana Bell, Rhonda Miller, Sue Samuels and Stephanie Kersten.

On June 12, 2016, after a day of teaching for Music 'n Motion dance camp in Orlando, high school dance teacher Stephanie Kersten went out to the Pulse nightclub with her co-workers. "I was only there for an hour before the shooting took place," she says. "We were stuck inside for a good 30 minutes before, thank God, I was pulled out. I was actually on my hands and knees praying in a closet: 'Please just get us out. I just want to get home to my kids.'"


Despite severe shock and a shoulder injury, Kersten was back teaching the next day, the option to leave her students in the lurch unthinkable. "It wasn't about me surviving that," she says. "It was about my students helping me through what had happened to me. They helped me keep going."

It's that unflinching dedication and positive attitude in the face of extreme hardship that sets Kersten apart as an educator. After the shooting, she has a renewed sense of gratitude for her life, family, students and dance—a sentiment that she shares with her students whenever she can. "She always says, 'Dance for those who can't,'" says Jaliyah Kersten, Stephanie's second-oldest daughter and a junior on the Lake Mary High School dance team that Kersten coaches. Last year, Kersten choreographed a special piece for the dance team to honor the 49 victims of the Pulse shooting.

Kersten has been teaching high school students since 2005, when she took over the Marionettes dance team at Lake Mary. When she got the job, she was excited by the team's potential for growth. "When I first came, all they did was kick [routines]," she says. She quickly set to work expanding the 23-dancer team and adding more dance styles—jazz, hip hop, pom—to the team's repertoire. Today, the squad has grown to nearly 90 members, and Kersten has led them to win 21 national titles.

Kersten has always made time to talk to her students about the positive role dance can play in their lives, but now she has firsthand experience to draw upon. "I want them to know that the choices we make today shape who we are in the future," she says, ready to shape them into not only stellar dancers but also stellar people. "Teaching in the high school setting," she says, "we can really guide them to make positive, healthy choices."

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Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

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Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Ford Foundation; Christian Peacock; Nathan James, Courtesy Gibson; David Gonsier, courtesy Marshall; Bill Zemanek, courtesy King; Josefina Santos, courtesy Brown; Jayme Thornton; Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

Since 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards have celebrated the living legends of our field—from Martha Graham to Misty Copeland to Alvin Ailey to Gene Kelly.

This year is no different. But for the first time ever, the Dance Magazine Awards will be presented virtually—which is good news for aspiring dancers (and their teachers!) everywhere. (Plus, there's a special student rate of $25.)

The Dance Magazine Awards aren't just a celebration of the people who shape the dance field—they're a unique educational opportunity and a chance for dancers to see their idols up close.


Here's why your dancers (and you!) should tune in:

They'll see dance history in the making.

Carlos Acosta. Debbie Allen. Camille A. Brown. Laurieann Gibson. Alonzo King.

If you haven't already taught your students about these esteemed awardees, odds are you'll be adding them to your curriculum before long.

Not only will your students get to hear from each of them at a pivotal moment in their careers (and Dance Magazine Awards acceptance speeches are famously chock-full of inspiration), they'll also hear from presenters like William Forsythe and Theresa Ruth Howard.

This year, all the Dance Magazine Awards are going to Black artists, as a step towards repairing the history of honoring primarily white artists.

And meet tomorrow's dance legends.

Dance Magazine's Harkness Promise Awards, this year going to Kyle Marshall and Marjani Forté-Saunders, offer funding, rehearsal space and mentorship to innovative young choreographers in their first decade of presenting work—a powerful reminder to your students that major success in the dance world doesn't happen overnight.

They'll get a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes.

Solely teaching your students how to be a great dancer doesn't give them the full picture. A complete dance education produces artists who are savvy about what happens behind the scenes, too.

In 2018, Dance Media launched the Chairman's Award to honor those behind-the-scenes leaders who keep our field moving. Each year's recipient is chosen by our CEO, Frederic M. Seegal. This year's award goes to Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, who is using philanthropy to make the performing arts—and the world at large—more just.

And, of course, see dozens of great dance works.

Where else could your students see selections from Alonzo King's contemporary ballet classics next to Camille A. Brown's boundary-pushing dance theater works? Or see both Carlos Acosta and Laurieann Gibson in action in the same evening? Excerpts from the awardees' works will show your students what it is exactly that makes these artists so special.

So gather your class (virtually!) and join us next Monday, December 7, at 6 pm. To receive the special student rate, please email dmawards@dancemedia.com.

See you there!

Leap! Executive Director Drew Vamosi (Courtesy Leap!)

Since its inaugural season in 2012, Leap! National Dance Competition has been all about the little things.

"I wanted to have a 'boutique' competition. One where we went out to only one city every weekend, so I could be there myself, and we could really get to know the teachers and watch their kids progress from year to year," says Leap! executive director Drew Vamosi. According to Vamosi, thoughtful details make all the difference, especially during a global pandemic that's thrown many dancers' typical comp-season schedules for a loop. That's why Leap! prides itself on features like its professional-quality set design, as well as its one-of-a-kind leaping competition, where dancers can show off their best tricks for special cash and merchandise prizes.

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