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."

Dance Teacher Awards

Who knew that a virtual awards ceremony could bring our community together in such a powerful way?

Last night, we celebrated the annual Dance Teacher Awards, held virtually for the first time. Though it was different from what we're used to, this new setting inspired us to get creative in celebrating our six extraordinary honorees. In fact, one of the most enlivening parts of the event was one that could only happen in a Zoom room: Watching as countless tributes, stories and congratulations poured in on the chat throughout the event. Seeing firsthand the impact our awardees have had on so many lives reminded us why we chose to honor them.

If you missed the Awards (or just want to relive them), you're in luck—they are now available to watch on-demand. We rounded up some of the highlights:

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For Parents
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As studios in many areas begin to open up with safety protocols in place, dance students are, of course, itching to get back into class. But just because dancers can go back to in-person training doesn't mean all families are ready for their children to actually do so.

As a parent, it's understandable to feel caught between a rock (your dancer's will to attend in-person class) and a hard place (your concerns surrounding COVID-19). Yet no matter how many tears are shed or how much bargaining your dancer tries, the bottom line is that when it comes to issues of health and safety, you—the parent—have the final say.

Still, there may be ways to soften the blow, as well as best practices for setting or amending expectations. We asked Danielle Zar, a child and adolescent psychotherapist who specializes in parent education, to share some tips for this tricky situation.

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