Dance Teacher 2014 K–12 public-school education award recipient, Joan Sheary, is starring in a new documentary, Toe the Line: Arts Education for Life. The film, which is currently wrapping 10 years of filming, follows a group of high school students as they participate in a public arts magnet middle school program in Worcester, Massachusetts, under the direction of dance teacher and former Rockette, Sheary.
Karen Hildebrand, here. I can’t believe our 2013 Dance Teacher Summit is over! We had a great time, and like all of you who joined us here in NYC earlier this week, we’re brimming over with ideas and inspiration.
We are already delving into many of the hot topics that were discussed, so if you missed the DT Summit this year, stay tuned for coming issues of the magazine. And thanks to our partner/producer Gil Stroming of Break the Floor Productions, and conference director Katy Malone, for making the event our best yet.
One of my favorite parts of the DT Summit every year is the night we honor five teachers for their contributions to the field. Here is Sheila Barker presenting Frank Hatchett with the Dance Teacher Lifetime Achievement Award.
And there’s nothing like the excitement onstage when the newest A.C.E. Award winners are announced.
Big congratulations to Erica Sobol on her first-place title for “Black Flies/Heavy Skies.” She won a $15,000 production budget toward her own show in NYC next summer.
Runner-up awards went to:
Andre Kasten for “Family Matters”
Lindsay Nelko for “Awakening”
Jacob Jonas for “In a Room on Broad Street”
If you’re an emerging choreographer, mark your calendar for the 2014 contest entries: danceteachersummit.com/aceawards
Here is the video Erica sent that got her picked as one of the 16 finalists:
Photos by Kyle Froman
Instilling A work ethic in Ontario
Three years ago, Dawn Rappitt was giving birth on August 29. Two weeks later, she was back in the studio teaching a full schedule of classes. The owner of Elite Danceworx in Markham, Ontario, is so fiercely devoted to her students she couldn’t bear the thought of employing a long-term substitute teacher, even while she was on maternity leave. “I am so personally invested in all of the kids,” she says. “I have a hand in everything that’s going on. To take time off and not be visible would be unthinkable.”
Rappitt, who founded Elite Danceworx right out of high school, describes herself as old-school in her approach to training, but she works hard to keep her choreography current. For instance, dancers are required to train in popular styles like contemporary, hip hop and jazz, but must rigorously maintain their classical foundation: Advanced students take 7–10 hours of ballet each week. Rappitt hosts a summer intensive to fine-tune students’ technique and requires convention attendance for a sampling of different teaching styles. Guest artists, including in-demand commercial stars like Nick Lazzarini and Stacey Tookey, keep Rappitt and her students up to speed on the industry’s hottest routines.
This winning balance of classical training and up-to-the-minute choreography has helped Rappitt’s program grow from 40 students in rented school space to 325 students, 10 faculty members and a nationally recognized competition team. Four of her dancers have made it to the Top 20 on “So You Think You Can Dance Canada,” including Melanie Mah, who was one of the final six contestants for her season. “Dawn is vigilant about providing her dancers with all of the tools they need to be successful, employable and valuable contributors to the industry when they graduate,” says Mah, who has appeared on TV shows and in works by Dana Foglia.
Rappitt is crystal clear when it comes to her expectations for dancers—students learn right away that they can’t walk in the door of her studio and expect immediate success. “It doesn’t serve me to just hand them things and then have them go out in the real world and find out they’re not going to get the job or the promotion or the boyfriend just because they asked for it,” she says. “It won’t be a walk in the park when they leave the studio—they’ll have to dig their heels in and carry that work ethic with them in life.”
Photo by Brian Gellar, courtesy of Dawn Rappitt
Bridging high school with college and beyond in Virginia
When her teaching hours dropped roughly 38 percent between September 2011 and June 2012, Abigail Agresta-Stratton had an inkling. New York State school dance programs were being cut left and right, and dance teachers—only some of whom are covered by tenure—were losing jobs. Although Agresta-Stratton had built the West Islip High School’s program from the ground up in 2006, by spring of 2012 she was out of a job. Though she claims she had a “woe is me” moment, it couldn’t have lasted long. By fall, the former president of the New York State Dance Education Association was holding the reins of the dance division at Chesterfield Specialty Center for the Arts at Thomas Dale High School in Chester, Virginia.
As sole dance educator of the by-audition-only performing arts high school, Agresta-Stratton teaches five classes per week (68 students) and oversees the dancers’ concerts. “When we interviewed Abigail, we knew we had found a dance professional with experience, energy and vision,” says Pamela Barton of Specialty Center for the Arts. “We wanted someone to bring in new connections to benefit our students, and her
leadership in dance organizations gives her a wider vision of the professional world and
In her first year at a new school—let alone in a state with different policies, administrators and colloquialisms—Agresta-Stratton’s tenacity has come in handy. “I’ve had to learn fast,” she says. “I don’t know the language yet—my New York sense of humor doesn’t fly all the time here.”
Still, she’s jumped right in: She’s on the board of the Capital Region Educators of Dance Organization—the National Dance Education Organization’s state affiliate for Maryland, DC and Virginia—and is working to increase membership and has started an online forum for members. She’s also piloting a new program in partnership with NDEO: Chesterfield Specialty Center for the Arts is the first high school to house NDEO’s dense dance education research database, DELRdi—something typically used by university programs.
Agresta-Stratton’s take-charge attitude has also resulted in a slew of guest artists, including Bob Boross and James Madison University’s Cynthia Thompson, and a trip to see the University of Richmond Dance Company perform. And though she has increased the amount of student-generated work and about half her graduates go on to dance in college, she’s aiming even higher. “I look at programs like LaGuardia and New World School of the Arts, and I want our program to be on par with them,” she says—plans for a national high school choreographic exchange are already percolating. “We can have that quality of education. I’m just trying to get through the first year.”
Photo by Cliff Cole, courtesy of Abigail Agresta-Stratton
Role model for self-sufficiency in Mississippi
Stacy Reischman Fletcher has earned quite the nickname from her students at The University of Southern Mississippi: “God.” “Everything she does is gold,” says 2009 graduate Lauren Soutullo Smith. “From her genius answers to our questions to her beautiful feet, she never failed to amaze us.”
“I’m not God,” laughs Reischman Fletcher, who is chair of the dance department and only learned of her unofficial title this year. “What you see is what you get.” Yet with all she’s done for her students and her dance department, one can understand the moniker.
For one thing, her classes are something of legend. Her modern technique class is known for transforming and strengthening dancers, and her composition course is a requirement for students on both dance BFA tracks—in dance education and in performance and choreography. “That class is a rite of passage,” she says. “The first day of sophomore year I say, ‘You’re going to do a solo every week.’ There’s no gently stepping into it. It’s full speed ahead.”
At USM, undergraduates are not required to write a thesis, but Reischman Fletcher mandates it for her performance and choreography majors. She’s also passionate about Labanotation and teaches an intensive one- to two-week session on the subject every other year. “Notation is a form of literacy in dance,” she says. “It’s a way to preserve our artform.”
Though Reischman Fletcher had taught at other colleges (The Ohio State University and Kenyon College) she found her home in Hattiesburg, MS—she refers to USM as the “Hidden Gem of the South.” Her biggest achievement since arriving in 2000 has been to make the dance department autonomous after decades under the theater department umbrella. That came to fruition in July 2012. “I consider it my legacy,” she says. “Creating this department feels similar to having a child. Now I need to parent it right.”
Those parenting skills were put to the test when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and again this year when a tornado tore through campus, destroying a performance space that had recently been renovated. After the hurricane, Reischman Fletcher opened her home to those who were displaced. “When I look back, I realize how lucky our students were to be artists,” she says. “They had an outlet, and the disasters permeated their work. I did whatever I could do, which first of all was to provide them with something they know, like technique class.”
Reischman Fletcher consistently creates smart dancers who go into the world with a knack for creative problem solving, no matter their chosen field. “All educators have a calling, and mine is in higher ed,” she says. “I have my students for the four most fertile, ripe years possible. They enter doe-eyed, and they leave as artists.”
Photo by Desmond Fletcher, courtesy of Stacy Reischman Fletcher
Empowering young women in Chicago
In the second-floor office of Fisher Dance Center is a desk that sees a lot of activity. It’s
covered with paperwork and mail, and spanning its edge, facing the room, is a sign bearing these words: “The man who said it couldn’t be done should never interrupt the woman doing it.” This particular woman, Robin Fisher, not only built her successful studio in Wilmette, Illinois, from the ground up, she created an outreach program that has changed the lives of more than 250 children from Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods.
Fisher opened her center in 1987 as a modest operation, offering ballet, jazz and tap lessons in the basement of a post office building in nearby Northfield and, later, a converted warehouse. As her advanced students grew into needing master classes and auditions, Fisher reconnected with former mentors in Chicago, such as Frank Chaves and tapper Jimmy Payne, at Broadway Dance Center in New York with Frank Hatchett and around the country with Joe Tremaine. Directing and choreographing lavish end-of-year performances with original story lines and alumni guesting in lead roles scratched her itch to create. Her business thrived, and she soon earned enough to buy the old laundry in downtown Wilmette that is FDC’s current location.
In 1993, 10 young women, most of them residents of Chicago’s Cabrini–Green housing
project, became the first beneficiaries of FDC’s new scholarship and advocacy program, The Dance Foundation. Wanting to help children, Fisher had considered traditional forms of short-term outreach. But she was wary of just “showing up every once in a while,” she says. “It’s great for that day, but it doesn’t really change anything.”
In Fisher’s program, students—18 this year—train on full scholarship and are paired with “sisters” at Fisher Dance Center for a decade or more. The Dance Foundation “serves the needs of the entire student,” Fisher explains. They share their report cards and, if necessary, get help with their academic studies. Ranging in age from 3 to 18, some receive assistance with college applications or expensive health care like braces. From Chicago’s neighborhoods, they commute an hour or more three times a week to Wilmette.
In rehearsal with foundation students, Fisher is patient and warm. Her 10-year-old cocker spaniel Bella keeps the mood in the studio light. “It’s about me loving these kids and seeing what they need to be strong women,” she says.
“She’s not just a dance teacher,” says one of Fisher Dance Center’s first students, Shannon Lea Smith, now back home in New York after the national tour of Mamma Mia! “She’s a second mother. She’s always been that.”
Among colleagues and close friends, no one can say what drives Fisher’s tireless advocacy and generosity. “I’ve always taken it as part of her nature,” says Gena Romagnoli, a former FDC student, now an attorney. “She’s a strong woman and I think it’s important to her to ensure that the next generation of women is strong as well.”
Photo by Daniel Kullman, courtesy of Robin Fisher