Trending

Tauna Hunter’s Degree Program at Mercyhurst University Is Ballet's Best-Kept Secret

Hunter ensures that her students work with at least eight guest artists before they graduate. Photo by Angela Zanaglio, courtesy of Mercyhurst University

"When I was 15, my mother decided that I should get a job," says Tauna Hunter. "She said, 'Do what you know how to do.' So I started teaching children in my basement and decided then that dance was going to make me a living."

Now in her 60s, Hunter has never had a job outside the dance field. After receiving two degrees from the University of Utah, dancing as a principal with Ballet West and owning and operating a dance-networking business, Hunter became chair of the dance department at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania. For the past 23 years, she has drawn on her entrepreneurial spirit, vast network and diverse professional experiences in service of one of the nation's hidden gems for ballet-based training. Mercyhurst graduates go on to careers in ballet companies, commercial dance, dance pedagogy and other fields, thanks to Hunter's comprehensive curriculum and unwavering dedication to her students. "This program is really a culmination of my positive experiences in the field," says Hunter. "I've tried to take the best of everything I experienced and implement that here."


Hunter has always been a multitasker. At the same time the 15-year-old was establishing her basement dance studio just outside of Salt Lake City, she also began dancing with Ballet West, first as a trainee and then as part of the professional company. Under then-artistic director Willam Christensen, she excelled in Cecchetti technique but also demonstrated her versatility in Balanchine and Bournonville ballets and rose to the rank of principal in five years. She managed this while also completing her bachelor's and master's degrees in dance at the University of Utah.

Hunter performing with her husband, Michael Gleason. Photo by John Russell, courtesy of Hunter

Though she closed her studio after joining Ballet West, she kept teaching. "Whenever there was a need for a master class or a substitute teacher for the company, I always raised my hand and took advantage of those opportunities," she says. "By doing that, I developed a large network."

In 1985, Hunter and her husband, Ballet West dancer Michael Gleason, founded a networking service for dancers, teachers and companies. "This was all pre-internet, so we would enter individuals' resumés into the computer. Then a company would call and say, 'I need guest artists for The Nutcracker,' and we would send them—via snail mail—a set of resumés that they could contact," says Hunter.

The two ran DANSOURCE for 10 years, connecting hundreds of dance professionals to each other. Her biggest personal payoff, however, came in 1994 when she retired from performing and applied for the chair position at Mercyhurst. "One of the faculty members here had been one of our clients," she says. "She saw my resumé on the pile and said, 'We should bring this woman in. I know her.'"

Photo by Angela Zanaglio, courtesy of Mercyhurst University

Today, Hunter focuses her networking skills on the 68 dance majors at Mercyhurst. In addition to overseeing four faculty members, Hunter teaches ballet, pointe, variations, pedagogy and seminar classes. She also creates new work each year and chooses the annual guest repertory—like this past year's Concerto Barocco and The Sleeping Beauty, Act III.

"By the time the students have been here for four years," Hunter says, "they'll have been exposed to at least eight guest artists of international stature and learned different kinds of repertoire." This past year's graduating seniors, for example, worked with Broadway legend Chita Rivera; former New York City Ballet dancers Nilas Martins and Amanda Edge; Cuban master teacher Laura Alonso (daughter of world-famous ballerina Alicia Alonso); former Limón dancer Daniel Lewis; former Forsythe dancer Elizabeth Corbett; former Nederlands Dans Theater dancer Rick McCullough; and Dance NOW! Miami directors Hannah Baumgarten and Diego Salterini. Students also have an opportunity to get professional performing experience as apprentices with Lake Erie Ballet, thanks to the partnership Hunter established.

Trevor Sones landed a role on the national tour of CATS right after graduating in 2010, which he says he couldn't have done without such a strong ballet foundation. "For me to enter such a strong ballet-based program—taking ballet six days a week, doing men's technique and partnering—it forced me to be at my A-game," he says.

"Tauna developed a program that helps dancers find their place in the dance world," says Kerry Skuderin, a 1997 alumna who is now the owner and artistic director of Cleveland Ballet Conservatory. Skuderin was a sophomore when Hunter arrived at Mercyhurst. "When Tauna came in, that's when they incorporated more classes that would help not only if you wanted to be a professional dancer, but if you wanted to be a choreographer or a teacher," she says, referencing dance history, arts management, music for dancers, backstage production, marketing and curriculum development. "That all-encompassing curriculum really set me up for success."

Teachers Trending
Evelyn Cisneros-Legate. Photo by Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

Evelyn Cisneros-Legate is bringing her hard-earned expertise to Ballet West. The former San Francisco Ballet star is taking over all four campuses of The Frederick Quinney Lawson Ballet West Academy as the school's new director.

Cisneros-Legate, whose mother put her in ballet classes in an attempt to help her overcome her shyness, trained at the San Francisco Ballet School and School of American Ballet before joining San Francisco Ballet as a full company member in 1977. She danced with the company for 23 years, breaking barriers as the first Mexican American to become a principal dancer in the U.S., and has graced the cover of Dance Magazine no fewer than three times.

As an educator, Cisneros-Legate has served as ballet coordinator at San Francisco Ballet, principal of Boston Ballet School's North Shore Studio and artistic director of after-school programming at the National Dance Institute (NDI). Dance Teacher spoke with her about her new position, her plans for the academy and leading in the time of COVID-19.

Keep reading... Show less
News
The author with Maurice Hines. Photo by Anthony R. Phillips, courtesy Hopkins

In March, prior to sheltering in place due to the coronavirus outbreak, my husband and I traveled from New York City to Miami to screen our award-winning documentary, Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back, at the Miami Film Festival.

Our star, Tony Award–nominated dancer and choreographer Maurice Hines joined us in Miami for the festival—stepping and repeating on the opening night red carpet, sharing anecdotes from his illustrious seven-decade career with local tap students, and holding court at a cocktail mixer with lively female fans.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Haruko Photography, courtesy ABT

Gabe Stone Shayer may be American Ballet Theatre's newest soloist, but he never dreamed he'd be dancing with the company at all. Though he grew up in Philadelphia, his sights were always set on international ventures—especially The Bolshoi Ballet and The Royal Ballet.

Even in his early training, he was learning from Russian educators: Alexander Boitsov at Gwendolyn Bye Dance Center, and Alexei and Natalia Cherov, from the Koresh School of Dance. At age 13, he transferred to The Rock School for Dance Education, where he danced until his acceptance to The Bolshoi Ballet Academy at age 14. At 16, Shayer returned to spend his summer in the States and attended ABT's summer intensive—fully intent on going back to Bolshoi to continue his training in the fall. Four weeks in, he was offered a studio-company contract. "I was so surprised," Shayer says. "Having come of age in Russia, I was very Eurocentric. Of course ABT was on my radar, I just never imagined it was for me."

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.