Teaching at the Perfect (Every) Age

"What does age have to do with it?" DT asked dance educators at all stages of their careers. “How long did it take to hit your stride? What do you wish you knew when just starting out?” And perhaps most important of all, “What do all dancers need to know before they teach?”

Genevieve Custer Weeks (29)

Owner and Director, Tutu School

San Francisco, CA

Custer performed with the Oakland Ballet before it closed in 2006.

“The most important thing I can bring to my teaching is a sense of what is magical about ballet. Because the children I work with are so young (under 8), I am often giving them their very first exposure to dance. I want them to soak up my own love and passion for it.

Understanding basic child development is key. I’ve worked to educate myself about how my students view the world and are best able to accept and interpret information.”

Roxane D’Orléans Juste (51)

Associate Artistic Director, Limón Dance Company

New York, NY

Juste has been a member of the Limón Dance Company since 1983.

“A good teacher investigates and questions his or her own beliefs, reassesses and continues to develop. Find mentors who will serve as a sounding board for you. Take class with or observe experienced masters, even if it seems overwhelming at times. Not only must you love to dance, but you must love to question, to search, to analyze and to take joy in students’ discoveries. Teaching is humbling and I am grateful for the joy it has brought me.”

Sara Rudner (67)

Director of Dance, Sarah Lawrence College

New York, NY

Rudner is best known for her longtime collaboration with choreographer Twyla Tharp.

“As I’ve gotten older, my priorities have shifted. I’m more concerned and more patient and have come to honor and recognize the genius of others. My teaching strategies have in a way copied performance strategies: changing the timing of the delivery of the information, the quality of how I speak in class and how much I move. At Sarah Lawrence College, I work with students engaged in many fields of study. They ask all sorts of interesting questions because they are constantly integrating their academic and dance studies. I can start placing dance in their lives as a way of knowing, being and expressing, not just showing what you can do.”

Meredith Rainey (44)

Faculty, Peabody Institute

Baltimore, MD

Rainey performed with Dance Theatre of Harlem, Milwaukee Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet companies.

“Don’t try to be friends with your students. The person in charge is someone who has to say, “No.” It’s been difficult and I’ve worked on it and gotten better at it.

“No, don’t talk, don’t act like that in my class, don’t come in late.” I thought it was mean—but it’s not. I’m not saying it in a mean way. And because I’ve changed my approach, they’ve changed.”

Katy Spreadbury (27)

JUMP Dance Convention

New York, NY

Spreadbury grew up as a competition dancer in Worcester, MA. She graduated summa cum laude from Holy Cross College.

“I wish I had understood that it is not necessarily about having all the answers. I was so concerned with arming myself for any imaginable circumstance that I never spent time considering that the essence of teaching isn’t entirely different from that of dancing. My job as a teacher is more often helping students ask questions.”

Nicole Tori Rogoski (33)

Owner/Director, Dance Education Center

Stevens Point, WI

Rogoski is a Registered Dance Educator with a BA in dance education and a BFA in choreography and performance.

“In 2007, I lost my school to a fire; however, that is far from the hardest part of my teaching career. More challenging is watching a student walk away from dance after years of training because he or she doesn’t want to make the commitment or put the work in. While I’m learning to accept and let go, the idealist in me wants to keep these students in the safe atmosphere and help them discover who they are through dancing.”

Amiya Alexander (12)

Amiya’s Mobile Dance Academy

Detroit, MI

In 2008, fifth-grader Alexander had the idea to offer beginning-level dance instruction to younger children whose parents couldn’t afford classes. Since then, Alexander and her Big Pink Bus have been featured in the news and on television.

“Because I’m younger than the average teacher, it’s hard for people to take me seriously and understand that I am a good teacher. That’s a hard thing. But I understand how the younger kids are feeling. I remember how it felt not to fully understand something.”

Kourtni Lind (21)

Los Angeles, CA

Discovered on Season 4 of “So You Think You Can Dance,” Lind now travels as a freelance teacher and choreographer.

“I’m always trying to learn from other teachers, whether through things that I want to absorb into my own tool box, or things that I am not so fond of as a student that I want to avoid using in my own teaching.”

Joan Myers Brown (79)

Executive Artistic Director, The Philadelphia Dance Co.

Philadelphia, PA

Brown founded PHILADANCO in 1970. She also teaches at University of the Arts and Howard University in Washington, DC.

“Age is not important—knowledge is. In the ’50s, blacks couldn’t attend white schools, so my knowledge of craft was limited. So I read a lot. Not everyone is a good teacher. Don’t do it just to get paid, but for the satisfaction of seeing the growth and accomplishment of the students. Before becoming a teacher, experience good training yourself and do student teaching with a well-versed mentor. If you have danced professionally and worked with many teachers and choreographers, that is a plus.”

Claudia Rahardjanoto (29)

Steps on Broadway, Broadway Dance Center, American Tap Dance Foundation

New York, NY

Rahardjanoto performs with Max Pollak and RumbaTap, Barbara Duffy & Company and every Monday night at the Cotton Club with Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards.

“It is not just about teaching the fastest, newest and flashiest step. For a long time I thought that was what I was supposed to do or students would get bored. They need to be equipped with solid basics, good musical understanding and solid technique, so that they are ready to take it to any level they want without getting injured. A good foundation and the right tools to improve will, in the long run, get a student farther.”

Dalana Moore (37)

Owner, Encore Performance Company

Vestavia Hills, AL

“Until you have experienced teenage and college years, adulthood and, most specifically, motherhood, you cannot truly understand the mechanics of life in which our children grow up. My 20 or more years of experience does not make me the teacher I am today. I am the teacher today who embraces my role as an educator because I have learned from being a mother to my own children.”

Nick Pupillo (32)

Founder/Director, Visceral Dance Center

Chicago, IL

Pupillo was a member of Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago before founding Visceral Dance Center in 2007.

“It is important to set an example in a positive way. People are drawn to an energy in a room, a voice that gives them direction and satisfaction. As a teacher, your voice gets into their heads and molds their next thoughts and actions, and in turn shapes their future.”

Tauna Hunter (57)

Dance Department Chair, Mercyhurst College

Erie, PA

Hunter performed with Ballet West, Colorado Ballet and Dallas Ballet.

“I’ve learned that mutual respect is incredibly important. You don’t have to verbally abuse students in order to get results; sometimes a compliment and humor goes a long way in getting them to open up and listen. I’m a breast cancer survivor and my students were amazing in supporting me through that. Right now I’m attempting to help them cope with the murder of a fellow dance major. My students continue to teach me every day.”

Tony Testa (24)

Los Angeles, CA

At 14, Testa toured with the original cast of Tap Kids and has worked with Janet Jackson and Britney Spears. He started teaching by assisting in his mother’s classes in Fort Collins, CO.

“Sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in the rut of ‘since you’re the teacher, you are the Master Jedi,’ when in fact, we can all continue learning no matter what stage we are in.

“The biggest challenge I’ve faced is probably the mini-room (ages 5–10) at conventions. You just have to do your best and hope that somewhere in there even one of those kids is listening to what you’re saying and is going to become the next amazing dancer or choreographer. One of those kids may end up carrying the weight of a future generation.”

Kitty Lunn (60)

Artistic Director, Infinity Dance Theater

New York, NY

Lunn trained in ballet in New Orleans and Washington, DC. While preparing for her first Broadway show, she slipped on ice, fell down a flight of stairs and broke her back. Now a paraplegic using a wheelchair, she founded a company that features dancers with and without disabilities.

“What I find most challenging is getting both teachers and students to understand the importance of teaching mainstream technique to students with disabilities. They must learn the same way non-disabled students study, for example, by incorporating the barre. It’s crucial for students to understand they are connected to a lineage that goes back over 400 years.”

Susan Stowe (50)

Dance Department Chair, Point Park University

Pittsburgh, PA

Stowe performed with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Milwaukee Ballet Company, BalletMet and Ballet Austin.

“Because ballet has a codified vocabulary, age does not affect the teacher’s ability to be effective. I studied with several teachers who were well into their 70s and still taught a great class. Teaching helps keep your mind sharp. I am constantly creating combinations in my head and learning choreography that I then share with my students. Health and wellness are important at any age. I work out 5–6 days per week.”

Marisa Paull (31)

Phantom—The Las Vegas Spectacular

Las Vegas, NV

Paull has taught at Peridance Capezio Center in New York City and Logrea Dance Academy in Ossining, NY.

“The most important quality for a teacher is empathy—physically and emotionally. By physical empathy, I mean watching a student dance and feeling what their body feels. Feel the moment they are meeting a limitation or abandoning their technique, feel where their freedoms are, feel what concepts they innately understand and what is foreign to them. Taking yourself out of your own body, out of your own physical language, is a vital step to being able to communicate with someone else’s body. This is why some people are great teachers from the first day they step in the room, no matter what age they are.

“There’s a lot of insecurity and negative energy that comes into the dance studio, whether from students who are struggling with body issues or technical issues or other disappointments, or from teachers who aren’t happy with their own careers or the progress of their students, or from studio managers who are concerned about the bottom line or from musical accompanists who are grumpy or bored. It takes a strength of character to declare, no matter what happened an hour ago, 10 minutes ago, no matter what is waiting for you directly after class, that the space of time for which we are dancing is sacred and cannot be touched by those things.”

Tracy Inman (50)

Co-director, The Ailey School

New York, NY

Inman was a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and teaches Horton Technique at The Ailey School.

“Everybody’s ability to learn is different and everyone absorbs information at a different pace. When you’re a young teacher, you don’t always think that way. You want students to just do it. As you get older you learn different ways of communicating with students. You’ve got to constantly reinvent what you’re doing—not necessarily the technique, but how you teach it. Not even necessarily how you teach it, but how you communicate it.”

Kim Massay (54)

Owner, Kim Massay Dance Productions

Edmond, OK

Massay holds a BA in ballet pedagogy from University of Oklahoma and was co-owner of L.A. Underground Dance Convention, Starlight Productions Dance Competition and Company Dance Dance Convention.

“You almost need a psychology degree to run a dance studio. The kids come in with life problems. You as a teacher have a big impact; you can help mold and shape their lives. To me, this goes hand in hand with the training, and in some cases decisions in their lives are more important than the dance.”

Shelly Power (55)

Associate Director, Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy

Houston, TX

Power’s affiliation with Houston Ballet began as a scholarship student. She holds a BS from University of Houston, and studied nonprofit management at Case Western University.

“I wish I had understood that often a student’s response was not about me, the teacher, as much as it was about the student’s perspective. I had to learn to differentiate that and not take things personally.”

Lauren Gottlieb (22)

CO Dance Conventions

Los Angeles, CA

Gottlieb has been dancing commercially in L.A. since 2006, when she assisted Tyce Diorio with “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“I started on a circuit with 300-plus students and a faculty with decades more experience than I have. It was amazing, but in my head I was terrified. And to be honest, I continued to be terrified throughout my entire first year. It was a struggle to, on the spot in front of so many people, learn from the ground up: how to run an hour-long class, how much of the combo to teach the first and second day, how much time to leave for thank-yous and autographs after, in order to make it across the hotel to my next class on time, how to capture juniors’ attention without ever shushing them, how to teach the seniors when I am so close to their age...”

Courtney Rae Allen, Jenny Dalzell, Karen Hildebrand, Nancy Wozny and Rachel Zar contributed to this story.

Photo: Genevieve Custer Weeks (by Andrew Weeks, courtesy of Genevieve Custer Weeks)

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