Building a California competition studio with a family feel
Back when Mark Zuckerberg was in kindergarten and Larry Ellison a mere millionaire, Jane Carter launched a Silicon Valley start-up that has grown into a powerhouse in its field. She started Dance Academy USA as a one-room operation on a shoestring budget and has expanded it into a thriving, seven-studio, 1,600-student school in Cupertino, California.
Carter has the charisma and energy to rival any tech titan. A proud army brat (her father met her mother while stationed in Korea), she started dancing at age 4 in Tokyo, Japan. Three years later, her family settled in Sunnyvale, CA. Carter danced through high school and at San Jose State University, where she earned a degree in human performance/fitness while dancing with the NBA’s Golden State Warrior Girls and the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers Gold Rush Cheerleaders.
She launched Dance Academy USA in Sunnyvale in 1990 with an enrollment of a small group of students, which grew to 150 by the first recital eight months later. Like any forward-thinking mogul, she expanded quickly, buying a studio in Cupertino and one in Santa Clara, finally merging the three in her current space in a bustling shopping center. Of DAU’s 50 employees, 10 are always on hand for customer service, to maintain the feel of a cozy studio in the bustling school. Carter is proud that the school’s 228 classes per week and active competition team enable each student to find her niche: Dancers can always find a class appropriate to their age and level, with a teacher specializing in that form of dance.
“Jane has an amazing ability to make every dancer in the room feel like the most important one,” says Jenni Tibbils, who studied with Carter as a kid and is currently program director at DAU. “Her warmth cushions the critiques, because she will accept nothing less than the best.”
Carter’s lessons reach beyond the dance studio. “Being a dance teacher is more than teaching technique,” she says. “It’s about being a life coach, too.” The first in her family to earn a college degree, Carter helps students balance schoolwork and dancing. “In this high-tech hub near Apple, Facebook and Google, families want their kids to be engineers or doctors,” she says. “I give them the best training and technique, in case they want to dance in college.”
Students respond to Carter’s investment in their future success. “The dancers want to make Jane proud of them,” says Tibbils, “in the same way they want their parents to be proud of them.” —Caitlin Sims
Paying it forward in New Jersey
Andrea Kramer vividly remembers her parents’ divorce. With her father’s absence, the 8-year-old went from a comfortable life in Colonia, New Jersey, to one of near poverty. Her mother worked two jobs just to keep Kramer in her brothers’ hand-me-downs. When she could no longer afford Andrea’s dance classes, teachers came to their aid, offering opportunities to demonstrate for younger classes and a part-time front desk job for her mother in exchange for tuition. Now the artistic director of her own New Jersey–based conservatory, Kramer constantly looks for ways to pay forward this generosity to her students. “It became important to me at a young age that dance shouldn’t be for only those who could afford it,” she says. “It should be for those who love it and have a passion for it.”
After earning her dance degree from Montclair State University, Kramer built a student following as a freelance teacher in local studios. In 2003, she opened Ballet Forte in the wealthy town of Chester. Having a reliable income from well-off families gives Kramer the freedom to accept students in need without struggling to stay afloat. “I did choose a more affluent area to open my school,” she says, “because it was important to me that I would be able to afford to give back.”
Of the 53 students currently enrolled at Ballet Forte—Kramer keeps the enrollment small in each division to give her students maximum attention—two are on full scholarship and seven others receive partial scholarships. She also volunteers as a ballet teacher and mentor at Rosa Parks High School in Paterson, NJ, a low-income city with a high crime rate. It was there that she met Zachary Downer, a talented dancer whom she immediately took under her wing. “The first day I saw him in class,” says Kramer, “I said, ‘What can we do for this kid? We have to take him to Youth America Grand Prix.’”
Like Downer, students at Ballet Forte get quality dance education, regardless of financial situation. Dancers 3 to 18 years old study ballet intensively, with supplementary classes in partnering, modern, theater dance and somatics. Many go on to pursue further education and careers in dance. “She taught me to go to the ballet barre every day—it’s your daily practice,” says Maggie Segale, who graduated from The Juilliard School in May.
When Downer was accepted to The Rock School in Philadelphia, his dance scholarship only partially covered his academic tuition. Kramer leapt into action, staging Ballet Forte’s first Nutcracker production and using the proceeds—normally an income-generator for most studios—to cover the difference. “I get to give people who can afford it a wonderful education,” says Kramer, “and, at the same time, give wonderful opportunities to kids who might never have them.” —Rachel Rizzuto
Offering NYC stage experience to North Carolina dancers
Each spring break, more than 20 Western Carolina University dance minors travel from North Carolina to New York City to take Broadway Dance Center classes, go on tours of major theaters and perform in an annual program honoring the Rockettes’ history.
Karyn Tomczak, assistant professor and dance program director at WCU, raises nearly $10,000 each year through university grants and by teaching master classes and donating the proceeds, so her students only have to pay $140, plus the cost of Broadway shows and meals.
During the spring break trip, Tomczak also oversees the musical theater senior showcase in Manhattan. A former Rockette, she uses her professional connections to invite agents to the students’ cabaret, which for some also serves as their first professional gig—they get a cut of ticket sales.
“Ms. Tomczak’s pursuit of real-world experiences for her students changes lives, and I appreciate all the time, energy and creativity she brings,” says Robert Kehrberg, dean of the College of Fine and Performing Arts at WCU.
Indeed, Tomczak’s enthusiasm is inspiring, if a bit exhausting: She often works 8 am to 9 pm during the school year. “I probably work too much, but I love doing what I do here,” she says. “Somehow, I manage to squeeze everything in.”
“Everything” includes teaching a full course load. WCU has an 18-hour dance minor involving technique classes, dance appreciation, anatomy and choreography. Tomczak also creates choreography and designs and makes costumes for the university’s shows. “I think the kids appreciate that I’m completely involved,” she says. “Some of them just enjoy coming to class, but there are a few who really want this, so I do what I can to give them what they need.”
For example, Tomczak arranged to have higher-level dance students get work-study funds to be dance tutors. They help other students—at no cost—with technique or choreography in private sessions. She also records the dance phrases she teaches during class and uploads them to Blackboard, and she posts her music onto iTunes U.
“Karyn cares about all her students, but as soon as she sees that you are truly pushing yourself and that you have a mission career-wise, she is going to take control and make sure you accomplish your goals,” says Tyler McKenzie, a 2013 BFA graduate in musical theater currently on tour with Mamma Mia! “She encouraged me—and continues to encourage me—in ways that I never thought were possible.” —Hannah Maria Hayes
Demanding excellence—and getting it—in urban Massachusetts
Watch Joan Sheary’s dance students at Burncoat High School in Worcester, Massachusetts, and you’d hardly guess many of them entered as freshmen with no prior training. Nor would you know that many come from low-income or troubled homes. As they move across the floor of the school’s dance studio, Sheary’s students simply look like dancers—sweaty, focused and highly capable.
Sheary, a petite spark plug of a woman, has been coaxing excellence out of Burncoat students for nearly 30 years. “My philosophy on education has always been ‘Students demand discipline,’” she says. “My expectations are very, very high.” In 1985, she was tapped to create a dance program for Burncoat Middle School. Four years later, she developed a dance curriculum for the high school’s fledgling fine arts magnet program. Today, she is the dance department’s sole full-time faculty member, teaching six periods each day to students from diverse, and often disadvantaged, backgrounds. Sheary also leads several after-school groups, including a dance team and a performance ensemble. And if that weren’t enough, she continues to direct the middle school dance program.
Attitude trumps ability at Burncoat High, because students need fortitude to stick with the rigorous program, which includes classical ballet, jazz, musical theater, modern, improvisation and dance history. The lineup is inspired by Sheary’s own resumé. At 13, the Worcester native began training in New York City—mentored by none other than Luigi—and by 16 she was a Radio City Rockette. “She has a depth of knowledge and experience that’s rare,” says Deb Cole, head of the school’s music department. “She knows exactly what she’s looking for from her students, and she knows how to get it.”
What she wants is commitment—not only to dance, but also to academics. Students must be passing all classes, and those participating in performance groups have to keep a B average. If they falter, Sheary is right beside them, talking to their teachers and keeping tabs on their progress to make sure their grades improve.
It’s a strenuous environment, but Sheary infuses it with compassion. “You feel very safe in class,” says Rachael Markarian, a Burncoat graduate who dances professionally in Los Angeles. “You know that everything she’s doing comes from her heart, that she truly loves to educate and inspire.”
And her strategy works. While Burncoat High’s overall graduation rate hovers around 70 percent, students who complete the four-year dance track all graduate—every single one. Most go on to college, and some pursue dance careers (nine have become Rockettes).
But whatever path they choose to follow, Sheary’s students leave high school with an invaluable lesson. “As I tell them, if you don’t work hard and don’t give yourself credit for the little things you accomplish every day, don’t expect anyone else to,” Sheary says. “You have to start to appreciate yourself.” —Katie Rolnick
Photos (from top) by Lisa Lee, courtesy of Dance Academy USA; Susan Pedersen; Ashley T. Evans, courtesy of Western Carolina University; Barbara Copithorne, courtesy of Joan Sheary