I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the role that dance has played in my life. Some of my happiest memories and most life-affirming experiences can be traced back to the years spent at my childhood dance studio, Agnes Strecker Dance Studio, in Revere, Massachusetts. I made social ties there to girls who are, to this day, my closest friends. It was on a dance studio field trip to Radio City Music Hall that I got my first taste of New York City and decided, as a love-struck 12-year-old watching the city whirl around me, that I would live there someday. And it was my teacher, Agnes, who has been one of the most powerful mentors in my life and in my career.
Dance teachers pass on much more than a love for the arts. I imagine that every dancer, especially those who have built successful careers in the field, can share a story or two about an influential educator who ignited or encouraged his or her passion. But students need not go on to dance professionally to reap the benefits; I certainly didn’t (though I do get to teach and write about it). Rather, it’s the lessons given beyond the physical training that are most valuable: discipline, commitment, self-esteem, respect. Those are the gifts that students carry with them for years to come, no matter the path they choose. Thank you for . . .
Instilling Life Lessons
As a self-described “energetic, hyper kid,” Kristin Sudeikis simply couldn’t get enough when it came to dance. She started taking class at age 3; by 10, she was spending up to five hours a night at the Miller-Marley School of Dance and Voice in Overland Park, Kansas. “I never wanted to leave,” she recalls. “My parents had to tear me away each night.”
By the time Sudeikis was in her early teens, she was teaching classes and traveling to national dance conventions; her teacher, Shirley Marley, awarded her a talent scholarship. Dancing was a life focus. She made close friends, who would later be bridesmaids in her wedding. They would also stay by her side when, after studying dance at the University of Kansas, she headed to New York City to pursue a career in dance.
“There were about four of us, and we came to New York within a year of each other, all with the same dream,” says Sudeikis. “We shared that common bond—a passion for dance and for music.” The entire group went on to enjoy successful performance careers; Sudeikis herself is now a nationally known master teacher, choreographer and performer, both onstage and on TV. Throughout the year, she travels across the U.S. to conduct master classes at various studios, including Miller-Marley.
“So much of who I am is because of Shirley Marley,” says Sudeikis. “She didn’t just teach me how to dance, she taught me about life.” Marley gave Sudeikis the courage to make her aspirations a reality. “She told me, ‘I know you’re going to make it,’” she says. “It meant everything to me. We learned from a young age that if you dreamt and believed it, you could make it happen.”
She also credits Marley, as well as her other instructors at the studio, namely Brian McGinness and Connie Ramos, for instilling self-discipline, respect for others, humility and grace. “I was taught by example. We saw how to conduct ourselves in a classroom or in rehearsal. We learned how to treat others with respect.” Sudeikis carries those values into her own teaching, making sure students feel comfortable and worry-free. “I just want people to dance and to really let go, to get out of their heads for a minute. Everyone can benefit from it.” (For more about Miller-Marley, read “There’s No Place Like Home” on page 82.)
“Without dance, I’m not sure what road I would’ve taken,” says Michelle Martin, a nationally recognized choreographer and co-owner (with her sister, Melissa Schott) and director of Dance Connection in Indianapolis. Martin began taking lessons at age 2 at Diana’s Dance Studio, a neighborhood school run by Diana Richardson (Moates).
When Richardson was tragically killed in a car accident in 1984, Martin’s mother, Patti Schott, decided to open a studio in Diana’s memory. “I treasure the stories my mom shares about her and the experiences I have had as a result of her as my first instructor. Each teacher after her had a difficult time trying to fill her dance shoes; nobody ever could.”
Today, along with her mother and sister, Martin strives to create a family atmosphere and positive spirit for her own students at Dance Connection. “I still find joy in this job because the satisfaction never changes,” she says. “The teenage students I teach now were once the babies I used to teach way back when.”
The benefits of dance class go far beyond physical training. “I hope that kids leave my classroom understanding the importance of hard work and determination; that they can see how practice makes perfection possible,” says Martin. “I hope they learn the satisfaction that comes from hearing kind words and praise and understand what it means to be part of a team.”
Writer and actress Tracey Toomey, who appears in several Manhattan theater productions, and is the co-author of The Perfect Manhattan and Cocktail Therapy, says she owes the success of her writing and acting career to a childhood dance education. Her classes at Studio One School of Dance on Long Island, New York, gave her self-confidence—an essential ingredient for success in any field. “I was pretty shy during middle school, and dancing and performing gave me a lot of confidence, which was invaluable,” she says. “If you can get up onstage and perform in front of people, that will translate into your life offstage as well.” Toomey adds that the discipline she learned in dance class (especially in ballet) has helped her develop as a writer and an actor, “since both require a lot of discipline.”
Martin says that, as a teacher, she is also gaining something from her students. “It’s a good feeling to know that kids can benefit in so many ways from the time they spend with you. I knew that my teaching made a positive impact when a parent approached me to express her gratitude for doing such a wonderful job as a teacher, and to share that her daughter had written a report for school on the most influential person in her life, and I was the chosen person.”
Perhaps the best part for Sudeikis, Martin and other teachers is that they’re reaching children who most likely remind them of themselves at a young age—innocent, passionate and excited about the future. “I remember how much my teachers meant to me,” Sudeikis says, “and it’s just so amazing that there are kids who feel the same way about me. It’s awe-inspiring; it’s humbling.”
Adds Martin: “I have seen how my teaching is absorbed when my student teachers get in front of a classroom and start sharing the same information they have learned from me over the years. I get to be a positive influence in many children’s lives, even if only for 45 minutes a week. Is there anything better than that?” DT
Debbie Strong is a New York City–based writer and dancer. She teaches dance and Pilates at All the Buzz in Queens, NY.