When taking dance classes as a child, Carolyn Dorfman's teachers insisted her hyperextended knees were beautiful. Instinctively, she knew they weren't quite right. And so began a lifelong investigation of human anatomy and movement. Now one of New Jersey's most highly regarded educators, Dorfman brings a cerebral yet imaginative approach to art and dance education through her 12-member company, Carolyn Dorfman Dance, and the outreach programs they conduct in New Jersey and beyond.

Active with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, where she heads the Dance Division in Arts Education and serves as honorary co-chair of the Celebrate Dance Advisory Committee, Dorfman has been recognized with the Prudential Prize for nonprofit leadership, numerous choreography fellowships from the NJ State Council on the Arts, and the Dance Advocate Award from Dance NJ. Her latest undertaking, along with her board, is to raise $100,000 over three years for a new company initiative, DEPTH (Dance That Empowers People to Be More Human). Carolyn Dorfman Dance was started 35 years ago to not only create and produce contemporary dance, but also deliver arts-in-the-schools programs, including K–12 residencies, teacher training, master classes and workshops, and "Back Stage Pass," a series of lecture performances.



Dorfman leads class at NJ SummerDance 2017, held at Kean University. Photo by Jim Lafferty.

A Lifetime of Learning

The child of Holocaust survivors, Dorfman adopted a mature worldview early on. "There is something about being grounded in that reality and wanting to understand human nature that comes from growing up with my parents," she says. "I dance and want to know about the full spectrum of life: the joys and the triumphs, yes, but also the sorrow and pain." Since dance touches the expanses of experience—and can also communicate differences in experience between people—Dorfman decided it was the perfect tool for growth.

After a Graham class left her uninspired, the 14-year-old Dorfman discovered Doris Humphrey; specifically, a performance of Humphrey's Passacaglia & Fugue in C Minor. She enrolled in summer programs and knew from the beginning that she wanted to teach. "I always had a tight body. It was really my own discomfort that made me want to seek out knowledge," she says, with a laugh. While earning her BFA at University of Michigan, she also obtained a K–12 certificate.

"In college I could've taken advanced modern classes, but I took the foundational options: I wanted to understand everything from the ground up," she says. "I'm an inside-out dancer, and that's because I'm a common-sense person."

Photo by Jim Lafferty

Dorfman originally moved to New Jersey so her husband could attend medical school at Rutgers. Soon, she began working as an assistant professor of dance at Centenary College, and that's when she founded her company. "There were simply fewer artists, and I was able to grow, learn, develop and rise here," she says about making a career in New Jersey. "Now, the arts leaders in New Jersey work together within and across disciplines. That's been pivotal in keeping our support alive."

Taking Art Into New Jersey Schools

Carolyn Dorfman Dance currently leads dance programs in 15 New Jersey public schools, reaching more than 6,000 students every year. DEPTH, the new funding initiative, has enabled Dorfman to, among other things, add four New Jersey school–based dance programs this fall, plus a special student assembly presented by LaGuardia Performing Arts Center of Long Island City.

As an artist, Dorfman is known for masterful storytelling through her work, which often tackles intense subjects, such as the Holocaust. At Union County Vocational Technical Schools' Academy for Performing Arts, where the company has been in residence for several seasons, director of dance Kathleen Gavin says, "Even though her work is deeply personal, she ensures she doesn't make everything about herself. She always relates it back to you, whoever 'you' are." Citing a class where the kids were moving like robots, Gavin says Dorfman stopped them and asked, "What makes you happy?"

"It changed their faces," says Gavin. "She explained, 'We're human, and that's what moves people. You can't stop at technique.'"

"Kids don't get asked what they think enough," Gavin goes on. "She pushes them to engage."

Photo by Jim Lafferty

"We aren't so great at human contact anymore," says Dorfman. "In a Brandeis University global scholar program, I had the students do a simple mirroring exercise. At the end, one student told me he had never been so present for so long. That's the challenge of the digital age."

It's a challenge she's up for. "Dance is an incredible vehicle for developing the uniqueness of the individual as well as communities," she says. "Artists connect to a broader world, and that can change the world."

Asking Questions

One of Dorfman's most in-demand offerings is a guided tour about the creation and performance of dance, which includes a postshow talk-back, during which she typically asks the audience nearly as many questions as she answers. "I was attracted to teaching as communication and dialogue, a two-way conversation of sharing and responding," she says.

Photo by Jim Lafferty

"Teaching, creating and performing are all conversations, which drives me at all times," she says. "Teaching is obvious: They ask questions; you share. But how you demonstrate what you share is a dialogue of how well you've communicated. I tell my teaching artists: 'When you have to share, you have to understand it more deeply.' Questions serve as the basis for change, in my mind."

Dorfman also engages in continuous conversation with her company members, shaping, shifting, remolding and investigating for her choreography. Performance is another iteration. "Everyone in that audience is a unique observer, and that's a dialogue," she says. "It's always that conversation."

The Method

Dorfman participates with students in the classroom (her K–12 curriculum embraces the New Jersey Core Curriculum Standards) in the same way that she does with her dancers: as conversationalists. So, while her teaching artists always enter the class with a plan, flexibility is a foundational element. "Have a plan, but see what's happening in front of you," she advises them. "If you don't notice what's needed and what's offered back, it's not a conversation."

Structurally, she trains her dancers and students in the same three-tiered way. "We train technique for the instrument," she explains. "Then, we train the thinking, breathing human being who plays the instrument, whether involving narrative or not. Finally, we train as a community, an ensemble, which exists in relation to each other."

Taking this same method into schools has created a feedback loop where work with her dancers sometimes informs her teaching, and vice versa. "We teach dance with a capital D," says Dorfman. "I'm focused on the developmental, intellectual aspect. So when parents come see a performance, the kids don't just dance. They share their knowledge and talk about how they built pieces. Whether you perform or not, dance is a development of the self as an individual and in the community."

Photo by Jim Lafferty

Gaining Support

In a climate where financial support for the arts is tough, to say the least, Dorfman's thoughtful, passionate manner has garnered backing at a level others find challenging to achieve. "She is a master speaker," says Gavin. "She is so articulate, clear, concise and calm. That is rare, and it inspires people so they understand, engage and support."

"It's my job to not only be able to speak passionately, intelligently and emotionally about what we do, but to help my board, staff and dancers be able to do so also," adds Dorfman.

Photo by Jim Lafferty

Certainly her method and in-depth knowledge are at the core of her success, but Dorfman credits the stellar team around her that takes her work into the community. Her philosophy is to integrate marketing, fundraising and programming rather than to see them as separate functions.

And, once again, Dorfman's ability to engage everyone in a conversation proves wildly compelling. "She always tries to get people to relate any work to themselves," says Gavin. "She'll ask questions that help you understand how it might be parallel to you. She wants to reach out to everyone."

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As a dance teacher, chances are you strive daily to be a great role model for your students—cheerful, enthusiastic and motivating, offering plenty of positive reinforcement as well as a sense of clear control over your classroom. But what happens when your personal life gets in the way of those good intentions?

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Name calling, physical intimidation and cyberbullying are all-too-common experiences among male dancers. Photo by Goh Rhy Yan/Unsplash

Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.

"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "

A different classmate, who often called Russo "Dancing Queen," would lurk near the cafeteria doors each day at lunchtime, hoping for an opportunity to corner him. "I'd find ways to exit the cafeteria at the same time as a teacher, or go as far as walking out through the kitchen and reentering the building somewhere else," Russo admits.

Anthony Russo was called names like Bojangles, Twinkle Toes and Dancing Queen while growing up. Photo by Christopher Erk, courtesy Russo.


His experience is sadly similar to what many male dancers endure throughout their training and careers: name calling, physical intimidation, cyberbullying, sometimes even death threats.

Although girls, too, can be bullying victims, it's far less common, as our culture views dance as a more acceptable activity for them to pursue. Boys who dance are frequently stereotyped as gay and mocked for participating in what many consider to be a feminine art.

As conversations about bullying heat up throughout the country, with the role of social media and the effects on adolescent mental health emerging as related concerns, there's no better time to consider what the dance world can do to help male students of all ages feel safe and accepted.

Teachers Can Make a Difference

Many male dancers agree that positive adult role models are essential for bullying prevention. Dancer and choreographer Chris Bell, who remembers being incessantly called a "faggot" throughout middle and high school in San Antonio, Texas, says he channeled his anger into his school work, focusing on excelling academically.

Now a performer with Eryc Taylor Dance and dendy/donovan projects, he realizes how necessary it is for teachers—both in academic schools and dance studios—to speak up.

Chris Bell says teachers need to stop bullying in its tracks. Photo by Craig Macleod, courtesy Bell.


"The second that you hear anything demeaning or demoralizing, stop it and talk about it," he says. "You have to acknowledge that it's wrong, explain why it's wrong and then move on."

The message is especially effective if teachers work in schools that support dance as part of the curriculum. "The dance world should get into public schools, especially younger grades, to show what both men and women do in the dance world—any kind of dance," says Andy Jacobs, a modern/contemporary dancer and choreographer in New York City. "It's all going to open up their eyes and show them there's no boundaries to what you can like."

Dance Should Be Introduced More Like a Sport

Tap dancer Leo Lamontagne, assistant director at North Andover School of Dance and former company member with Chicago's Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, asks what would happen if dance were treated more like sports in school. "What if dance were introduced at the same age that basketball was? What if dance were used to teach gross motor skills?" he asks. "Bullies are intimidated by what they don't understand, so it's up to us to educate not just dancers but also non-dancers on what dance can be."

"So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Peter Sabasino suggests creating more performing arts schools altogether. "Then more kids would look at dance as a cool thing to do," he says.

Peter Sabasino suggests more performing arts schools could help dance look "cooler" among kids. Photo by Matthew Carby, courtesy Sabasino.


We Need More Role Models

More male ambassadors in popular culture could also help. "We could certainly use another Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire to show how cool dance is, not just showing hip-hop dancers as cool or men as strippers, like in Magic Mike," says Todd Shanks, an artist in residence at Dean College. "Honestly, though, dance doesn't have to be masculine to be cool. Talent doesn't have a sexual preference."

Todd Shanks feels another Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly could show that men dance, too. Photo courtesy Dean College/Paladino School of Dance.


But maybe we don't have to wait for a dance celebrity: Young men can also be role models for each other. "We need to expose boys to other male dancers, not just the professionals," Lamontagne says. "We need to come together to support our boys to support one another."

He suggests that competitions and conventions offer classes exclusively to boys, as all-male classes can sometimes be impossible in many small communities, where few male students are in attendance.

That is exactly the idea behind the Male Dancer Conference, launched last year by the founders of online dancewear store Boys Dance Too. The event gives boys a chance to be surrounded by their peers in classes led by role models like Sascha Radetsky and Alex Wong.


Similarly, Earl Mosley's Hearts of Men intensive offers two weeks of training and networking for male dancers. The National Dance Education Organization also held a symposium last year for teachers of male students to address how dance can attract more boys.

Power in numbers, after all, may be a valuable tactic. Bell points out that all dancers who are bullied have something in common—a shared experience that has made them stronger. "These experiences help you to become a better, more enriched person," he says. "A lot of the kids who bully want some kind of essential quality that you have. They want the freedom that you already have to do what you love."

Showstopper's National Finals Opening Number Performance

Showstopper has been making its impact on the dance world since 1978. Before then, dancers didn't have a stage to perform on, the opportunity to learn from peers, or a competitive outlet like most sports. Debbie Roberts recognized this missing piece in the dance community and that is how America's first and longest running dance competition, Showstopper, was born. Debbie taught dance for over 26 years and owned and operated her own dance studio for 20 years. She is now the owner and National Director of Showstopper, along side her husband, Dave Roberts. Dancer, teacher, business owner, author, and mother, Debbie has made dance her life's career.

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As teachers and studio owners, your lives are full of stressors—everything from harried recital weeks to curriculum overhauls to building-maintenance issues, not to mention addressing the needs and concerns of all your students and parents. How you view and cope with a stressful situation can have a direct influence on how you experience it.

You already know it's important to eat right, exercise and get good sleep to keep yourself from feeling run into the ground. You may even use deep breathing to calm or center yourself in tense moments. (If not, check out our breathing-exercise sidebar.) But Joel Minden, a cognitive behavioral therapist who works with dancers in California, says while physical coping strategies can be helpful, they alone aren't enough. It's even more important to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally. If you begin practicing psychological stress management as part of your routine, along with relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation, you will be better prepared for the crisis moments.

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