Ask Michele Larkin-Wagner and Molly Larkin-Symanietz what sets them and Maplewood, Minnesota–based Larkin Dance Studio apart, and they immediately give the credit to their mom. Shirley Larkin founded the school in 1950 and continued to oversee the growing business until she passed away in 2011. "She put Minnesota on the map for dance training and made other local studios step up to the plate to become as strong as we are," Michele says. "A lot of people's lives are better because of Shirley Larkin."
For Michele and Molly, following in their mom's footsteps was a no-brainer. "I knew I was going to be a choreographer and take over the studio," Michele says. To Molly, seven years Michele's junior and the baby out of six siblings, the studio was always a second home. The two sisters trained across genres but had distinct specialties: Michele found her niche in jazz, musical theater and lyrical, while Molly excelled in tap. In the summers, they'd travel for workshops in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. While Michele was in class with jazz legends like Gus Giordano, JoJo Smith, Luigi and Frank Hatchett, Molly was taking tap classes with the likes of Brenda Bufalino and Phil Black.
To a certain subset of the New York City dance community, Gail Accardi is known as the Body Whisperer. For her part, Accardi calls her work "creative physical problem solving." Whether she's leading her Anatomy Awareness class for dancers, substitute-teaching Simonson Technique, or working with a private client one-on-one, Accardi has a clear vision: "I want people to gain insight into and learn to celebrate their individual structures," she says. "When I was young, a teacher referred to my weak arches as a horrible defect! I never want a student to experience that. When it comes to anatomical variations, this is who you are, so let's figure out how to work with it."
"The Vaganova style is so pure and logical. It's designed to show your deficiencies, not to disguise them. You're forced to be honest with yourself," says Ellison. Photos by Jim Lafferty
Edward Ellison shapes his students like clay. If a leg needs more turnout, he rotates it and drops the hip into place. If a torso is off-kilter, he pokes and lifts until everything's aligned. During combinations, he watches with intense focus, and when someone pulls off a difficult step or sequence, he radiates pride. His dedication to both his pupils and the Vaganova technique he teaches is evident in his every word and gesture.
Ellison has long been known as a master teacher, but since he launched his own school in 2005, his reputation for excellence has only grown. Ellison Ballet is small by design—during the year, there are usually between 30 and 40 students, while the summer intensives draw 175 to 200—but the school's output rivals that of larger, more famous academies. Ellison only accepts the best of the best, dancers who show potential that he's confident he can shape into something spectacular. That attitude pays dividends; his students dominate at major ballet competitions, and his graduates perform with top-tier companies around the world.
"We expect a lot from our students," Ellison says. "I believe they can achieve something extraordinary, but to achieve the extraordinary takes extraordinary work. How much you want that end result will show in what you do every day." Given his complete commitment to his students, he could just as easily be speaking about himself.
Mastering a fish lift, with Nicholas Mishoe and ADA students Connor Medrow and Renee Shubov. Photo by Sori Gottdenker, courtesy of ADA
What makes someone ready to leave a successful performance career to buy a dance school? For Nicholas and Shayne Mishoe, that turning point came while Nicholas was touring in the Netherlands with the Dutch National Ballet. "Dancing late into the night on a hard stage, getting on a bus and driving a couple hours and doing the whole thing again the next day, for a month—one night, I thought, 'I've had enough of this,'" Nicholas says.
"We train dancers to be accountable for their own dancing," says Shayne Mishoe. Photo by Sori Gottdenker, courtesy of ADA
"The life we were living didn't feel sustainable long-term," adds Shayne, who was performing on a project basis in Amsterdam, while also teaching ballet, Pilates and Gyrotonic. Operating their own school had always been their dream, and after Nicholas' bus tour through Holland, the stars aligned. Shayne knew that the founder of her childhood studio in New Jersey, where her mother has also taught since the early 1990s, had been thinking about selling. She and Nicholas talked it out, made the phone call and set the plan into motion.
Photo by Julie Lemberger, courtesy of Tiffany MIlls Company
Guest artist residencies let college dancers explore new movement styles and interact with working professionals. But the students aren't the only ones who benefit from the experience. Visiting a university to teach and set work gives choreographers a unique chance to connect with the next generation of performers and creators. To get more insight into the perks—and challenges—a residency can offer, DT spoke to New York City–based choreographer Tiffany Mills about her time as Baker Artist-in-Residence at Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, Pennsylvania.