When Dancers Follow in Their Mothers’ Footsteps

Joining the family business is a timeless, storied rite of passage, from the ancient pharaohs to Caesar and Augustus, to the modern-day Kennedys and Gettys. For the children of dance teachers, there’s a well-worn path from studio to stage, with a notable few, like Marie Taglioni, Kyra Nichols and Patrick Swayze, becoming legendary performers. And yet, there’s another, less publicized path, perhaps less glamorous, but tailor-made for those whose love of creativity and the daily practice of the artform outweighs the lure of the spotlight. DT spoke to four dance teachers who followed in their mothers’ footsteps—about why they chose teaching, the challenges, joys and inspiration in their careers, and whether family gatherings truly do become all about dance.

A Childhood in the Studio

“I grew up as a studio kid,” says Jaci Royal, now an L.A.-based teacher/choreographer, whose mother Carole Royal directs Royal Dance Works in Phoenix. “I ended up loving it, but sometimes it got overwhelming, and I didn’t want to be there all the time. It can consume everything when your mom is running the studio.”

The studio mother/daughter dynamic can be intense in other ways, as well. Jamie Wallace, who, with her mother Cheryl Dupuis, owns Extreme Dance Arts in Saginaw, Michigan, has experienced the same power struggles with her own daughter as she did with her mother when Wallace was the dance student. “Sometimes my daughter will be a bit too teenage-girl with me,” Wallace says, with a laugh. “I tell her the same thing that my mom told me: ‘When you’re in this classroom, you’re either my daughter or you’re my student. If you want to be my daughter, I won’t correct you. If you want to be my student, I will.’”

With Mother as Role Model

Although Sophie Alpern, now a ballet teacher in New York City, grew up studying ballet seriously, she didn’t start taking class regularly with her mother, renowned ballet teacher Nancy Bielski (DT, January 2015), until after graduating from Vassar College. Despite her mother’s immense success, Alpern hadn’t considered teaching until an opportunity arose in college. “Growing up, I thought it was so cool that my mom was a ballet teacher, but it wasn’t something I envisioned for myself,” she says. “But it makes sense that’s what I fell into, because what I like most is the daily ritual of class.”

Jaci Royal had the opposite experience, realizing at a young age, while watching her mom, that she wanted to teach. “I must have been 10 when I started looking at teachers and thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do someday.’ I thought it was this beautiful, amazing thing that my mom could bring dancers together and guide and lead them. It was changing these young dancers’ lives, and I admired that.”

This kind of influence isn’t always the case. Asked if her mother’s example inspired her to become a teacher, Breeonna Fiamengo’s answer is a resounding “No!” She explains that she fully changed her focus from performance to teaching and choreography at age 21. “I realized I could create, rather than do other people’s creations,” she says. “Instead of doing movement that other people thought up, I could think of whatever I wanted, put it on a dancer and make it come to life. That was more fun and rewarding than dancing.” Fiamengo and her mother, dance teacher Dyan Lopez-Fiamengo, opened Elite Dance Studio in Rolling Hills Estates, California, when Fiamengo was 19.

Sophie Alpern teaches at the American Ballet Theatre JKO School.

Finding a Distinct Path

Regardless of how successful they are, few young women relish being told they are becoming their mother. The second- and third-generation dance teachers we spoke with have worked hard to create their own separate identities. Wallace and Fiamengo assert that they are much stricter than their mothers, each referring to her mother as “the fun teacher.”

For Alpern, the challenge is stepping out of her mother’s considerable shadow. “Sometimes I get worried; I hope that I get the jobs because of who I am as a teacher and not because my name is associated with her,” she says. “But I’m establishing myself through my master’s degree [in ballet pedagogy through NYU and ABT] and my years teaching, so I can make my own name.”

Despite a desire for independence, all four teachers agree that their mothers have influenced their teaching in a positive way. “The cool thing is that I learned so much from her without realizing it,” says Royal. “I’ll teach something, and I’ll realize, ‘Oh, that was totally from my mom’s teaching.’” Alpern takes her mother’s morning class every day, observing and learning as she dances. “Even if there are 70 people in her class, she has a way of having control and being authoritative, but still teaching with a sense of warmth and compassion,” she says.

As for leaving work at the studio, most agree that it happens—occasionally. “We talk about ballet a lot,” says Alpern. “I go to her for advice or to figure out how to teach a certain step. The ballet world is so small, and to have someone so close to me understand it is very nice and helpful.” Family holidays generally are a different story; in deference to dads and nondancing siblings, most at least try not to talk shop. Yet for Wallace, family gatherings are also a gathering of dancers: In addition to her mother and grandmother, five of her own six kids study dance, and she has three sisters, all of whom danced and have children who dance.

As those in the younger generation find their way as teachers, their passion for dance can come full circle to influence their own teachers. “She has changed me, too,” says Fiamengo’s mother Dyan. “She makes me want to be less complacent as I get older. And if I’m going to choreograph…” she pauses, thoughtfully, “maybe I can go to the next level and have some wow factor in my old age, too.” DT

Caitlin Sims is a former Dance Teacher editor, now based in San Francisco.

Stacey Tookey

When Your Student Is Your Daughter

Teaching teens has its own set of challenges, but teaching your own teenaged kid? Emmy-nominated choreographer Stacey Tookey grew up in her mother’s dance studio, Shelley’s Dance Company, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. At the Dance Teacher Summit last summer, she told a story of clashing with her mother in a ballet class when she was a teen, and why it ended up being great instead of disastrous. —CS

“My mom is a genius, and she is a phenomenal teacher. But I was 13, and we all know how it is when you’re 13. She would say something, and I would be like, ‘I’m not doing that,’ or I would make little comments. Finally one day in class, she was making us go across the floor, and she said, ‘Hey dancers, shirts off,’ so she could see our leotards and our lines underneath. I wasn’t feeling it, so I said, ‘I’m not doing that today.’ I was leading the pack across the floor doing my tendus with my baggy T-shirt on. Well, my mom came up to me and said, ‘Stacey, take off your shirt.’ I was like, ‘No.’ Then she proceeded to take the shirt from the back of my neck and tear it off my body. It tore down both the sides, and what did I do? Like a bratty 13-year-old, instead of taking it off, I tucked in the sides of it and kept dancing.

“My mom went like this, pointing: ‘Out.’ She came into the office and said, ‘That’s it. You’re going to ballet school. I’m kicking you out of my studio.’ And I said, ‘You’re not going to do that. That looks terrible; your own daughter doesn’t dance at your dance studio?’ She said, ‘Watch me,’ and she picked up the phone: ‘School of ballet, I’d like to register my daughter.’

“No joke, I went to ballet school. She drove me every single day. I was not allowed to take tap, jazz, nothing else. I did ballet for an entire year. And that was my ‘punishment.’ I ended up loving it, and to be honest, my mom’s studio didn’t have a strong ballet program at the time. She was more of a tap and jazz studio, so going to ballet school was the best thing that happened for me and for her studio.”

Photos (from top) by Thinkstock; by Susie Morgan Taylor, courtesy of the JKO School; by Joe Toreno

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