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Teacher Spotlight: Mary Ann LaJoie-Sandroff

by Victoria

in teacher of the month

An interview with Mary Ann LaJoie-Sandroff

Former owner of Center of Creative Dance in Wilmette, IL

Bonus questions for Mary Ann LaJoie-Sandroff
What do you most look forward to at recital/performance time? Bringing it all together. Seeing how the costuming, the music, the dancers relate on a stage.
Do you have a favorite age group to teach? I love when my college students come back to take from me and I see how they’ve grown and what they’ve done with their lives. That is my favorite.
Do you make corrections during or after an exercise?
Both, depending upon the student. If the student looks nervous, you leave them alone until after.
What stretch feels wonderful on your body? Not so much any more [laughs]. What the heck, I’m obviously not a teenager. What feels good? Pliés and port de bras. It used to be leaps and pirouettes.
If you hadn’t taught dance, what other field could you have seen yourself in?
I would show my dogs in the Westminster Premiere Dog Shows and get my book published.
3 words that illustrate your personality? Serious, Creative, Funny
Small class or big? Small
CDs or iPod? I just started learning my iPod. If I get stuck, my 6 year olds tell me how to do it. You know, it’s wild. That’s what I’ve learned from them too. How to work my iPod. [laughs]
What are you really liking in the Chicago dance scene right now? The Seldoms – what they do is very new and innovative. It’s fabulous choreography.

Allegro Dance Boutique: How many years of dance training have you had? 

Mary Ann LaJoie-Sandroff:  I started [dancing] at six years old and got more and more lessons each year. Starting at 11 or 12, my mother would take me to New York every summer where, at Carnegie Hall, all of the ballerinas and choreographers would teach. I would just go from studio to studio and spend the whole day at Carnegie Hall.

ADB: With whom did you study at Carnegie Hall?

MLS:  That’s where I studied with George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille, Arthur Mitchell, Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska.
I also studied Graham at Carnegie Hall. I didn’t do a lot with her because she had other people that would come in and teach for her, but we got her every once in a while. But she was drinking a lot in those days. I don’t know how she did such magnificent things. But she did.

ADB: Tell us a bit more about your time studying with Balanchine.

MLS: I auditioned for Balanchine. Every year he would pick baby ballerinas to be his next group coming up, and I was chosen to be one of those when I was 16. But my mother wouldn’t let me stay in New York. She said, “You can go as far as Chicago.” [laughs] So I came to Chicago and then I stayed here. There wasn’t a lot of ballet at the time in Chicago, so I went into modeling and became Chicago’s top model for 10 years. I was 19. My mother said, “you have to graduate from high school. You can’t go to New York at 16 years old.”

ADB: Were there other aspects of being at Carnegie Hall that influenced your early training?

MLS: I remember seeing Moira Shearer from The Red Shoes with her flaming red hair, coming to do The Red Shoes Ballet. She would arrive by limousine with a big black velvet cape. I mean, they came dressed. They were royalty. Everybody was glamorous and gorgeous.
They would have their own dressing rooms and you couldn’t touch a thing on their dressing tables because they had all their shoes lined up and their tutu hanging. That’s when they had wardrobe mistresses for each soloist. My training was learning all of that also. How to prepare for a performance, or class, how to watch the choreography.

ADB: What sort of choreography were you able to watch?

MLS: We would sit on the sidelines watching Nora Kaye and Beryl Grey warm up at portable ballet barres on stage and rehearse before their performances.
I was also backstage when the Royal Ballet (which was then the Sadler’s Wells Ballet) would come to Detroit where I was living. My dance teacher always had 8 or 10 students walk on in Swan Lake and Coppelia, so I was backstage when the famous Swan Lake with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev were rehearsing.
All of those things have built my background, so sometimes it’s hard for me to accept what’s happening today in the dance world with the competitions, and the glitz, and you know … when the elegance is gone. So I’ve had to try to impart what I can to my dancers.

ADB: What styles of dance did you train in?

MLS: Through all of these teachers I was able to learn 3 different styles of ballet: Cecchetti, Russian, and Balanchine. So I combine those and give my students the techniques that I feel were the most important to me to develop as a dancer. Then at the end, I always give them a few minutes of creating their own dances so they become creative human beings.

ADB: Do you have a favorite style of ballet?

MLS: It’s almost impossible [to choose] because they all gave me something. I thought that Balanchine’s Swan Lake was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen … until I saw Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story. That switched me over to liking a little bit more modern combined with ballet. So I always teach some modern in combination with ballet. Then I saw Alvin Ailey’s Revelations and I thought, that’s the best piece I’ve ever seen in my entire life. His dancers all had ballet training. All dancers, all skaters, all gymnasts that make it have ballet training. It’s very important.

ADB: Who was your most motivating teacher and why?

MLS: Balanchine. He always had a twinkle in his eye. He never put me down. He would always come over and fix a finger, a head movement, a tilt of the body, and give me a smile. So I try to do that when I am correcting my students.

ADB: When have you been very proud of a student?

MLS: Daily. Whenever I leave a class, there’s always one or two that did something beautiful. Even if they are 5 or 6 years old. I’m proud of so much of what my kids have done. Even if they are in real estate, they have presence and creativity and they look great. One of my students is in real estate and when she runs an open house, she’s just so elegant that people think, “she’s got taste. I’m going to listen to her to buy a house.”

ADB: Have you ever had an embarrassing dance moment?

MLS: Two years ago I fell and broke my hip on a piece of ice and I came back into class with my five year olds and started back where I was when I was five. And now my hip is healed and I’m teaching and I’m working. That was a little embarrassing to walk in. I said, “I’m going back in on a walker. I’ve got to start with pliés and relevés or I’m never going to walk again.” So I walked in and one of the little girls said [about the walker], “Miss Mary Ann’s got a portable barre!” And it was like, ok, I’m here. Thank you. It was great.

ADB: What are your thoughts on improvisation?

MLS: It’s necessary. If you can’t improvise and you trip on stage, you’re in big trouble. You have to know fall and recovery – that’s something else I learned from Graham. I had a child that graduated years ago who wrote me an email recently that said: “Thank you for teaching me fall and recovery. My grandma died and I thought I was going to fall and never recover. Then I remembered your lessons of fall and recovery, and I was ok.”
Do you see how it affects people? Our lessons in dance change us as human beings.

ADB: What do you want your students to take away from you?

MLS: A combination of presence and creativity, which I think you need for whatever you do in life, whether you are a sales person or an office person or running your own business – you can’t look like a jalopy.
That’s why I was so happy when Allegro opened. Because I could send my children here and they would have an elegant looking outfit to come to dance. That’s part of it. Getting ready. Fix your hair, don’t have it hang in your face. Put a little flower in it. Put a little chiffon skirt on. That was part of grooming before you even showed up at dance class. At the end of class we always curtsy and do a bow so they learn presence. You have to have presence and creativity.

ADB: What was the best thing about owning Center of Creative Dance?

MLS: The feeling of accomplishment of a woman owning her own business and being able to do what I love at the same time. And my students. In 2008, all eight of my long term students got total dance scholarships plus academic scholarships into major universities. They were long term, though. They didn’t come and go. I mean, these were serious kids.

ADB: You recently closed your dance school, Center of Creative Dance, in Wilmette, after almost 40 years. When and where are you offering classes right now?

MLS: I’m teaching private lessons this summer by appointment at Light Opera Works in Wilmette. I’ll be teaching again in the fall on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

For more information on classes and private lessons with Miss Mary Ann, reach her by email at: malasa@comcast.net for details on available times.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Thaine June 11, 2012 at 3:49 pm

What an inspiring set of insights. Ms Mary Ann has had a profound impact on so many over her career of giving the gift of dance and confidence to so many. Bravo.

Liz Geifman June 12, 2012 at 8:05 am

Center of Creative Dance was my home away from home for most of my youth. I was one of Miss Mary Ann’s first students when she opened her studio in Wilmette 40 years ago. I cherish the time I spent there. Miss Mary Ann taught me so much more than just dance. She helped me to see potential in myself even as I was trying to navigate the challenging adolescent years.

Miss Mary Ann was a beautiful role model — disciplined, creative, and poised. She demanded excellence from her students and, as a result, her annual dance recitals were outstanding.

Thank you for this wonderful article!

Martha Channer June 12, 2012 at 12:42 pm

I taught classes with Mary Ann at the studio in Wilmette for ten years. Mary Ann started teaching me to be a teacher when I was 17 years old. She taught me to become a performer, a choreographer, and an artist. She also taught me the meaning and practice of excellence! Throughout my many life experiences to date, I have drawn on the knowledge and support that she gave(and still gives) to me. No one else is like her…and what she has given to dance and countless dancers is irreplaceable. She knows how grateful I am for her teaching and caring…but I wanted to share it with whoever reads this wonderful article too! I am proud and fortunate to have been her student, and to be her friend, in so many life expanding ways.
Martha Channer

Martha Channer June 12, 2012 at 12:45 pm

What a wonderful write-up!!

Mary Lajoie June 12, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Mary Ann is my late husband’s sister and has become my friend, as well. In reading this interview, I can see how she and her brother were obviously related. Both had the integrity, work ethic and determination to be the best and to teach the best. I only wish I had known her when we were younger….I would have liked to follow her career. What a beauty, inside and out.
Mary Lajoie

mary ann lajoie sandroff June 14, 2012 at 6:44 am

Victoria, Thank you sooooo much for the lovely article. The way you put the interview all together is very beautiful and appreciated. You are a perfect example of Presence and Creativity.
Thank you again and much luck with your newest Venture in Barrington.
Miss Mary Ann

Courtney Chatman June 14, 2012 at 9:00 pm

My two daughters have taken class with Ms. Mary Ann for the pass 5/6 years. She has been such a blessing in our lives. I have watched my daughter’s blossom in such a short time. Ms. Mary Ann is first class! This is such a wonderful article!!! I am so proud and honored to know this phenomenal Woman! I continue to be soooooooo very impressed by her extraordinary gift and love for dance, time…after time…after time…

Melissa Babcock June 25, 2012 at 8:47 am

What a wonderful write up, congratulations. I am thrilled you are being recognized for all of your hard work. I am grateful to have taken class with you. My posture and core improved immensly – which no other form of excercise was able to accomplish. I loved hearing your stories about your experiences and you always were able to get a good laugh out of the class. Laughter – another great excercise and memory of my time with Miss Mary Ann.

Fei June 27, 2012 at 5:50 pm

This a very nice article!!! My daughter has been taking classes with Ms. Mary Ann since we moved to this area . I am very happy that my daughter have the opportunity to be in her class! I am very impressed by her love for dance and her elegance. Glad to know that she is offering more classes in the coming Fall.

Retta Glavin June 29, 2012 at 8:53 am

Mary Ann taught my daughter from 3 years old through high school and she is still dancing. Thank you, Mary Ann for teaching the importance of dedication and hard work. Elegance, grace and creativity are evident in her presence.

Stephanie Quinn April 5, 2014 at 6:31 pm

Mary Ann is the best! Both my children studied with her. My son was terribly pigeon toed and clumsy, so I put him in her class when he was about 4. Later he evolved into a fantastic skate boarder, and still moves with grace. And my daughter studied about 5-6 years, and the impact on her posture, poise gives her such an elegant presence. I know it will help her in job interviews when she gets out of college. For myself, the ‘wanna-be’ dancer, I started lessons at age 40, with terrible bunions on my feet. I never opted for the recommended surgery, but after a few months of doing what Mary Ann suggested, of plie with toes spread out, my feet don’t hurt.. I have no talent, but a great love and appreciation for dance, and still take class for my fitness and balance. I also stopped falling down and classes help straighten everything out that gets twisted as I practice my profession on the violin. Mary Ann is a wonderful advocate for the arts, and a legend in Chicago!

mary ann Lajoie August 7, 2016 at 5:40 pm

by Request I have decided to come back and teach a few classes. I will be renting space at Light Opera works, 516 4th st. Wilmette
The following is my new schedule:
Monday 4:00 5-6 yr.s Ballet/Creative dance
Monday 5:00 11-13 yrs. ballet/ pre pointe
Tuesday 5:00 11-13 yrs. ballet ? Modern combo Mary ann & veda sidney will team teach
WEdnesday 6:30-8:00 Adult Ballet/ Modern combo Mary ann & veda Sidney team teach
Thursday 5:00 13-16 yrs. Ballet/ Pointe
to try a class email: MLSadance@ comcast.net

Victoria August 11, 2016 at 6:09 pm

Hello Miss Mary Ann! So lovely to hear the news and best of luck with your classes! If you have any flyers or anything like that, we would love to display them at Allegro!

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