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December Teacher of the Month: Ronn Stewart

by the allegro team

in teacher of the month

An interview with Ronn Stewart

Artistic Director of Foster Dance Studios in Evanston, IL


Quick facts on Ronn Stewart
Give a few words to describe your teaching method/philosophy. It takes energy to make energy, when in doubt reach out, if you want to be better, better is different. So you have to get good at being different.
What stretch feels great on your body? Anything for the hip flexors, half lotus, anything for the piriformis area.
Fill in the blank (mad libs- style):  When I dance I feel everything. Teaching is learning. A good class is when you forget it’s a class. My love for __________ is almost as strong as my love for dance. It’s so hard for me to find something close, it’s really difficult.
What’s your response to a student with a “can’t do” attitude?  My teacher [Susan Quinn] always said “you’re not able to at this time but you’re willing to try.” So you can, but you’re not able to right now. You may have to work on it for 10 years but that’s what you’re here for so let’s get started!
What are some words that illustrate your personality? Excited, persistent. I’m working on being able to let go of things.
If a student walks away having learned just one thing from you, what would you want that one thing to be? There’s no magic recipe. “The best I can offer is effort” when they’re wanting to know “what does it take?” or “how do I get somewhere?” I want them to come away with that first. “If I want it I can have it but it’s not going to be handed to me.” I want them to believe that they can be awesome but they’ve got to go be awesome, and that’s all up to them.

Allegro Dance Boutique: How many years of dance training have you had? Can you speak about your training history?

Ronn Stewart: I started pretty much when I was 10, that’s when I started to commit. I dabbled a little with my stepsister and my mom trying to force me before that. When my mom got married to my stepfather I had a little sister that took dance classes and I showed some interest in tap, but in order to take tap [at my studio] you had to do these triple threat classes and I guess I showed a lot of potential in ballet and jazz, even though I was there to study tap. And then I totally forgot about it. That was at [age] 7. Then Susan [Quinn] and Michael [Williams] moved to Pensacola when I was 10 and there was an article in the newspaper and that’s when I really started. I remember my mom calling me when I was at my real dad’s house in Atmore [Alabama] and she said “check out the newspaper.” I made him take me down to the convenience store and get a newspaper. And I didn’t think that it was a big deal at all, I remember just wanting to go back outside and play like “yeah yeah mom, whatever, I’ll try class.” For some reason I still rememeber that phone call and seeing that picture of Susan and Michael and the rest was history from there, I just fell for it. I think when I look back I was just a lost soul and it was a place for me. It was a family to attach to. A little strange in Pensacola, Florida. [Here’s this] group of jazz dancers in Pensacola, and it was so different than what I had seen before. And now, looking back, my stepdad was Jewish and we converted, so there was a lot of change in this little kid’s life. I was this Alabama hick, totally redneck all the way. And so dance was this totally different world, so completley different than the other two. It was just a safe place. It really was the safest place, I couldn’t wait. It was like, suffering through school to get across the 3 mile bridge and downtown so that I could breathe and dance. And especially Susan and Michael, there was something about the way they were doing this jazz where I didn’t have to be froo-froo at all, I could dance like a man and get it out and express myself.

ADB: Did you have a favorite style?

RS: It was definitely jazz. The ballet was forced when I was young and I did it because Susan made me. I did it standing in the corner with a chip on my shoulder (but of course I learned to love it later in life.) Just once a week they’d made me take ballet class, for awhile. Until maybe 13-15 [years old] but then I got the opportunity to be an apprentice with their semi-pro company. [Jazz] had the right balance for me. I was really into to hip hop but we didn’t call it hip hop back then, it was street dance. And I taught [it] for Susan and Michael. When I was 15 they gave me my first class, street dance, and I kept a good street dance class going until I was 18. That was a good time for me to learn how to teach.

ADB: How many years in total have you been teaching?

RS: 22 years.

ADB: What styles of dance do you currently teach?

RS: Jazz, contemporary ballet, modern and MoPed [Stewart also teaches MoPed at the Joffrey Academy], as well as rehearse Foster Dance Company. Foster Dance Company is the studio company of Foster Dance Studios. It’s an opportunity because we don’t do end of the year recitals at our school. We run an open class curriculum where students can drop in and out of classes all year long, so the classes stand on their own. If you want to study ballet you can do it at any time of year, at any moment. You decide you want to start studying something you can come and try it and find the right class for yourself at our school. If you’re really comitted to dance and you want to perform it and study at a higher level we offer Foster Dance Company. Next year we’ll be expanding to 4 levels but right now we have 3 levels: elementary school, junior high and high school-aged. And they commit to a certain amount of classes a week that they’ll study. It’s always ballet and MoPed, and then depending on which level there’s always a certain amount of ballet classes and other disciplines, and as they get older there’s more expected. Plus [they have] their rehearsal class. And that’s what makes up our end of the year show, which is more of a student dance company concert than a recital. And eventually, the goal is to create repetoire and pass it on, to pass down a piece from Foster Dance Company 3 to Foster Dance Company 2 [for example].

ADB: Can you speak more about what MoPed is?

RS: MoPed is my other obsession, an inspiration from my time in Sante Fe. It started with a burst of inspiration one day and I thought, “Do I dare start my own technique?” [After studying in Pensacola, Stewart trained in Chicago on scholarship with Hubbard St. and danced for 3 years with Giordano. At age 23 he relocated to Santa Fe, a city that he lovingly refers to as the “land of entrapment”, where he founded the non profit company Moving People. Regarding this time in his life he states “I call upon it every day.” After 12 years in Santa Fe he began to feel the itch, “I’ve got to go back, I’ve got to go back and share, you know, my adventures.” He spent a brief stint in New York City, and then finally found himself back in Chicago upon the suggestion of Foster Dance Studios co-founder and fiance Sarah Goldstone.] MoPed is a culmination of my life’s committment to dance, feeling really blessed about it and wanting to give back to dance. [As in] what do I have to offer? A lot of teaching for me is, “how can I just explain how to do it the way they want?” MoPed has become more and more about asking the question “what do you want?” first. And now, let’s go get it, kind of work backwards. I’m really into lists (I’m known for my clipboards) and I came up with my simple 5 for MoPed. Rule #1 is Keep Going, Rule #2 is Listen, Rule #3 is Suspend Judgement, Rule #4 is Remember (that question, “what do you want?”) and Rule #5 is Do It With Love & Appreciation. It’s a guided, structured, improvisational experiential anatomy class. Sarah and I have both gotten really into Franklin method and I use a lot of his teachings as inspiration in my MoPed technique. A lot of people compare it to Ohad’s Gaga [Ohad Naharin is a choreographer that created this movement language that emphasizes the exploration of sensation and availability for movement] and that definitely inspired it in the beginning, [even though] I’ve only taken one Gaga class ever. It was 5 years ago and it was awesome. But it opened the door to teaching in this whole different way, and I always had this intuiton that there was that potential, a way to completely appproach a dance class differently. We don’t face the mirror and there is no front in MoPed. Somewhere along the lines I got really obsessed (because that’s my nature) with connecting the dots at the similarities more than the differences. You can find the top 5 things that are important to all dance techniques. And that’s the thing I want to teach, the essentials. What are the essentials? What will help a tap dancer, break dancer, ballet dancer, musical theater kid the most? What would be the very first thing on the list that they should learn to grasp? Which I find for us right now is just how to take class. Classroom structure and how to appreciate it and respect it and enjoy it, but take it seriously, but have fun. And you can do both. I think that’s why I want to do the CoCoDaCo idea too [see next question], I think it’s important to show young people how adults can be productive and happy. I’ve been looking for that my whole life.  That’s another thing about MoPed for me, MoPed helps me keep going. At this point I’m interested in longevity when it comes to my body’s abilities. You fought so hard to get them and then they go away so quick.

ADB: What is CoCoDaCo?

RS: It comes from the same acronym [structure] I made MoPed with. It’s Community of Contemporary Dance Companies and it’s made up of 3 companies: the professional company, the “mezzo” trainee company and the youth ensemble. For me the idea is to build an internal support structure for both the business and the artistry.  [We recently participated in] Backstage Evanston and that made me excited about being in Evanston. Evanston is aiming for world-class level.

ADB: How did Foster Dance Studios come about and what are the founding principles?

RS: Sally Turner [FDS co-founder and Executive Director] approached me to ask if I would be interested in opening a school. [Just] a few days later the dancing landscape [in Evanston] changed and I said “let’s talk.” I felt like I was supposed to do it. It wasn’t the plan, it just happened, and I felt the intuition to “carpe diem”. Our tagline is “Developing Dance From Within” and comes from my MoPed technique. [Then it’s] “Defining Dance.” This is modern, this is ballet, not confusing it. “Honoring Tradition”: the best way to move forward is from a clear undersanding of history. Then we can define what contemporary dance is. [Lastly], “Fostering the Individual.”  My philosophy is that not everyone cares about dance, so you’re lucky that they walked into your studio. If anyone comes in I feel lucky that they’re there.

ADB: What is the biggest “no-no” for a student to do in your class?

RS: “I can’t.” That’s probably universal. Beyond that it’s your “MO”, your mode of operation, bad body language. If you’re in a dance class you do a step with a certain posture. [The no-no would be] giving me anything other than that. The proof is in the pudding.

ADB: What are the essential items that never leave your dance bag?

RS: #1 Hand sanitizer, because I do so much on the floor with MoPed and I’m dancing for so long [throughout the day]. In the moment I’ll just roll myself into a tuft of hair. When you come to our website you should hear a vacuum, that’s the running joke. #2 My size 14 Wide Sansha black ballet shoes, 2 pair. I go through the Sanshas pretty quickly so I keep multiple pairs because you can wash them and make them last longer. Also, Franklin method inflatable massage balls, lots of t-shirts and I’m a water snob; I always have Penta water. “Advanced hydration for enhanced performance.” It’s ultra purified.

ADB: What type of music “moves you”?

RS: I’m an obscure Electronica buff. Amon Tobin and Nicholas Jaar, Fourtet. They all have similar accoustic-driven music. Neo-classical blended with Electronica and urban beats and sounds. I like the idea of creating a different state of being, a different world to dance in with music that feels otherworldly, especially with MoPed. I also had many years of being obsessed with hip hop and when coming to Chicago I realized where it came from and got into old Soul and R&B.

ADB: What is special to you about the Chicago dance community?

RS: The opportunity. The opportunity to create high-level dance here in this city and have an enthusiastic audience, support financially, support through videography, photography, other small business. It’s a whole sub-culture of support.

ADB: What would your students say your best quality is?

RS: I hope they’d say that they feel recognized, that I know they’re there. I listen to them and value them as human beings and treat them as such.

ADB: How do you challenge your students mentally? How do you challenge your students physically?

RS: Mentally: By asking for clarity. Wanting them to see and give depth in movement and thought. Physically: We don’t stop. You come in for an hour and a half and you’re going to be doing something the whole time. Modern, ballet, jazz, you’re involved the whole time. No hanging out, no sitting on the floor.

ADB: Teachers often say that they learn just as much from their students as their students learn from them. What is something valuable that your students have taught you over the years?

RS: They’ve shown me the potential, shown me what can be done. They’ve taught me how to do what I do. It’s the college of real life, what works and what doesn’t. As you get older, to be reminded and see that constantly in different moments. Every kid hits this new level and you just stay there and those moments are so inspiring. Count your blessings. I feel lucky that I’m doing [what I’m doing] and not mining coal.

ADB: On that note, if you weren’t teaching dance what other field could you see yourself involved in?

RS: I joke I’d have been a rapper. That was probably true at that point in my life. These days I’m into other art forms. I dabble in photography and painting has become my new thing. I do it a lot now and it drives Sarah crazy sometimes. But I have a method to keep it tidy!

ADB: What do you most look forward to at performance time?

RS: The moment, if you’re in an incredibly well-rehearsed piece and it’s something you can sink your teeth into, it’s the freedom where you get up there and you can’t see the audience but you know they’re there. You see the lights, feel their breath, you’re doing this thing in an infinite space. Being so well rehearsed that you can just let go. The freedom of feeling like it’s being appreciated.

ADB: What is the best thing about being the Artistic Director for Foster Dance Studios?

RS: My business partners, Sally [Turner], Kathy [Ebert] and Sarah [Goldstone]. Finding great partnerships, and especially [between] 2 dancers and 2 business-minded people. Mutual respect is essential to making this work and we get and appreciate the value of each other, that’s why it’s a good business plan. I like being 25% of something that’s really solid.


Winter/Spring registration is now availalbe at www.fosterdance.com.

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