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Teacher Spotlight: Carrie Bohlmann, Annie Conway & Margaret Thompson

by the allegro team

in teacher of the month

An interview with sisters Carrie Bohlmann, Annie Conway & Margaret Thompson

Co-Founders/Co-Directors of Virtuoso Performing Arts in Glenview, IL

VPA group photo 1

Allegro Dance Boutique: Can you speak a bit on how Virtuoso came to be? How did it get started and what was the inspiration?

Carrie Bohlmann & Annie Conway: Margaret was in college, and we were living in city, and we had always (since we were kids) talked about doing something like this. We said, “let’s write a business plan!” We originally called it Virtuoso Dance Center. We were going to open just a dance studio but thought, “why limit ourselves to that?”, especially when we found that we as dancers needed more than just dance. So that’s how Virtuoso Performing Arts came to be; we offer more than [just dance.] We executed the plan, and brought Margaret on as soon as she was done with school (which was right when we opened the doors!) Margaret Thompson: I was thrown into it, literally right as I graduated I started teaching. CB, AC & MT: We were rookies for sure. Our first location was in Niles, and we went through the whole process of getting funding, finding space, doing the build out and grand opening, and the rest is history. We took paper off the windows and we were like, “come in!” [All laugh] The funny thing is, some of our students that walked in the door on that first day that we had our open house are now in high school; we’re celerbrating 10 years this year! We had 12 students the first year, in acting, voice and dance, and we opened in January. [In terms of opening halfway through the year we thought] it’s now or never, we’ve got to do it sometime! And now we have between 300 students in all of our programs.

ADB: How is it to run this business as family?

CB, AC, MT: It was hard in the beginning, we had to learn the “business” sides of one another. There were points where we’d regress to childhood behavior but eventually we learned each other’s strengths and weaknesses and figured out the right battles to fight. Now it’s more well-oiled. We let each other’s passions shine. It’s been fun, we feel lucky. We’re best friends and we get to spend so much time together. It’s pretty special. It was year 8 that we finally really figured out where each of us should be [in regards to roles.]

ADB: How many years of dance training have you had? In what styles? Did you/do you have a favorite style?

AC: I started when I was 3, so 31 years. I studied ballet, tap, jazz, modern, lyrical and pointe. Back then my favorite was ballet, but now, contemporary. MT: I started at 3, so 28 years, and I studied the same styles. Jazz was my favorite then but it’s now turned into contemporary. CB: 31 years, same styles, and jazz was my favorite at the time. Or tap. I would say modern became new favorite once I went to college. Tap is probably my strong point as a teacher.

ADB: Who was your most motivating teacher and why?

AC: Our childhood teacher, Kelly Plath; I think we’d all agree on her. And in college it was Karen Krite. MT: Kelly Plath, she made us love ballet. She had a “common sensical” way of teaching, she always said that. CB: The same childhood teacher, Kelly Plath. In college it was Ed Burgess (who just passed away.) He introduced modern to me and made me fall in love with it. He taught a Humphrey/Limon style.VPA Carrie headshot

ADB: Schools or university trained?

AC: We grew up taking from Accent On Dance in Wisconsin. Then I went to Southern Methodist University for a degree in Dance Performance. CB: I went to Oklahoma City University for 2 years and then graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison in Dance Performance. MT: I went to Southern Methodist University as well.

ADB: How many years have you been teaching dance?

AC: I taught my first class at 15. MT: I started assisting in 6th grade, so 13 years of teaching.

ADB: What styles do you currently teach?

AC: Ballet, contemporary, jazz and pointe. MT: Ballet, tap, jazz and creative dance. As a teacher I enjoy teaching the little ones. CB: Right now I’m just teaching ballet, tap and jazz. We all teach everything but hip hop! [All laugh]

ADB: Growing up training at the same studio, studying the same styles, do you all teach in the same way?

AC, CB, MT: [Unanimous] No! We have very different teaching styles.

ADB: Give some words to describe your teaching method/philosophy.

MT: A balance between having fun and keeping it strict. It’s a fine line because kids at certain ages can take advantage of that, and [teaching] style varies between classes because they all have a different dynamic. I have a Friday class that comes in 2 carpools so they’re all friends. [In that instance I have to] “crack the whip.” It varies for me but I like to find that balance.  And I think it’s important for them to learn ettiquette early. CB: I’m kind of a “no nonsense” type of teacher. I don’t put up with bad attitudes and I try to push good classroom ettiquette. More recently I used to be less positive and I learned over the years that positive reinforcement goes so far, so I try to use that as much as possible. I believe every class needs to have laughter. Again, it’s a balance. AC: Positive reinforcement (to a fault.) I’m trying to make students, regardless of their ability, feel comfortable first so they can feel safe, come to me and ask a question or take a risk and fall on their face. But they have to feel good about themselves first to do that. They can abuse that with me sometimes so I try to work on that and do a little more of the discipline, but I just try to make students feel the best that they can. MT: As business owners we’ve had to sit down and talk about this. [These students] may not want to become professional dancers, they may just want to have fun. AC: Sometimes in order to get that extra pirouette or [whatever type of] skill, the students needs to feel encouraged first. Then technique will follow. MT: You can’t be afraid to fall on your face to do it.

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

MT: “I can’t.” When they decide they can’t do it before they’ve even tried. AC: I hate clock watchers, when they’re not present the whole class. CB: Talking.

ADB: What are the essential items that never leave your dance/teaching bags?

AC: For me it’s more of a work bag. MT: Same for me. My iPhone. I use that for music too. AC: My laptop. CB: My iPod.

ADB: If a student walks away having learned just one thing from you, what would you want that one thing to be?

MT: For me, as long as they have worked hard in class it doesn’t matter if they’ve mastered it. I just like to see them giving 100% and I feel like if they’re doing that throughout the year they’ll have those “aha!” moments. To walk away feeling accomplished after class you have to have that frame of mind: deciding you’re going to [give 100%] before walking into the room, and dressing the part. AC: The process is just as important as the goal or end result. CB: Not to give up so easily and therefore, discover that they can do it and can feel a sense of accomplishment and confidence from that.

ADB: What type(s) of music “moves” you?

AC: I’m digging some of the music I’m hearing on tv comemericals. [I think] “ooh I have to look that up, that would be a cool piece.” I get inspiration from movie soundtracks. Artform on artform. It lends itself to dance. CB: I like soul, funk. Like James Brown.

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

AC: It’s amazing, so close knit. CB: It’s diverse. MT: There’s lots of opportunity for our kids to get out there and see that diversity. AC: It’s a perfect blend of east coast/west coast.

ADB: Do you have a favorite age group to teach? Why?

MT: Little ones are my forte, their energy is super fun. CB: 2nd to 3rd graders. Something starts to click coordination-wise. MT: They love their teachers [at that age] too. CB: [In agreement] They start to “get it.” It’s fascinating. AC: I have no favorite. CB: 7th and 8th graders too. Another “click” happens right around then. They pick up style and detail, and once they get that they all of the sudden have this confidence.

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

MT: I never saw myself as being strict but then there are parents that say, “you’re one of the tough ones.” But I hope they’d say there’s a balance between fun and seriousness. I have to reevaluate after every class; if it was really serious then we’ll have a more fun class next week. Sometimes you have to change your agenda based on [the students]. CB: I’d hope they’d say strict, but in a good way. AC: [With a wink] I’m not sure. You’d have to ask them.

ADB: Give an example of a moment when you, as a teacher, were most proud.VPA Margaret headshot

MT and CB: There was a student that moved to Maryland recently. The family had two daughters that had danced here, and a few months after they moved the dad emailed us and said they were having a hard time finding a studio. He said he realized he really appreciated us because they couldn’t find anything like us [out there]. It felt good to hear that. Some start here when they’re really young and always stay with us, so they have nothing to compare it to. AC: I’m always incredibly proud when I see my students utilize their training outside of VPA. Whether it be getting the lead in a school play, becoming president of the orchesis team, doing a plie how-to demonstration in speech class at school or getting into a dance program in college.

ADB: Is there a choreographer that inspires you?

CB: Ailey. MT: It’s so hard to choose…it depends on the style but my modern technique at SMU was Graham based and a lot of my movement stems from that. AC: Nacho Duato, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor … to name a few.

ADB: Name a performance you have attended that took your breath away.

CB: Hubbard Street’s “Minus 16”, “Episodes” by Alvin Ailey. AC: My first experience seeing concert dance. I was 13 and saw Parsons Dance Company. It really solidified the idea that I wanted to be a dancer. (I think it was “The Envelope” that did it.)

ADB: What’s your response to a student with a “can’t-do” attitude?

MT: A compliment goes a long way. Kids just need to hear that they’re doing something right. [For example] passing by them at the barre, you see them light up and their entire attitude changes. They walk out feeling really good and so hopefully they come back confident and open. Not overdoing it, but it just takes one little something. CB: I usually ignore that. In the past I would react to it but I feel like that just perpetuates it rather than focusing on someone in the room that’s doing something right. [Focusing on the right things is] contagious, so by not giving [the negative stuff] any attention it dissolves. AC: Baby steps. Keep the goal in sight, but try to focus on where you are now and work with what you have. Again, the process is just as important as the end result.

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

MT: At VPA we stress terminology, the spelling of french words, knowing what everything means. We like them to get the overall well-roundedness of the art. CB: I like using imagery too, as much as possible. MT: Exposing them to other dancers, and not just in their own studio. [To encourage them to] go watch something, to go take class somewhere else, to compete. (Though we’re not a huge competition studio; we just take 5 pieces to Nationals.) CB: Eventually, repetition becomes really important right around performance time. MT: Physically we push the students to keep up their strength  alongside their flexibility. Carrie has a certification in holistic health coaching so she stresses nutrition. CB: These kids go to school all day, have extracurriculars and then come in [for class]. You can’t be efficient unles you’re eating well and fueling for it. MT: I had [an instance] with a 4th-6th grade class where 3rd graders had just jumped up [to the level and were tired]. I gave them 2 grapes and water in between classes and they brought their own snacks, and it really worked; it brought their energy level up! AC: Mentally: A little healthy competition in the classroom is never a bad thing. I’ll often pick out a dancer who is really excelling at something and ask her to demonstrate for the class. I think this helps to push the other students. Physically: I offer a lot of different styles in class with hope that it may push a student beyond a comfort zone.

ADB: If you weren’t teaching dance, what other field could you see yourself involved in?

MT: I would still end up being something artistic,  I don’t think I could live without that. There’s also an art to being a mom though. I love being a mom and being a part of it as much as I can be. We’re so blessed and grateful for our partners and to have the flexibility that we have, to make our own schedules. I’d be a stay at home mom. CB: It would be either something in the health related field or something to do with nature, some kind of researcher. I love nature. AC: Something psychology-related. Or (to go in a totally different direction), maybe art history.

VPA arabesqueADB: Fill in the blank (mad libs- style): When I dance I feel MT: strong. CB: open. AC: most like myself. ADB: Teaching is MT: interesting. CB: my life. AC: an art form.  ADB: A good class is when MT: as a teacher I’m walking out of the room smiling, and as a student, I’m walking out of the room drenched with sweat. CB: when the student wants to talk about it with other people. AC: the student leaves the class having mastered something and also having discovered something they need to work on. ADB: My love for MT: chocolate or french fries, CB: thunderstorms, AC: cake is almost as strong as my love for the performing arts!

ADB: What is the cheesiest or most sentimental dance-related item that you own? (And love!)

MT: [Reminiscing] The seniors were in charge of putting that book together where they all wrote down messages and gave it to us at the end of their year … Students play practical jokes on us, they decorate our cars after class. In our old space they’d leave messages on our cars. CB: One of our students went to Hawaii and she brought back this broken shell/little piece of coral, and she would do this everytime she went on a trip. [She’d say] “here you go, I got this for you.” AC: A pin-on number that I wore at my very first dance audition. I was number 8, and that’s been my lucky number ever since.

ADB: Give a few words that illustrate your personality.

MT: Energetic, outgoing, talkative. CB: Straightforward, driven. AC: Glass galf full!

ADB: In one sentence, what are your thoughts on improvisation?

MT: We actually have a choreography program that we do here, and the students learn a lot about improv through the choreography workshops we have every summer. Improv is one of the main choreoraphic tools for me. CB: It’s where everything comes from. AC: Regular practice in improvisation is essential to developing into a truly well-rounded dancer.

ADB: Do you make corrections during an exercise or after an exercise?

MT: I pick and choose. There’s some classes where I do a lot of talking after class, and some where I give corrections in the middle. So I do both, but sometimes, I make a concious effort to say “today we’re not stopping, we need a good sweat.” I loved that, when I took a ballet class like that, [to realize] whoa, I never stopped! CB: I always do both so they’re hearing it more than once, and then I give a general correction afterwards in case they didn’t hear it. AC: It depends on the situation. If the correction is something that I know the entire class could benefit from (which is usually the case), I’ll wait until after the exercise to address it.

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

MT: I like that moment when everything comes together. All of the sudden, somehow the magic always happens. CB: Just seeing and celebrating all of the hard work and the final product. AC: Seeing all the students’ hard work pay off on stage. Seeing a piece complete with costume, lighting, and performer adrenaline.

ADB: What stretch feels great on your body?

CB: I like cow face: to cross one leg over the other and lean forward. MT: So do I, any hip stretches. AC: Plow pose.

ADB: What is the best thing about owning VPA?VPA stag & triangle

CB: From a job standpoint I’d say that it’s being able to make your own schedule. From a standpoint of what we’re able to offer, I love that we’re able to do so many different disciplines under one roof, offering a place for as many kids as possible to have that escape. MT: It’s an amazing escape. You come here and everything kind of drops away. It’s an escape from my life at home that I love, but I also love to have a whole different frame of mind. One of the most important things is having the flexibility and doing what I love at the same time, and I don’t think very many people get to do what they love, choose their hours and work from home. I get to be with my son and do a lot from home. We also offer performance opportunities! We have an in-house performance studio so we get to offer a lot of that. It’s cool because we get to intertwine the arts that way. Everyone has that one common bond. AC: There are two ‘best’ things. 1: The students. I find pure, boundless joy in working with all my students, whether they’re beginners or pre-professional. 2: Working alongside my two sisters.

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