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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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An interview with Lynnette VanDien

Founder & Co-Director of Lynnette’s School of Dance in Park Ridge, IL

LSD headshot

Quick facts on Lynnette VanDien
Fill in the blank (mad libs- style):  When I dance I feel fulfilled. Teaching is wonderful. A good class is when they all “get it.”. My love for the business is almost as strong as my love for the performing arts! 
What are the essential items that never leave your teaching bag? Jazz shoes, and if I have tap shoes I’ll have a screwdriver with me too … bandaids and probably extra socks.
Give 3 words that illustrate your personality. I’d say warm, friendly and honest.
What stretch feels great on your body?  2nd position sitting on the floor. That’s probably my favorite stretch. I do that with everything.
Give an example when you, as a teacher, were most proud.  Probably to see my daughter dance, when she was very young.
What type(s) of music “moves” you? [Music for] tap. Musicals.

 

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

Lynnette VanDien: I started at age 3, and joined the Chicago National Association of Dance Masters (CNADM) at 17.

ADB: What styles have you studied?

LVD: Ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical … I even took belly dance for a while.

ADB: Did you have a favorite style?

LVD: Tap. I still like tap the best. I think everyone needs the training of ballet, and I don’t think you can be a good tap dancer unless you have some ballet training.

ADB: Schools or programs studied?

LVD: I’m CNADM certified. I started as a child with Geri Mroz (who still teaches; Geri’s School of Dance in Chicago, and in fact, this is her 61st year of teaching!) and as I got older I studied with Gus Giordano, Anita Sedala, and for tap Tommy Sutton and Jimmy Payne.

ADB: Who was your most motivating teacher and why?

LVD: Tommy Sutton, he just drew everything out of me. When you were dancing he’d say “Stop thinking, stop thinking, just do it. Feel it.”

ADB: How many years have you been teaching dance?

LVD: [Before opening the studio] I taught for the Chicago Park District for a little while, and then I assisted with classes over at Geri’s too around the age of 15, 16.

ADB: When did you open the studio?

LVD: Sepember 1971. We just celebrated 40 years!

ADB: What was the motivation to do so?

LVD: I just really enjoyed teaching kids. I was at Second City and modeling and always looking for a job, and I was teaching part time and just really loved it. I took a chance and opened my own, and it’s been wonderful. The best thing I ever could’ve done.

ADB: What styles do you currently teach?

LVD: Adult jazz and a little bit of adult tap.

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

LVD: Confidence.

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

LVD: Talk. Or chew gum. Or not try. We don’t have much of the [not trying] though, we really don’t. You try to make them really comfortable so by the time they come in and meet you, by the time they get to the class, they feel comfortable. Maybe it’s the way we treat them too, but we just very seldom get that. It’s a big “family” type of thing in our dancing school. Everyone says it feels like a big family. Judy, my secretary, I’ve known since kindergarten, and her daughter teaches for us. All of the girls that teach for me were my students. Lorena [Associate Director] is my niece. She’s doing more and more of the work. You know, I’m getting older too, and I’m enjoying a little bit of retirement so I know she can take over things. I don’t want to get out of it completely though, it’s too much fun!

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

LVD: Being kind. Presenting something in different ways; if someone’s not catching on then present it another way. Encouraging.

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

LVD: 4-5 year olds. They can listen real well, they follow directions real well and they love you. You come in the door and they’re jumping on you, it’s great. If you ever have a down day [I say] just go to the school and see the little ones!

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

LVD: Honesty or friendship.

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

LVD: Well lately, I was at the Marriott’s “My One and Only” [Gershwin musical]. That was fantastic. [It had] a lot of tapping of course.

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

LVD: Let’s try, I’ll do it with you, we’ll break it apart. “If I can do it, you can do it” is usually my reaction.

ADB: How do you challenge your students mentally?

LVD: With terminology, so they know the names of the steps and the choreography.

ADB: How do you challenge your students physically? I don’t give them a lot of down time, because that’s when you sit and relax and you get lazy. Myself included [laughs]. I always had class after class after class! Pushing them a little bit past what I think they can do, telling them that they can do it. And they usually can. “Get that leg up higher, you can get that leg up higher.” I think it’s just being enthusiatsic too. If you’re enthused, they’re enthused.

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?

LVD: That not everyone has the same encouragement and support that I had from family growing up. That pushes me to be their support, and by the time you find out [that they need support] you already are their support system usually. This girl that had [danced] with me, and now her daughter dances with us, there was an incident where one of her girlfriends got lost somewhere and no one was there to pick her up and she didn’t know who to call. [My student’s mom asked] “what if this happneed to you, if you couldn’t get ahold of dad or I, what would you do, who would you call?” And she said, “I’d call the dancing school!” [Laughs] That’s really nice to hear, the best compliment ever really.

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

LVD: I do take art classes, though I don’t think I’d be that good at that or anything. That’s really hard… it would have to be in the arts somewhere I think. I love teaching, so probably, if I didn’t have the dancing school, I’d be teaching high school. But in the arts department!

ADB: Your preferences (boxers or briefs- style): CD’s or Ipod? LVD: CDs, but a lot of my teachers use iPods. At least I’ve gotten to the CD! [Laughs] ADB: Repetition or surprise? LVD: I have a standard of what I do, I try to change things every week. Even when I taught ballet, I only taught the same barre a few times maybe, I’d change it up. ADB: Morning class or evening class (if you’re taking it)? LVD: Evening. Most of the classes I always [used to take] were in the morning, but now that’s hard to find. ADB: Small class or large class (if you’re teaching it)? LVD: I’d rather teach to 8-12 students, otherwise it’s too many to watch. ADB: Fast movement or slow movement? LVD: Fast.

ADB: What are your thoughts on improvisation?

LVD: Yeah, I think its good, good for the students to see what they can come up with. “Here’s 32 counts, show me what you can do with it.” It gets them to think a little and be creative. Once they get into it they really like it. It is intimidating most of the time and can be at first. At first I’d [put] two of them together, pair them up and it would be easier for them.

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

LVD: I usually try to do it during because then they can correct themselves. If it’s after we’d have to repeat the exercise again so I do try to do it during, but sometimes you can’t. [Sometimes] if you wait until after, it’s gone already and they don’t know what they did. That’s what you learn afterwards too, as a teacher, who you can [give corrections to during] and who you can’t. Usually if it’s just an exercise or a step and not a whole routine it’s ok.

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

LVD: Seeing it all put together. I’ve gotten better, I’m starting to really enjoy it, but I have less responsibility now too. [Laughs] You haven’t taught every class and feel responsible for every class.

ADB: What other performances take part during the year for your school?

LVD: We do Taste of Park Ridge, we were in the Memorial Day Parade. This year we did Dance Fest at Navy Pier and [performed at] Daley Center. We did the Winter Fest at Navy Pier too; it was amazing, I never knew it was that big of an event. We have 4 performing groups but we take a lot of our little ones too, the 2nd year classes.

ADB: What is the best thing about owning Lynnette’s School of Dance?

LVD: The whole family that it’s become, definitely. And just seeing the improvement with the students; seeing them through the years and seeing that improvement, and seeing that a whole lot of them are doing dance related things now as adults. They’ve been “the ones” in my life just as much as I hope I’ve influenced them.

 

Lynnette is curently affiliated with the foundation F.A.M.E., the Foundation of Artists Mentored in Entertainment. The organization is holding an open call audition for dancers and musical artists ages 12-26 on February 16, 2013. Visit www.fame-chicago.org for more information.

 

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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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