On-the-move teacher Maria Hanley delivers dance to NYC tots
By Eileen Glynn
Maria Hanley’s most indispensable teaching tool is not her iPod, nor her dance clothes—it’s her rolling backpack. As an independent dance educator, Hanley rides the subway from her apartment in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, bringing creative movement classes to tots at studios, schools, and community centers throughout New York City.
With scarves, ribbons, and lesson plans tucked into her backpack, Hanley visits three sites a day, six days a week, often commuting for more than three hours a day. In the process, she reaches more than 200 students.
It’s a way of doing business that offers her freedom and flexibility. “I love being able to put together my own schedule. I enjoy traveling around and seeing new people each day. I’m glad I’m not spending eight hours a day in one place,” she says. “Even though it can get tiring to be in three different places every day, it’s also exciting. I sleep well at night!”
Hanley moved to New York City five years ago in order to pursue a master’s degree in dance education at New York University (NYU). In 2008, she founded Maria’s Movers, a program offering dance, movement, yoga, and Mommy and Me classes for children ages 5 months to 5 years.
“I love dance, and I always knew I wanted to work with kids. So I wanted to put the two together,” she says. Early childhood education is Hanley’s passion, although her training at NYU also gave her the skills to teach middle school and high school students. “Really young children are like little sponges,” she says. “They just soak up information. I love their questions. They always make me smile. Young kids so look forward to having you come. My goal is to make my class a really fun, creative, safe, and happy place for them.”
Catering to kids through creative movement
Hanley bases her approach to every lesson on creative movement principles. She was first exposed to creative movement during her undergraduate dance training at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. “I wish I had taken creative movement when I was very young. I feel like I would be a whole different person today. It really expands a child’s imagination and creativity,” Hanley says. “Kids have so much to offer back to you. A lot of what we do in creative movement class comes from them. I’ll structure the activity, but then I like them to come up with their own ideas.”
For example, in an exercise that Hanley calls “The Magic Elevator,” each floor is imagined as a different place. Children pretend to climb inside the elevator, push a button, and then explore the ever-changing environment. “They give me the idea—maybe it is the ocean, or the desert, or the zoo—and I facilitate the exploration. ‘What do we see here? What do we feel here? What can we do here?’” says Hanley. “Doing exercises like this connects them to their real life, which is something I really want them to take away from my classes. If they go to the zoo and see a dolphin, then I want them to be able to say, ‘I know how to move like a dolphin.’ ”
According to Hanley, the benefits of creative movement classes can extend to schoolwork, dance technique classes, or any activity that children pursue later in life. She prefers teaching creative movement classes instead of strict technique classes partially because of the very young age of her students, but also because she believes that technique, or at least terminology, can be embedded within a creative movement class.
For example, her creative ballet class is “a ballet class to [the children], because they are wearing pink tutus,” she says. “But I approach it as a creative movement class with ballet terminology sprinkled throughout. I also introduce them to dance elements such as fast and slow and level changes. Meanwhile, they are developing a whole other side of their brain through the creative movement aspects.”
Music teaches its own lessons
Live music adds another dimension to Hanley’s classes. She works with a pianist at the Mark Morris Dance Center, where she has offered creative movement and tap classes for the past four years. At the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, Hanley collaborates with a saxophone player for a creative movement class titled “Step Lively.”
“Layering live music onto children’s movement teaches them so much about their bodies. I love showing the kids the instruments and how they make the sound. Then they understand that our bodies are also instruments of movement and dance and that we can use them the same way,” Hanley says.
In classes where she doesn’t have the luxury of live music, Hanley provides her own accompaniment with a mini-drum or an egg shaker. “It’s important for children to understand the rhythm of their body and of the steps. With the drum, they can hear the open and close of a chassé, for example,” she explains. “The drum is also useful for classroom management. If they are getting overly excited, then I’ll tap the drum to get their attention.”
“Finding time slots for classes is my biggest challenge. I only have so many 4:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. time slots every week.” —Maria Hanley
The mini-drum and other props, such as star spots for designating where the children should sit, cones for setting up obstacle courses, and roses for holding in arabesque, become Hanley’s “teaching assistants,” since she otherwise works alone with an average class size of 10 to 12 students. “I don’t use a co-teacher or a teaching assistant. It’s just a preference of mine in the classroom. I find that if there is another person in the room, then the kids can become easily distracted. They don’t know who to listen to or who the authority is,” Hanley says. Then, laughing, she adds, “But I sometimes feel that I need an assistant for my life!”
The business end
In addition to providing sole instruction for all of the Maria’s Movers classes, Hanley manages all aspects of her business by herself. “Working for yourself can be hard. Dealing with cash flow is probably the biggest disadvantage. If the kids are off from school, then I don’t get paid. I’ve had to learn how to manage my cash flow so that I have enough money for the two weeks around Christmas and the three summer months when my workload is light,” Hanley says.
In addition to handling cash flow, Hanley has to separate her personal expenses from her business expenses and pay quarterly estimated taxes. She also has to reconcile the numerous hours that she spends on the subway, for which she does not get paid. “I try to do a lot of planning on the subway. I like to write down what happened after each class,” she says. “I teach so many classes in so many places that from Monday of one week to Monday of the next week, I won’t remember what happened. So it is helpful to keep a record of everything.”
Given her lengthy subway commute, Hanley leaves the house most days at 8:00 a.m. and returns at 7:00 p.m. On a typical day, she will teach three classes in the morning, take a long lunch break, and then teach three classes in the late afternoon.
When she is home, Hanley spends a good deal of her time scheduling and responding to emails. “I keep a huge calendar on the wall in my apartment so that I know where I’m going every day,” she says. “Still, finding time slots for classes is my biggest challenge. I only have so many 4:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. time slots every week. The problem becomes fitting in all of the interested kids. Then I run into moms who become disappointed because I can’t fit their child into a class.”
To compound the issue, the public and private schools where Hanley teaches often don’t follow the same calendar. Therefore, Hanley’s vacation days from one venue rarely coincide with the days she has off from another venue. Hanley works as an independent contractor for classes that she teaches in school settings. The institutions handle enrollment and billing, yet she is free to design her own curriculum. For classes that she offers independently, Hanley handles sign-ups and payments on her own.
Finding an appropriate location for dance class is another hurdle that Hanley faces as an independent dance educator. “Many spaces are already filled with people who rent year after year after year. I just can’t get in,” she says. “Another issue is that the space has to be in a good location for moms. They have to be able to walk to it and it has to be stroller friendly, otherwise they won’t sign up.”
In the classes Hanley offers at the residential buildings in Trump Place, however, she found an ideal solution. Many of the students live in the building, so they simply ride the elevator downstairs to a communal playroom that is attached to the fitness center (a setup typical of many large apartment complexes). The gym manager reserves the space for Hanley’s weekly class.
Getting the word out
Happy students make happy moms, who are good for Hanley’s business. She says, “Moms are my best advertisement. If they really like a class, then they’ll tell their friends. Word of mouth is how I get to be known.”
Hanley dreams of opening her own school for early childhood dance so that she could accommodate all interested families. “I’d have to hire staff if I want my own building someday. I worry about getting caught up in the management aspect, however, and not having a lot of time to teach. I really need and want to teach.”
In lieu of a physical structure with a support staff, Hanley has created a virtual community through her blog, “Move. Create. Educate.” “I started the blog in July of 2009 because I felt alone and I wanted a network. I needed a place to write down all of my challenges, ideas, and frustrations. I think about dance and teaching dance all the time. That is not a bad thing, of course, but I wanted to share my thoughts with other teachers and to help them if they were looking for ideas,” she explains. “I’ve found that writing the blog is really fun and addicting! It’s a unique diary of an independent dance teacher, and I hope it’s useful for other dance teachers.”
Through her blog, Hanley has met and exchanged ideas with a number of other freelancers. In addition to her strong online presence, she belongs to several professional groups, including the National Dance Education Organization and the Dance/NYC Youth Advisory Board.
As a result of networking and word-of-mouth recommendations, Maria’s Movers has grown tremendously in only two and a half years. Hanley now offers 29 classes a week and is able to support herself solely through teaching dance. “Last year I was still scrambling for space, more classes, and more students. This year I had to give up some classes as other opportunities arose. So I know that things are moving in a positive direction,” she says.
Positive feedback from parents is a helpful indicator as well. “Moms will come to me and say, ‘What are the words to the point-and-flex song? My daughter was singing it as she fell asleep.’ That makes my day. It shows that [the children] are having fun and learning something too,” says Hanley.
“I really do love this job. I’ve never been happier.”