Joan “Ms. Puffy” Lather
Convention teacher and former studio owner, Joan Alund School of Dance, Albany, New York
NOMINATED BY: Patricia Leigh Dwyer, former student: “At 82, Ms. Puffy continues to make her mark on the dance world by touching young dancers’ lives. Her creativity is endless, her energy is electric, and she has a warm, loving way of drawing you into her world of music, wonder, and movement. I am proud, not only to have studied under her tutelage, but to have carried on her legacy—as thousands of teachers across the country continue to do.”
YEARS TEACHING: 68
AGES TAUGHT: 3 and older, specializing in preschoolers
GENRES TAUGHT: Ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop
EARLY CAREER DAYS: I was one of 22, the baby of the family. We had no money for dance, so with what I earned babysitting I would take class at 9am on Saturdays, then stay all day and watch other classes. The teacher, Tommy Sternfeld, would ask me to demonstrate. At 14 I lied about my age and started teaching private lessons.
ORIGIN OF HER NICKNAME: At that time, nobody would work with 3- and 4-year-olds—it was taboo. When I opened my school, I had more little ones than older kids. I didn’t want them hanging on the barre like monkeys, so we started out class sitting with the bottoms of our feet together, with a story about Ms. Puffy. I told them they had to lift up their bodies, puff them up, sit up big and strong. That’s how Ms. Puffy was born.
TEACHING AT CONVENTIONS: I brought my students to Danny Hoctor’s Dance Caravan, and they were so good that he knew I had a good school, so he asked me to teach. I also taught for Tremaine, Dance Educators, Dance Masters, and Chicago National. I was with Dance Makers for 30 years. I suggested we teach 3- to 5-year-olds, and I’d have 80 or 100 in class. I still teach for North East Workshop for Dancers in New Hampshire.
KEY TO TEACHING PRESCHOOLERS: Being creative. Knowing them. Discipline. When I want them to be quiet, I use the magic key. I say, “Let’s zip it, lock it, and put it in your pocket.” I learned that from a 4-year-old at an airport in Dallas, who said it to a toddler. You have to pay attention to them. And I don’t know what they are feeding them today, but kids are so much smarter than when I started. You have to stay ahead of them.
ADVICE FOR YOUNG TEACHERS: Study. Every day I could, I got on the train and went into New York to study. When I had my studio, I brought in all the teachers I loved—Luigi, Roni Mahler, Al Gilbert, Jules and Art Stone. Nowadays that’s popular, but at the time nobody did it. I always said to my students, “I don’t want you to be as good as me. I want you to be better.” And you only get that by studying from the best.
WILL SHE EVER RETIRE: Teaching is my life. If I can walk four miles a day—I do two in the morning and two in the afternoon—I can teach. Dance is a big secret of health, as is working with kids. You can be down, and you go to work and they make you feel good. Working with kids is a joy—a gift from God.
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