6 who innovate, influence, inform, and inspire
A 10th anniversary deserves a nod. We’ve given ourselves one in several ways: by devoting this issue, in part, to marking Dance Studio Life’s launch date with a retrospective by publisher Rhee Gold and by giving the magazine a fresh look with a major redesign. But we’ve done something else that we hope will have even more lasting effect: we’ve established a new annual tradition: the Dance Studio Life “Generous Heart” Awards.
Over the years, the magazine has made a mission of shining a spotlight on people and organizations that do important, innovative work in dance education and provide much-needed services to the dance community. So how to choose the first candidates? How would we narrow down the potential choices from the vast array of those who deserve recognition? We scanned 10 years’ worth of magazines and made a long list of candidates; then we asked ourselves what they had in common.
The answer? They are risk takers and generous hearts. They are community-minded and relentless in their pursuit of what they believe in. They are sources of inspiration to the dance world, and to the staff here at Dance Studio Life. In the next 12 pages, you’ll see how and why they deserve to be honored. You’ll see that they take action that exemplifies how dance, when used to its full potential, exerts a vital and transformative force on students, families, the dance community as a whole, and the world.
We are delighted to honor this year’s recipients of the annual Dance Studio Life “Generous Heart” Awards, and we thank them for the good work they do.
Gina Gibney, founder of New York City–based Gibney Dance, assumes many roles while heading up the organization’s three distinct but interconnected branches: the Center, the Company, and Community Action. Some roles require deft administrative skills, others fearlessness in implementing large-scale programs, still others a longstanding and profound commitment to bringing dance to what Gibney calls “corners of the city where people are often overlooked and isolated.”
Gibney Dance’s Community Action program brings 500 free workshops every year to domestic violence shelters throughout the city. As the program’s founder and one of its facilitators, Gibney often encounters skepticism and resistance from women who find themselves in an unfamiliar, alienating environment. “When we say we’re coming to do a movement workshop,” she says, “the reaction can be, ‘You must be kidding. I have all this going on in my life and you want me to dance?’ ”
Gibney and her company dancers are trained to work through those barriers. “Always, at the end, is this overwhelming sigh of relief,” Gibney says. “You hear, ‘When are you coming back? I feel like I’m whole again. I feel like I can breathe.’ It’s because they’ve taken that time and they’ve focused inward; they’ve remembered things about themselves that they like, or people who have inspired them.”
Functioning alongside Community Action and serving the same end—“to create contemporary choreography that expresses the humanity of the moving body, and to reach communities in need”—are Gibney Dance Company and Gibney Dance Center, housed at 890 Broadway.
From one studio Gibney rented for her company in 1991, the center has expanded to eight studios and 15,000 square feet. (See “Doing Well by Doing Good,” August 2012.) The facility provides teaching and rehearsal spaces, plus numerous programs for choreographers, teachers, and other dance artists.
Dance in Process (DiP), gives mid-career choreographers 24/7 access to a studio space for three weeks. They’re also allotted a production office, accessible only to them. “They can put up a projector, hang up costumes in a corner,” Gibney says. “You see how at home they feel, how productive they seem, how easy it is. That’s never the way it is, but that’s the way it should be.”
Gibney’s hopes and ambitions for the dance community don’t stop there. Having been named the successor tenant, in January, to the lower Manhattan space vacated by storied but struggling Dance New Amsterdam, Gibney has big ideas. “We’re building on what was there,” Gibney says, “but also creating a focused, eclectic, and diverse training program” in partnership with organizations like Movement Research and the Martha Graham Dance Company. “These partners will give our programming variety, but we are going to impose a clear conceptual framework on all the programming, so that it feels cohesive, organized, and systematic. It’s a framework meant to provide balance and create context, both for students and for teachers.”
None of this would have happened if Gibney weren’t first and foremost an artist. “It’s the process of creating work and working with my company that feeds everything else,” she says. The three intertwined branches of the Gibney Dance tree are indeed fed by the singularity of Gibney’s commitment to creating and supporting art and artists, both through the center’s educational and choreographer-support programs, and through Community Action.
“Part of what gives [Community Action] its power,” Gibney says, “is that it’s a real living, breathing artist—one who is working in a company, rehearsing, performing, taking class, growing—[who is] bringing work to another setting. There’s a vitality, a forward motion to that. The artists walk into that shelter and they are a breath of fresh air; they are hope, they are insight. They are a different way of living. I don’t think the dancers could do that if they weren’t doing it elsewhere. It’s really about being an artist.”
Being honored with the Dance Studio Life “Generous Heart” Award, Gibney says, is “extremely meaningful to me. So much of the work that’s done in the dance world, certainly in the part that intersects with social justice, is a little unsung. It’s wonderful to be recognized.”
What drives the woman who has done so much to improve the lives of both dance artists and those in need? “I seem to have this need to create,” Gibney says, “whether it’s in the studio or in creating opportunities.”
And how does she do it? “Sometimes you feel like you’re sailing into the wind and not moving, but you persist in the belief that someday the wind will be at your back. I’ve learned that persistence is how you achieve your dream.” And, Gibney adds, “If you love what you do, you can’t lose.”
Mark Wong, Aaron Troisi, Steve Lunger
Hip Hop Fundamentals
See a need; take action. That’s what people with generous hearts do, and that’s what Steve “Believe” Lunger, Mark “Metal” Wong, and Aaron “Professor Peabody” Troisi did. And that’s why their names popped up immediately as shoo-ins for the Dance Studio Life “Generous Heart” Awards.
In 2013, appalled by the financially floundering Philadelphia public school system’s cuts in arts education, these men, the brains and dancing bodies behind Hip Hop Fundamentals, made a proposal: they would present assemblies that use hip-hop to help teach kids standards-based curriculum, expand their understanding of physics, and raise their awareness of civil rights and social justice. (See “Fundamentally Hip-Hop,” December 2013.)
To get started, in October 2013 the trio ran a successful Kickstarter campaign that allowed them to offer schools an irresistible proposal: in-school assemblies at no cost to them. Attention in the form of an invitation to a TEDx conference in Bermuda helped—the positive feedback and press, says Wong, made it “easier to convince schools this is a worthwhile thing.”
Today HHF presents hundreds of assemblies along the Eastern seaboard, runs afterschool workshops in the Philadelphia area, and partners with local nonprofits. Their shows include “Principles of Hip Hop,” “Breaking the Law of Physics,” and “Civil Rights Movements: The Power of Youth Engagement Through the Eyes of Dr. King.” Race is an unacknowledged constant in classrooms, Troisi believes; consequently, this workshop teaches kids facts about the Civil Rights Movement but also reveals how arbitrary and irrational prejudice can be.
Wong and Lunger met as members of a hip-hop crew at Haverford College; their first arts-education job was teaching dance in an afterschool youth program. Troisi, a K–8 teacher with an MA in education, says he “was sold immediately on the idea that young people connect with what Mark and Steve do in an incredibly transformative way.” For these students, hip-hop “is a culture they can identify with and continue to help create—it is an incredibly powerful way to engage them in academic learning,” Troisi says. “That really is what’s happening.” State-required core skills—what Troisi refers to as “generalizable skills, transferable skills”—are taught in the HHF assemblies but also, he says, in Wong and Lunger’s dance classes. “With dance, there’s an attention to detail and an ability to process and apply what you have learned in new ways and to new problems.”
The three men don’t do it alone. HHF employs roughly 10 young male breakdancers, training them in “public speaking, basic performance, educational theory,” Wong says. “That’s an ongoing mission of ours. It’s amazing to see the impact they have on young people.”
The goal is to make independent teachers of these young men, leaving them to carry the current workshop and assembly load and freeing Lunger, Wong, and Troisi to expand HHF nationwide. “We’re working toward creating new programs,” Lunger says, “and it really depends on everyone in the company, which I think is quite beautiful. These young guys come up with some brilliant ideas”—anti-bullying, conflict resolution, a field-day dance/theater program—“which they wouldn’t have the space to do if they didn’t have a platform.”
Mark “Metal” Wong, Aaron “Professor Peabody” Troisi, and Steve “Believe” Lunger (right to left in above photo; repped Hip Hop Fundamentals philosophy and practices at a TEDx conference in Bermuda.
What that means is that HHF isn’t only seeking ways to benefit schoolchildren; it’s “empowering the people in our company to learn new skills,” Lunger says, “and how their voices can be used to affect society at large.”
Not to be ignored is the fact that Lunger, Wong, and Troisi are learning too—about their goals for their students, what’s important to them, and what is possible in a society that de-emphasizes the arts in education.
Lunger says HHF has revealed “how I feel about race, about sexuality, about the criminal justice system in America.” Most important, he says, is “to be honest. You will be a happier person if you’re truthful with yourself and with others. It will open doors of understanding.”
As a teacher, Troisi discovered that working with HHF has “helped me connect with my students,” he says. “It empowers me as an educator to make the content I’m teaching relevant to them as individuals. I think that’s where a lot of the power of what we do as a company comes from—we are connecting with learners in a very personal, meaningful way.”
For Wong, what’s most important is recognizing self-potential. “If the students are going to learn anything, I want them to learn, ‘You can do this,’ whether it’s physics, whatever. We’ve learned that we can do this. As a company, as a community—we can accomplish these things. We might not be changing the entire educational spectrum of Philadelphia, but every single person can start pushing toward more effective education.”
In “Fundamentally Hip-Hop,” Troisi said HHF “isn’t going to revolutionize education in the field.” Here at Dance Studio Life, we think he might be wrong.
—Cheryl A. Ossola
New York City Dance Alliance Foundation
If someone gave you $8.5 million, what would you do with it? Joe Lanteri couldn’t wait to give it away.
“You talk about people trying to find a trophy. Well, here you go—here’s a $120,000 full ride to Point Park University,” says Lanteri, the founder of New York City Dance Alliance competition and convention. “Now, that’s a trophy. That’s truly an award.”
For 20 years, NYCDA has crisscrossed the country, bringing a taste of the NYC dance world to thousands of hardworking dancers. Many of them became Lanteri’s friends, sharing their stories and dreams with him. And for some, he discovered, pursuing dance in college was just that—a dream.
So in 2010 Lanteri quietly established the NYCDA Foundation. (See “Investing in Dancers,” May/June 2011.) “The scholarship program was a natural evolution for me, and it was personal. When I filed the paperwork, I didn’t tell anyone—not my staff, not my managing director,” he says. “It had been in my mind for several years, and I wasn’t going to drag my feet anymore.”
With the nonprofit’s approval in hand, Lanteri turned his attention to his toughest customers—the colleges. As a member of the Juilliard dance faculty, Lanteri knew it wouldn’t be easy to convince dance departments to climb on board a “dance competition” bandwagon; even Lawrence Rhodes, the department director at Juilliard, had once asked him, “Joe, what is it you do on weekends?”
But Lanteri persisted. He created audition events and invited department heads and ballet masters—with no obligation!—to check out the NYCDA dancers in class. He convinced them to attend the foundation’s annual fundraising gala to see the dancers onstage. Intrigued college teachers began to look anew at their own student bodies, and suddenly the number of NYCDA title-winner jackets worn by those students made sense.
Top colleges and universities climbed aboard, scholarships in hand—University of the Arts, Marymount Manhattan, Mercyhurst, Dean, Chapman, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Pace, and Point Park.
But what about the NYCDA dancers who wanted to pursue dance at other schools? Lanteri began funneling fees generated by his company—such as the convention “observation fee” charged to parents—into a scholarship fund. He started fundraising raffles and contests that member studios could participate in. And he printed “You Are Inspiring” on hundreds of red plastic bracelets and sold them for $2 each, encouraging his dancers to make new friends by sharing them with strangers. These grassroots efforts allowed the Foundation to write “no school attached” scholarship checks.
In only four years, NYCDA has awarded $8.5 million to more than 150 dancers. “That’s the most humbling statement I will ever make,” Lanteri says.
And, he stresses, the scholarships aren’t automatically given to top scorers. “Those are not always for the title winners, not always the stars of the convention,” he says. “The colleges are recruiting kids because they recognize their potential. They are excited about molding their futures. That’s the part that excites me the most.”
Lanteri’s passion for helping dancers he has come to know, whom he has watched grow up and stays in touch with long after they leave high school, is something he shares with many of the teachers who bring students to NYCDA. “For any teacher, you do it with the goal that you are going to make a difference—you can touch the life of one child. You get back incredible satisfaction from that,” he says. “I’m in the position where I can change the lives of hundreds of dancers.
“There is not a day I doubt, for one second, that I am doing what I am supposed to do. I never question why I get on a plane or give up another weekend. I will continue to do what I love to do, and it doesn’t wear me down. My entire team works for that—that feeling of satisfaction that uplifts us.”
The Dance Studio Life “Generous Heart” Award recognizes Lanteri for his teaching soul, and for his ability to elevate the image of an often-misunderstood element of the dance studio industry. “The dance convention and competition world is in its own insulated bubble,” he says. “When I speak to people, I try to make them realize you can’t generalize dance competitions. I quickly, and as politely as possible, correct them that I don’t run a ‘dance competition.’ I say, ‘Let me explain what it is I do.’ ”
Patricia Reedy and Nancy Ng
Luna Dance Institute
For 22 years, Patricia Reedy and Nancy Ng of Luna Dance Institute have pursued the goal of broadening access to dance to all children. Through multiple programs, Luna serves 20,000 children and 300 dance artists, teachers, and social service providers yearly.
Ng and Reedy have invested years in developing Luna’s Professional Learning Component, whose courses, workshops, and coaching provide high-level teacher training to dance educators from studio instructors to college professors to social workers. For Ng, coaching and mentoring teaching artists is one of the most rewarding aspects of the work Luna does. This feels, Ng says, “like it has the most magnitude for changing the way dance and dance education are viewed in our society.”
Ng and Reedy believe that providing a viable living for dance artists is an important step in ensuring that dance and dance teaching gain respect over the long haul. Each of Luna’s salaried, year-round staff members is a working dance artist, teaches in one or more of Luna’s programs, and plays an administrative role in the organization. “I’m not going to retire,” says Reedy, “until the day I see that a dance teacher can make a living without having a spouse with a quote ‘real job.’ ”
Luna’s work in three Oakland, California, public schools—all of which serve the lowest-income families in the city—is also designed for the long haul. The goal, says Reedy, is to have dance “become embedded in the school’s culture.” A full year in a school allows Luna to build the program; the hope is that the school will then hire a dance teacher whom Luna coaches for a year. And it’s working: at New Highland Academy, “every K–5 student gets standards-based dance. Students perform for their fifth-grade graduation, the kids create original works, and there’s a parent/family dance component,” Reedy says.
Luna’s Moving Parents and Children Together (MPACT) program brings family dance classes to rehab facilities, homeless shelters, and other locations to help repair and strengthen bonds between parents and children who have been separated because of substance abuse, domestic violence, or other issues. (See “MPACT on Families,” August 2013.)
“MPACT is near and dear to me,” says Ng, who helped launch the program 14 years ago. “During the last class of every session, we reflect to those families the growth we’ve seen. To see the expression on those mother’s faces, when we tell them the progress we’ve seen in their relationship with their child—it’s priceless.”
In Luna’s Embodied Parent Education, an offshoot of MPACT, Ng and Reedy used Bartenieff movement principles to help participants in a court-mandated parent education program understand child development. One mother told Reedy that her initial goal involved getting her child to walk. After the second week, the mother said, “No, I want her to crawl first. No, no, she needs to slither.” And then the mother said, “You guys had us do these upper-body lifts, and I realized how hard my little baby’s working, and how important it is. And now I just want her to be right where she is.”
“That quote, for me, was significant,” Reedy says. “All of us, we’re always pushing these kids. For me, the universality of that learning was so powerful—because yes, there’s a social justice component to what we do, but at the end of the day, we’re all human beings, trying to figure this out.”
Luna’s Studio Lab—an afterschool program for kids 4 to 17—embodies the philosophy that expression and creativity are fundamental human needs, and that these should be nurtured in a developmentally sound way. The composition-based curriculum allows children to discover, invent, and express themselves at their own pace.
Luna’s founders understand the long-term and interconnected nature of child development, of developing a professional learning program, of creating a life as a dance artist, of nurturing programs in the schools and the community. Asked what receiving the DSL “Generous Heart” Award means to them, Reedy says, “I feel honored to be one of the first recipients of an award that’s all about heart.”
And, she says, she’s moved to receive the award from a magazine that focuses on private studios. Reedy recalls a National Dance Education Organization event speaker who discussed the “sustained impact” of the private dance studio. “We’re the only group here that often sees families all the way from a very young age through high school,” the speaker said.
“That stuck with me,” Reedy says. “I feel a responsibility, a stewardship. We’re transporting those children through many arcs of their lives.”
Susan McCutcheon Coutts
As one of this year’s DSL Generous Hearts, Susan McCutcheon Coutts will get a commemorative plaque. What she needs, though, is a bumper sticker that says “Let Me Tell You About My (Dance) Kids.”
Call her for an interview about herself and her studio, Dance Innovations, in Chatham, New Jersey, and you’ll hear about the benefit show some of her 1,000-plus students will be presenting, and the 30 orphans coming as guests. Ask for her thoughts as an award winner, and she’ll tell you about underprivileged kids, kids with autism, and young survivors of abuse who can take dance, poetry, or art classes because of her school’s scholarship foundation.
Ask about the 10 percent of her students who have special needs—all of whom are mainstreamed into regular classes, with a few on performance teams—and she’ll rave about hugs from her three “special friends” with Down syndrome enrolled in her “favorite” class.
Trying to get a word in edgewise, you say, “What keeps you going with this nonstop schedule of shows, of raising money and giving it away, of collecting Christmas presents for families at the YMCA, of handling 85 students in performance companies, of serving on the Dance New Jersey board, plus running a studio for 27 years?”
“I love what we do,” says Coutts, gracefully deflecting full credit.
Coutts double majored in dance and dance movement therapy at the University of Maryland. (See “Smooth Sailing in the Mainstream,” August 2011.) When she opened her studio in 1986, special-needs students were present from day one. Today, no one thinks twice when they see these kids in class, recitals, or performances.
“Other studio owners say, ‘I want to start a special-needs class,’ and I say, ‘Why?’ ” Coutts says. “Just mainstream them. The students who don’t have a special situation can benefit as much as the kids who do.”
The Dance Innovations Performance Foundation has distributed almost $77,000 in scholarships, donations, or free performance tickets since 2000. Benefit shows raise money for child-centric organizations such as the Healing Heart Foundation (services for children with cancer and chronic pain), Children’s Specialized Hospital, or the Imus Ranch (a working cattle ranch for children with cancer).
Every year, more children benefit. Five individual arts-based scholarships (totaling $1,732) were awarded in 2005. In 2013, almost $7,000 was distributed to 14 individuals at a public gala. Five children from abusive households chosen through the local YMCA also received scholarships anonymously.
A foundation sponsorship program allows residents of two orphanages and other children with special circumstances to attend studio shows free of charge. And three special-needs dancers have received half-tuition scholarships for 13 years.
Coutts’ studio year, particularly from December to June, is hectic. Many of the performances are philanthropically based, like the seven or eight large shows that benefit specific organizations—this May’s show for the Valerie Fund (which supports children with cancer and blood disorders), for example—and the 10 to 15 smaller shows at retirement homes, veteran hospitals, or facilities for disabled children and adults such as the Matheny Medical and Educational Center.
Even when her performance team goes to Florida to perform at Disney, Universal, and Sea World, they squeeze in a visit to Give Kids the World Village, a nonprofit “storybook” resort for children with life-threatening illnesses, and their families.
This belief in dance as a force for good comes from Coutts, but is universally shared at her studio. “The philosophy of our teachers and our foundation is to give the gift of dance or the arts to anyone who is interested,” she says. “It’s really important, and it doesn’t matter who the population is.”
All that outreach is in addition to five June recitals, one or two competitions, a Nutcracker, and top-notch performing opportunities for her advanced dancers, such as January’s World Voices in Motion concert at Carnegie Hall, where her dancers shared the stage with another dance studio, an adult vocal ensemble, and a university choir in a finale choreographed by Coutts. “It was such an amazing experience,” she says.
For Coutts, dance is about sharing, healing, helping others. She talks about dancers who help special-needs students in class, about former students who work for charities or as physical therapists, or the many college essays written about the joy of being onstage and seeing a sick child in the audience smile.
“It’s contagious, the belief that you can make a difference,” she says. “Seeing my students with a direction and feeling good about themselves—that’s what makes me happy.”
Figures in Flight
“Every moment there are opportunities to heal the world in some way,” Susan Slotnick says. (See “Dancing Inside,” November 2013). As a teacher and choreographer, informed by the Jewish principle of tikkun olam—to repair the world—Slotnick is motivated by the belief that dance is life-altering and transformative. For 18 years, she has volunteered to teach modern dance (primarily Horton technique) in prisons.
“Get a group of people who are unhappy, feel trapped, and don’t feel free, and have them lift their arms to beautiful music,” Slotnick says, “and you’ve made a difference—a difference in that moment.”
Slotnick started working with this population 15 years ago, teaching dance to adolescent boys in the Highland [NY] Residential Center. Later, under the auspices of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, she began teaching at Woodbourne, a medium-security correctional facility in upstate New York; there, every Sunday for the last eight years, she has taught classes for 10 to 20 men.
She also works with some of the four Figures in Flight (FIF) companies for young dancers in New Paltz, New York. She directs 11-year-old FIF4, a group of dancers she’s trained since most were 5 years old; and 10-year-old FIF5, a group of incarcerated dancers currently serving long-term sentences. She also serves as a creative consultant for Figures in Flight Released, directed by former inmate and FIF5 member Andre Noel. Founded by Noel four years ago, the company comprises six former inmates.
Slotnick says it took decades for her “to realize that you don’t save anybody, that you don’t provide rehabilitation or reconciliation or redemption to anybody. When you go in to help a population of people who are incarcerated, ill, or wounded in any way, you need to understand that they are the ones with the power to use what you’ve given them for their own benefit.” She adds, “When you deal with a population of people in need, they will very willingly put you in the position of the person who gave them something. They are full of gratitude and thank-yous, and it’s a little bit of a minefield if you listen to that over and over again—you think you’re the one doing it.” She’s learned how important it is, she says, to be humble and “to constantly give the successes to the people who’ve earned them.”
Being recognized for her work has had an effect on the dancers she works with, Slotnick says. When the men at Woodbourne read “Dancing Inside,” she says, “it reinforced their inspiration to do something positive.” As David Montalvo, a member of Figures in Flight Released, says in The Game Changer, a documentary by Indrani Kopal about Slotnick and her work, “being involved in [FIF5 and FIF Released] for so long, it’s [become] a statement from the soul. We are allowing you to see us for who we really are.”
And the work continues. At the end of the next school year, Slotnick will retire her “outside” dance company, FIF4, since the majority of the dancers will graduate from high school. Although this thought causes her some trepidation, she looks forward to experiencing the personal growth that comes with change. In the meantime, along with writing a memoir about her prison work, Slotnick is reviving Welcome to the World, a 20-minute dance for FIF4 and FIF Released. Created in 2001 in response to the war in Afghanistan, the choreography, in which students and former inmates work together, is in Slotnick’s opinion “the best . . . I’ve done,” she says. “It’s about the constantly changing world, about people waking up to the reality of what life is about: to loving each other, to helping each other, supporting each other.”
Receiving the Dance Studio Life “Generous Heart” Award is an unexpected gift, says Slotnick, who has spent her life doing work she believes is important without concern for recognition. After years of witnessing the personal tragedies experienced by all of her dancers, she says she believes that “a generous heart is a broken heart; when it breaks, the contents spill out. The contents of a heart are generous and loving.”