True Meaning of Christmas

The gift of kindness, from one teacher to another

By Rachel Straus

Teresa Lynn Desrosiers grew up giving back. Her father, a janitor in their hometown of Salem, NH, taught her that a good life involved finding something special to do, doing it well, and sharing it generously with others. When Desrosiers found dance, she put her father’s philosophy into practice.

Tina Fosman surrounded by the Salem Dance Network students, who chose to gie up their Christmas party and donate the money to her. (Photo courtesy Salem Dance Network)

At age 11 she offered classes to neighborhood children in her parents’ basement, asking only for small donations as payment. When she opened her first studio, Salem Dance Network, at age 24, Desrosiers remembered her father’s counsel regarding new clientele: “Maybe these kids don’t have a lot,” he said. “Try to make it affordable so they can dance.” Fourteen years later, Desrosiers’ studio offers classes at one of the lowest rates in the area. To make ends meet, she teaches at other studios and lives in a mobile home. In place of annual recitals, her students perform at nursing homes and at the local hospital. Most recently the 5′ 2″ teacher’s ability to develop and foster community through dance hugely impacted one person—fellow dance teacher Tina Fosman.

When Desrosiers reached out to her, Fosman was experiencing some of the worst days of her life. In October 2006, her husband of 13 1/2 years died in a car accident. At his wake, Kennie Fosman had approximately 1,500 mourners. Tina Fosman’s mother and father came to her aid by offering financial support. But money was still tight and the 38-year-old mom of two gave up her home, moving into her parents’ basement. Soon after, Fosman took a two-month leave of absence from her seven-days-a-week teaching schedule to care for her sons, Dominic, 10, and Nicholas, 5, who were devastated by the loss of their stay-at-home dad. “Every time I go out,” says Fosman about her boys, “they don’t think I’m coming back.”

In late November Fosman received a call from Carlene Nazarian, her godmother and employer at Carlene Nazarian Dance Center. Nazarian asked Fosman to come to the studio. When the 99-pound widow entered the waiting room, she saw three huge boxes overflowing with Christmas gifts from “Santa.” The toys, restaurant vouchers, gift certificates, and food baskets were for her family. Nazarian told Fosman that Desrosiers, her dance students, their parents, and local businesses had pooled their resources to donate gifts, hoping to make Christmas morning happy for the grieving family. “I was overwhelmed,” says Fosman, especially when she learned that Desrosiers had led the effort. She had thought that Desrosiers didn’t like her because their pedagogical approaches differ (Fosman’s: no-nonsense, tough, and competition focused; Desrosiers’: nurturing, humor laden, and community focused).

Fosman was flabbergasted by Desrosiers’ unstinting generosity and support in her time of need. “This would have never occurred back in the day—it’s unheard of for another studio to reach out in this way,” she says. But for Desrosiers, that kind of reaching out wasn’t exceptional. It was how she had been brought up by her father, who taught her that when someone is in need they should be helped.

A visit to Desrosiers’ studio reveals how the 37-year-old’s bigheartedness affects her students. Sitting together on the studio floor, the ponytailed dancers, ranging in age from 7 to 17, described how, when they learned of Fosman’s tragedy, they decided to sacrifice their annual Christmas party and donate their dinner money to a teacher they hardly knew, plus ask local businesses for gifts on her behalf. To them, it seemed the natural thing to do. When they rose to continue rehearsing for an upcoming hospital show, their dancing—rocket-injected energy for the upbeat numbers and cool grace for the lyrical ones—also possessed a generosity that couldn’t be mistaken for preening or sycophancy. Most impressive was their ability to diplomatically critique each other, describing what they liked from each performer and how each could improve her performance.

Clearly these near-dozen students feel good about themselves. Their enthusiasm makes their dancing sizzle and their interactions with each other hilarious. They recounted a sleepover/scary-movie night at Desrosiers’ in which their teacher poured red food coloring over popcorn to resemble blood. The sight produced horror-stricken reactions and then a torrent of unstoppable giggles, which welled up all over again in their retelling. Student Kayla Heafey showed another side of Desrosiers’ personality when she wrote, “Teri has been a great inspiration. I don’t know what I would do without her.” Heafey, who rehearsed a solo created by Desrosiers, has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

Desrosiers’ dancers decided to sacrifice their annual Christmas party and donate their dinner money to a teacher they hardly knew, plus ask local businesses for gifts on her.

Desrosiers’ concern for and generosity toward Fosman didn’t end at Christmas. In April Desrosiers learned that Fosman had decided to give up teaching for a salaried desk job with health benefits, which would afford her more financial security and time with her children. Later that month, when Fosman called Desrosiers to talk about needing some time away from her parents’ home, where she and her boys were living, Desrosiers told her she could stay at her place for the seven weeks she would be away teaching at a summer camp. She also involved her senior dancers in her supportive efforts, raising funds to purchase school supplies for Fosman’s kids. Salem Dance Network ballet teacher Lisa Rizzone points out that the school’s students “know they can dance and [also] be something more than dancers.”

Though her studio seems picture perfect, Desrosiers says that creating a generous atmosphere has involved some unpleasantness. “I had some competitive kids and competitive parents in my studio,” she explains. “I had to ask them to leave. These kids were really great dancers. It tore me up, but I had to ask myself what kind of atmosphere I wanted here.”

Twenty years ago the Salem dance community didn’t have anyone resembling Desrosiers, says Fosman. She remembers an environment in which local studios treated each other as rivals, competing fiercely against one another at dance competitions. As a young standout dancer, Fosman was shunned by students from other local schools who “wouldn’t even say hi backstage” at competitions. But in the dance community Desrosiers has created, says SDN administrator Cathy Cryan, “it’s not all or nothing.”

As the next holiday season begins, Desrosiers and her dancers prepare for another community outreach performance. Meanwhile Fosman cares for her kids, works full-time in an office, and teaches one night a week at Desrosiers’ studio. “Teaching is her heart,” said Desrosiers, whose words equally reflect her own passion for teaching young people. “I always say to my students, ‘Try to do something nice for someone.’ ”

That something can be as fleeting as a smile, says Desrosiers. It can also be, says Fosman, “a kindness that will always stay.”