In Macarena Gandarillas’ jazz class at California State University, Fullerton, a sign in the studio reads, “Never underestimate the power of determination.” This simple mantra embodies what has made this self-described “danceaholic” such an impactful teacher.
When Gandarillas came to Los Angeles at age 6 with her family from Santiago, Chile, the language barrier was beyond overwhelming—until her mom enrolled her in ballet classes. Gandarillas found an instant love. “There were no Spanish-speaking kids at my school,” she says. “But with dance I could communicate with my body. I’d finally found my voice.”
At 10, Gandarillas received a full scholarship to former Balanchine dancer Eugene Loring’s American School of Dance in Hollywood, and that led to performing opportunities with local youth ballet and modern companies. At 17, she accepted a full four-year scholarship to United States International University’s School of Performing Arts BFA program in San Diego, where her training blossomed to include jazz and Graham technique.
Gandarillas’ professional career began while she was still in college. For the next 25 years, she performed on the silver screen, national Broadway tours and Las Vegas stages. She’s made more than 200 television appearances, including dancing at The Academy Awards, two seasons of the ’80s show “Solid Gold” and as a series regular on “The Love Boat.” She’s danced alongside dozens of major artists, including Chita Rivera, Debbie Allen, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton and Lionel Richie, and has choreographed for The Chilean National Ballet and founded Visions Dance Theatre.
It wasn’t until 1997 that she shifted to teaching full-time and found a home on faculty at CSFU. “I always wanted to teach at a university that had a strong dance department, because I wanted to produce working entertainers,” she says. Over the years, her students have danced with The Limón Dance Company and been featured in countless Broadway shows, including Hamilton, Mean Girls and Wicked. Four of her students have been Broadway dance captains, she notes—a huge compliment for a teacher.
Her class combines strong technique with musical theater, contemporary and lyrical jazz. She teaches a consistent, rigorous 45-minute warm-up, with varying degrees of difficulty.
When Mara Davi was cast as Cassie in the school’s production of A Chorus Line, she recalls Gandarillas having her perform the warm-up push-up series, while singing “The Music and the Mirror.” “It was awkward to be singled out in front of my peers,” says Davi, “When I accomplished it, though, I was so proud. It’s an exercise I still do to build stamina.”
Cultivating resilient dancers—inside and out—has always been a part of Gandarillas’ curriculum. “I adore my students,” she says, “as long as they’re working hard and to their capacity. If you’re going to slack in my class, it’s not going to work out.”
“Macarena was the perfect balance of challenging and encouraging,” says Davi, who went on to play Maggie in the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. “Her warm-up was everything. She drilled technique into our heads, but also had this amazing Latin pizzazz.”
In addition to the physical expectations, Gandarillas focuses on audition etiquette and how to handle rejection, vital skills gleaned from her professional experience. “Students must learn that there are so many audition variables out of their control,” she says. “Determination, self-love and knowing your worth are what keep you going in this business,” she says. “It’s hard work, but that’s what it’s all about.”
Mark Your Calendar
Join us in Long Beach, CA, July 26–28, or in NYC, August 1–3, for our 2019 Dance Teacher Summit.