Find out why this year’s honorees—Jon Cristofori and Kathleen Sinclair, Cookie Joe, Mary Ann Laverty and Suzanne Salapa—wowed us.
Private Studios and Conservatories
Yuma Ballet Academy and Ballet Yuma
Jon Cristofori and Kathleen Sinclair met one summer at Jacob’s Pillow. Since then, the two have been inseparable, traveling around the country performing in various professional dance companies, and in Cristofori’s case, teaching at the university level. In 1982, they settled down in Yuma, Arizona after being appointed to direct Yuma Ballet Theatre.
After 11 years, Cristofori and Sinclair left and formed their own school, Yuma Ballet Academy, and company, Ballet Yuma. At the heart of the academy is ballet, in which Cristofori and Sinclair offer six levels, with an accompanying program of contemporary/modern. In addition, Sinclair has created a childhood dance syllabus for the first four years of training. Husband and wife divvy up responsibilities according to their strengths, with Cristofori handling choreography and advanced-level students and Sinclair presiding over the business side of the organization, working with younger students and rehearsing the company. Yet they share a common philosophy: quality training. “I stick to the fundamentals,” says Cristofori. “Where does turnout come from? Where does lift come from?”
The results are evident each year at the Regional Dance America festival, where this year the company took home the choreographic award, and many students auditioned for scholarships and summer programs. Ballet Yuma also performs an annual Nutcracker, which tours to California, a spring concert and at a local festival. Several graduates have gone on to professional careers with companies including the San Francisco Ballet, Miami City Ballet and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Although the academy’s emphasis is on preprofessional work, Cristofori and Sinclair have also developed an outreach program with local public schools. In the future, they hope to expand that program, along with their facilities, and add a recreational track for older dancers.
Cookie Joe’s Dancin’ School
While studying in Houston, Texas, with Patsy Swayze, Cookie Joe discovered that she wasn’t the best dancer in class. But she’s never let that slow her down—50 years later, she runs a successful studio in Houston, Cookie Joe’s Dancin’ School, and reaches out to those who, like her, might not be blessed with natural talent. “Everybody can teach students with perfect turnout,” she says. “I really connect well with the ones who aren’t gifted.” With that in mind, Joe has also been instructing special-needs students through a program called LIFE Skills, and has taught dance at the Star of Hope mission for the homeless for the past 10 years.
Joe emphasizes the importance of serving those less fortunate to her student body of approximately 400 dancers, who often assist her at the homeless shelter and participate in concerts with the special-needs group. “It’s amazing what this does for the [studio] children,” she says. “My kids are now so comfortable around our special-needs kids [that] when they see others, they are more connected.”
Joe is actively involved in the community in other ways as well. Her school boasts three successful dance companies that perform across the state, including the Jazz Company, the Asian American Dance Company and Ballet Grace—all of which raise funds for ministry and outreach programs. Joe hopes her students will continue her objectives long after she’s gone. “My mission is to train young people to do what I’ve done,” she says. “It’s not my vision to be the kind of school where performance is the only issue. I want my kids to understand how important their role is in the community.”
Valencia Community College
Suzanne Salapa, director of the dance program at Valencia Community College in Orlando, Florida, once had a student ask her, “Why do we point our toes in ballet class?” Although taken aback at the time, she uses the question as an example of why dance teachers should help students think beyond mimicking movement. “If we teach them how to learn, what to learn becomes inconsequential,” she says.
The driving force behind creating a dance major for the two-year program, Salapa instructs students in ballet, modern, composition and improvisation. Through Valencia, she offers high school and college students a free summer intensive, which has expanded from two to four weeks. Salapa also sits on the board of directors for the Dr. Phillips High School’s visual and performing arts magnet program and directs Valencia Dance Theatre, a studio company that tours and offers lecture demonstrations and outreach throughout the community.
Salapa began her training at the Annandale Dance Theatre in Annandale, Virginia, where her dance teacher noticed she might have a learning disability, later diagnosed as an auditory processing disorder. However, that didn’t stop Salapa, who went on to study Russian and Graham techniques at Shenandoah College and Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia. After getting her BS in dance (which was then in the anatomy and physiology department), Salapa took a year off from school to teach at Annandale, as well as at George Mason University. She then went on to earn an MFA at Florida State and a PhD at The University of Central Florida. But it was an injury that helped Salapa learn one of the most valuable lessons of all: Unable to model steps due to a broken foot, she had to find another way to reach her students. “Suddenly, I had to be a good communicator,” she says. “I learned how to teach.”
Woodside High School
Newport News, VA
Although she had only a few dance lessons growing up, as soon as Mary Ann Laverty took her first Dunham class at San Francisco State University, she was hooked. She changed her major from art to dance and immersed herself in the school’s strong Afro-Haitian influence, studying Congolese, black dance history and jazz. After graduation, Laverty obtained her teaching credential and instructed at Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco. She went on to earn an MA from Mills College in Oakland, where she studied Limón and Graham techniques, and finished her education at New York University with a PhD in anthropology and human movement.
After a six-year teaching stint at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, Laverty began instructing at Newport News’ Woodside High School, the magnet program at which she is now the director of dance. Laverty’s students study a wide variety of dance genres, including modern, jazz and ballet technique, as well as world dance forms such as Haitian, Balinese, bharatanatyam and flamenco; they also improvise and experiment in choreography classes. Laverty arranges master classes with members of prominent companies, such as Mark Morris Dance Group, Philadanco and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the students perform at local army base Ft. Eustis, the National High School Dance Festival in Miami, Florida, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and in school-sponsored full-length ballets.
Laverty’s teaching stresses an understanding of and respect for previous generations of choreographers, while also allowing students a sense of freedom and individuality. “Honor the technique, honor the people who have pioneered and forged, who’ve sat in the studio and worked it out,” she says. “Then, from there, what can you bring to it as well? [The students are] given the torch to forge new paths and take it to new levels.”
In addition to her work at Woodside, Laverty serves as the vice president-elect for dance performance for the National Dance Association, and was instrumental in writing the National Dance Standards. DT
Photos courtesy of the teachers