The 2015 Dance Teacher Awards
June 30, 2015

Four remarkable educators: Jochelle Pereña, Dale Lam, Brandee Williams Lara and Vera Ninkovic inspire us by nurturing their students’ love of dance, whether preparing them for success at competitions, paving pathways to professional careers or offering them an emotional outlet through movement.

Helping students discover the power of self-expression

By Mary Ellen Hunt

Unlike dancers who pursue the art as a lifelong goal, Jochelle Pereña took a break from her ballet and modern training to study anthropology and French in college. But when she studied abroad in Senegal and Cameroon, in West Africa, her passion and appreciation for movement reignited in a new way. “In the nightclubs and bars there are big community circle dances where you just jump in and take a solo,” she says. “This was such a foreign way of moving my body, I had to close my eyes and just feel it. I learned to surrender and listen with all my senses, to not try to control the movement.” She brings this visceral experience of dance to students she teaches through Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley, California.

One of Luna’s main missions is to place teaching artists in public school settings where students might otherwise not be exposed to dance. Pereña, who holds a professional diploma from London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and an MFA in dance, has taught for more than seven years in Oakland, CA, schools in low-income neighborhoods where violence is common. She finds that for many of these students, a strong relationship to movement can be a saving grace. “Dance has been the through line, the safe place where they can find confidence and power in their own bodies,” she says. At New Highland Academy in East Oakland, she helped organized a yearly Dance Anywhere Day. Students, teachers, parents and even the principal rushed out together into the yard at noon for a 20-minute, free-for-all dance party. “For teachers or parents to see their children in a new way, or for students to see their friends in a new way through dance is incredible to me,” Pereña says.

In the classroom, Pereña uses imagery to get students thinking with their bodies. “Stretch up to get a cookie jar that’s almost out of reach. It’s falling toward you. Now catch it! It’s heavy, but you don’t want it to break, so you land on the ground and roll with it. Now push yourself up off the floor and put it back on the shelf,” she coaches. “I want to help my students find a freedom in movement, the kind I see in my daughter spinning around, the kind of movement I remember as a child in the living room—the way you might feel in contact improvisation, where you’re not leading the dance all the time, but there’s something else guiding you.”

“When Jochelle teaches, she always discovers something new, and she takes this delight, even in content she’s taught for years,” says Luna founder Patricia Reedy. “She brings it a kind of effervescence that can’t be taught.”

At Chapman University, Brandee Williams Lara keeps the atmosphere fun and the training intense. Photo by Dante Lara

Creating a conservatory setting for college tappers

by Jen Jones Donatelli

While ballet and modern often take center stage in college dance programs, Chapman University breaks the mold—largely due to the energetic efforts of Brandee Williams Lara. Now in her 28th year of teaching, Lara has headed a conservatory-style tap program at Chapman since 1997, and it continues to attract aspiring tappers from all over the country. The program’s reputation for preparing dancers to excel in today’s professional tap world has earned the dance department increasing renown—and applicants. Lara says well over 300 dancers auditioned this year, and only about 80 were accepted.

For tap dancers, knowing the history is a huge part of understanding the art. Lara regularly incorporates history into her technique class and invites guest instructors once a month—often using her own money—to round out students’ knowledge. Past guests have included the late legends Gregory Hines and Fayard Nicholas, as well as current artists like Channing Cook Holmes, Maud Arnold and Melinda Sullivan (of “So You Think You Can Dance” fame). Whenever a guest instructor leads class, Lara curates a question-and-answer session with the artist and often takes class alongside her students. Arnold, who refers to Lara as “a second mother,” says one of the things she admires most about Lara is her belief that “the learning never stops, even when you’re a teacher.”

Though Lara considers herself a hard-core taskmaster, she also prides herself on creating a sense of fun among dancers. She mounts an annual “Happy Chappy Tappy” show at Chapman every spring, and recruits her students for a large-scale tap production she choreographs for the Orange County–based American Celebration fundraiser. During classes, she brings candy or Popsicles for an afternoon pick-me-up, and she regales students with showbiz stories inspired by her experiences working on regional tours with shows like George M!, Anything Goes and 42nd Street. “The kids leave my class dripping in sweat,” she says. “But they all say this is the most fun they have.”

Dale Lam fosters a loyalty among her clientele that lasts long after dancers leave the studio. Photo by Lisa Baker, courtesy of the photographer

Training top competitors with love

By Alison Feller

For Dale Lam, the most poignant moments aren’t when a student nails a move on the first try—it’s the opposite. “When a child is so passionate but doesn’t have turnout or flexibility, I learn to be a better teacher,” she says. “I learn to translate the movement in a way he or she can understand. When a kid is standing there saying, ‘Help me,’ you’ve gotta give it to them.”

Though she thrives in her role as artistic director of Columbia City Jazz Dance School and Company in South Carolina, Lam never set out to become a studio owner. After dancing at the University of South Carolina and training with Frank Hatchett and Robin Dunn, she began taking classes and working at Columbia Conservatory of Dance. Director William Starrett, who is also artistic director of Columbia City Ballet, asked her to head up a jazz program for the ballet’s school. The program grew into its own nonprofit, multigenre studio. Today, Lam enlists her husband to handle the business side of the studio so she can focus on her true passion: teaching. “When I got into this, I didn’t know it was going to become a lifelong ambition,” she says. “I just followed where the road took me.”

Lam teaches all levels at Columbia City and maintains a curriculum and syllabus for staff. She runs the studio much like a conservatory, with twice-yearly exams for the dancers. When not at her studio, she is teaching in the University of South Carolina’s dance department, where she’s an adjunct faculty member (and an alum), or she’s traveling to studios in nearby cities for teaching residencies.

Her passion for teaching and her love for her dancers keeps clients closely tied to her, even after they move on from the studio. “There’s something unique about the relationships Dale has with her dancers,” says actress Andie MacDowell, whose two daughters trained with Lam. “She knows how to bring out the best in them without being demeaning. She cares about helping them use dance to feel good about themselves.” Lam’s students have won top honors at The Dance Awards Nationals, have gone on to London Contemporary Dance School, joined Shaping Sound dance company and performed on “Glee.”

The challenge, she says, is watching students leave. “I wasn’t able to have children, so my dancers are my kids,” she says. “It’s hard to let them go. Early in my teaching career, when they left for college, I wanted to leave, too! But Frank Hatchett said, ‘You have to stay, because you don’t know what child is going to come next with a dream. You have to be there to fulfill it.'”

Vera Ninkovic helps dancers discover their creative sides while training them in proper technique. Photo by Staci Armao, courtesy of Everybody Dance!

Helping dancers feel safe outside their comfort zones

By Emily Macel Theys

Classical ballet and Led Zeppelin may seem an atypical pairing, but not for Vera Ninkovic. This melding of styles pervades her teaching philosophy. As ballet program coordinator for Everybody Dance! in Los Angeles, she provides a base of strong technique for students, while encouraging them to push boundaries and develop their own creativity.

“I don’t want to create ballet robots,” she says, explaining her contemporary-tinged, rock-scored performance pieces. Her work is well-received. “She is like a painter with human bodies,” says Carol Zee, director of the studio’s parent company, Gabriella Foundation. She hired Ninkovic to develop the ballet program 15 years ago. “The work she generates is unique, and she makes the kids stand out regardless of their level.”

At the nonprofit studio, which offers discounted or free classes to students who otherwise couldn’t afford them, Ninkovic describes her style as a mix of Cecchetti, Royal Academy of Dance and Vaganova. She echoes her first teacher, Kira Bousloff, when she stresses that technical prowess is essential to a successful career, but so are musicality and artistic expression. “I feel like I’m passing down her legacy,” Ninkovic says. “She would say to me in her broken English, ‘Give me your soul. I want to experience it. I want to feel it.'”

She firmly opposes the idea of teachers getting possessive of their dancers; she urges her students to try other dance styles whenever they have the chance. She also invites guest artists—sometimes her own teaching mentors—to work with dancers.

Though she teaches about 200 kids a week, sometimes seven days a week, she also makes time to offer free private lessons to promising dancers. Her pupils have gone on to compete at the Prix de Lausanne, attend Juilliard and choreograph for major ballet companies. “I want them to experience their dance training fully,” she says. “You can’t force someone to love this or to work hard; you can only inspire them. I supply information and support. I need them to supply the curiosity and passion and willingness to work hard.”

Her students respond. “She’s the only teacher our kids come back to see,” Zee says. “She creates a space for them to be truly accepted. They feel safe.”

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