What My Teacher Taught Me: Lauren Gottlieb, on Kevin and Meri Bender
September 13, 2023

My mom put me in my first dance class at 7 years old and I immediately hated it. I begged her to let me quit, but of course she’d already paid for the entire year, and she made me stick it out. I cried about it all the way up to the recital, when everything clicked into place. I was obsessed from then on out. I spent my early childhood training at a studio in Scottsdale, Arizona, called Dance Action, then moved to [what is now] Bender Performing Arts when I was 12 years old. There, I met Kevin and Meri Bender, two of the most influential teachers I have ever had.

I have been fortunate enough to have enjoyed many incredible professional opportunities [“So You Think You Can Dance” Season 3; India’s version of “Dancing with the Stars,” called “Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa”; as well as various film and television credits, including the popular Indian dance film, ABCD: Any Body Can Dance], but I still wish I could be back in the studio with Kevin and Meri. When I was young, they warned me to not be in such a rush to grow up, graduate, and move to Los Angeles. They said that I would look back at these years as some of the best of my life—and they were right. They put on concerts each year, and at the end of each rehearsal we would make a group circle and sing the melody of old songs while doing dance moves from years past. It was like a collection of inside jokes that brought us together. They created a beautiful family. A couple of years ago the competition team at Bender (Dance Motion Performing Company) celebrated their 35th anniversary, and with tears in his eyes Kevin told me he wanted to name the anniversary company show “Legacy.” It was so fitting. They have created such a powerhouse—one of the largest studios in the country—and what he cares most about is the legacy of his students and their pure love of dance.

Gottlieb (far left) with the cast of "So You Think You Can Dance" Season 3. Photo courtesy Gottlieb.

As a teacher, Meri could often be found standing with her legs in second position with her arms opening up wide. She was a very lyrical, breathy mover who took up space with big lines. When I first started at her school I was quite rigid, so I did private lessons with her in which she had me move across the floor with big steps, big contractions, and big breaths. She was supportive, nurturing, and passionate. Every once in a while she could be a little strict, but it was only ever to push you forward.

Kevin liked to choreograph to old-school songs like “Come Sail Away” and “Burning Down the House.” He even did a solo for me to “Hot Stuff.” He has a signature movement style that is full of lots of leaps, rolling on the ground, and getting up really quickly. You could feel his excitement as he danced while sweat flung off of him and flew across the room. He too was very supportive and nurturing. He gave many speeches of encouragement and worked hard to create a family unit. Both of their teaching styles were large, and proud.

Photo courtesy Gottlieb.

Everything Kevin and Meri taught me has stuck with me throughout my life—including that which is beyond technical or artistic. A couple of years back I was at a high point in my professional career. I was an actor and dancer in the Bollywood film/television industry with my name in lights, but I wasn’t interacting with other people. I realized this wasn’t what I was supposed to do for my whole life. I thought back to being a young dancer, helping Meri give others notes on their solos, and felt a strong pull toward teaching. I wanted to be “boots on the ground” with students, so I left. Of course, there were other things that went into the decision, but ultimately it was born of a desire to get back to the root of what Kevin and Meri had given me—a community. Now, I haven’t drawn up a plan for what exactly this next phase of life will look like, but it will include working with the next generation. I’ve spoken to Kevin and Meri and they have said that they would help me with it, and maybe even partner with me (which would be an absolute dream come true!). I’m living with my fiancé in London, and perhaps I will be able to join a creative team to help stage film/television performances, and, in the future, create a studio community that’s similar to Kevin and Meri’s family atmosphere. And I don’t just mean their vibrant studio, but their beautiful family and strong relationship. I would love to mirror their example as much as I can.

Photo courtesy Gottlieb.

There have been many teachers who have made me into who I am today. I was like a sponge with each and every one of them. I couldn’t have done any of this crazy life alone. My heart fills with so much gratitude and love when I think of Kevin and Meri that it brings tears to my eyes. Reflecting on those studio days is the most grounding feeling I have in my life. Thank you.

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