SUUUUUUPER excited to bring you all this month's Backstage With blog because it gave me all the feels and I know it will for you too! I got to interview Rachel Stewart and Mary P Gorder, of All That Dance in Seattle. These two, along with Maygan Wurzer, the Founder and Director of All That Dance, established Love Your Body Week - a unique (and ah-mazing) celebration for dancers at their studio of all that their bodies can do. When I found out about Love Your Body Week (LYBW), I literally did a happy dance in my chair, and immediately emailed Mary to get the scoop on their awesome teaching philosophy. Let's dive on in!
KC: What's your earliest memory of dance?
RS: As a young child, I’d wear my mom’s pointe shoes and pretend to be a famous ballet dancer. I’d wear several petticoats for a tutu, and used a table in the garage as my stage.
MG: My memories are similar to Rachel’s - my mom is not a dancer but a musician, so there was always music in our house. I was constantly moving, and constantly bossing around neighbor kids and making them perform in my “shows”. I think the earliest dance I remember watching was the ballet sequence at the end of “An American in Paris”, when they are dancing inside of famous paintings. It was absolutely magical for me.
KC: What's your background with dance? Was it love at first plie?
RS: I started ballet class when I was in grade school. I remember standing at the barre, practicing pliés and tendus with an old ballet record for accompaniment. Honestly, I hated it, and didn’t dance again for several years, when I discovered jazz dance. I loved jazz dance, it was such a big deal in the 80s. I started tap and eventually fell deeply in love with ballet.
MG: I told my parents again and again that I wanted to be a ballet teacher when I grew up, but I refused to actually go to class for years. I was the kid that cried the whole time and refused to participate! Every year we would try again though, and eventually I found the courage.
KC: How did you get into teaching? What's your favorite thing about it?
RS: I love working with kids and teens, so teaching became a way to share my love of dance.
MG: I started teaching in college. I took the job just as a way to make a little money in a way that fit into my class schedule, but quickly fell in love with it and haven’t done anything else for work since. Dance has always been a passion for me, but in a way I think my heart is more connected to teaching than it ever was to my own training or to performing. Watching kids grow is absolutely my favorite thing about it. There are millions of tiny ways that happens day to day - the little one that finally figures out how to skip with both legs, the teen that finds that extra bit of bravery to try something new. Being able to work with the same dancers overtime and watch them develop their artistic voice and identity is what drives me as a teacher.
KC: Who are your dance heroes, and why?
RS: My dance hero is Akira Armstrong of Pretty Big Movement. She is such a talented dancer and choreographer.
MG: Too many to list! I have had so many incredible teachers over the years that have nurtured and inspired me, and I work alongside so many exceptional dance educators. They are all my heroes. In terms of famous performers, Michaela DePrince is a huge inspiration. Her story is unreal, and she is truly captivating onstage. I love the messages of self love and persistence she is so intentional about sharing. I also very much admire Hope Boykin as a dancer and choreographer, and as an advocate for and positive example of self acceptance and self care.Ashley Bouder is also speaking up right now about feminism in dance and in ballet specifically, a conversation that needs more attention and more voices.
KC: Tell us about Love Your Body Week at your studio, All That Dance. What is it, and how did it begin?
RS: I started LYBW in 2005 when I was teaching at All That Dance (ATD). I was volunteering with the National Eating Disorders Association at the time. I’d spend hours answering the crisis line, speaking to people who were losing their lives to eating disorders. Then I’d teach dance class and hear 5 year-olds saying they were fat. I knew the dance world needed to change, but I wasn’t sure how to change it. I modeled LYBW after National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and honestly, I had no idea what I was doing. It’s taken 12 years and a lot of collaboration to figure it out.
MG: The program has grown so much over the years! Rachel started LYBW in 2005, and then Emily German worked with her for several years on it. I came on staff 10 years ago, and was lucky enough to start collaborating on it too. Rachel and I now work together to oversee it. Last year a version of our curriculum was adopted by the National Honor Society for Dance Arts (NHSDA), a program of the National Dance Education Organization. Rachel and I create and organize body positive activities for each class at ATD to participate in, and our NHSDA students (juniors and seniors in our highest levels) do much of the leading and facilitating in classrooms. Teen leadership is one of my very favorite facets of our program - it allows for a whole different level of engagement and empowerment for those dancers. Each activity culminates in the drawing or writing of some sort of positive message to post on the mirror, so by the end of the week our mirrors are completely covered up with messages of self love.
KC: Why do you think body positivity and inclusion is important in the dance community?
RS: Dance is about creativity, expression, and communication. I’m tired of the people in power in the dance world telling dancers how to look. Dance is our birthright, and is a core part of the human experience. Dance shouldn’t be a tool to oppress and marginalize people.
MG: I can only imagine how many brilliant, talented dancers have been dissuaded from pursuing the art form because they were made to feel as though they didn’t have the right look or the right body to do it. Theirs are movement voices that the world won’t see or experience because of this narrow body ideal. Every body has a story to tell, and everyone deserves the opportunity to be seen and heard. I feel very fortunate that I chose to continue dancing, in spite of some tough experiences in my own training. I am thankful that this art is still such an important part of my life, and it’s my hope that teaching inclusively and teaching from a body positive perspective can help encourage others to trust that they are capable, and that they are valuable and worthy as dancers and artists.
KC: What's one of your favorite funny or heart warming stories about teaching dance?
RS: I had a 5 year old student who would come early to class every week and tie all of the scarves to her leotard. She would then choreograph beautiful routines as “rainbow bird.” I adored her certainty, her expression, and her creativity. To this day, the thought of “rainbow bird” makes me smile.
MG: Just this week a teen told me in pointe class that she is so grateful for her experiences at ATD because her teachers never give her corrections about how something looks, but rather about how it should feel or function. That is absolutely one of my favorite things I have heard from a student, because it speaks to the body positive culture that our whole faculty works so hard to create.
KC:Are there any cliches or preconceptions about dance you try to correct in your teaching?
RS: I’m not currently teaching dance, but when I teach, I try to use dance to empower students to be their authentic selves.
MG: There is so much dance in the media now, and so much of it is all about tricks. I strive to foster real artistry and human connection.
KC: What's next for you and your businesses? Do you have any exciting projects on the horizon?
RS: We are presenting LYBW at two conferences this fall. I want to continue to grow the program and share it with others. We celebrate LYBW at our studio in November, it is my favorite week of the year.
MG: Conference presentations are definitely the next big exciting project for us. Dance Educators Association of Washington in September, National Dance Education Organization in October. I am also very much looking forward to continue working with NHSDA as they take on their second year celebrating LYBW with us.
KC: How do you describe what you do for a living to people you're just meeting?
RS: Well, I’m a mental health therapist, so when I tell people what I do for a living, they often get quiet and look uncomfortable.
MG: I say that I’m a full-time dance teacher, and that I love what I do.
And now... just for funsies...
KC: Burritos or tacos?
RS: Both! On the same plate!
MG: Rachel I respect your answer. I say either, or both, as long as it comes with guacamole.
KC: Legwarmers or ballet skirts?
RS: Both! Legwarmers and ballet skirts are a match made in heaven.
MG: Legwarmers. Well, legwarmer. I usually just wear one on the right.
KC: Disco balls or rainbows?
RS: Rainbow disco balls! (That must be a thing)
MG:Too hard to choose. Both have their own intrinsic value. I need time outside and I love the magic of a rainbow, but I can’t say no to anything that sparkles.
KC: Center Stage or Flashdance?
RS: Definitely Flashdance. I’m a child of the 80s. I still listen to What a Feeling when I need to get pumped up.
MG: Well I came of age in the early 2000s, so I have to choose Center Stage. I may or may not have stayed up all night at a sleepover learning Cooper’s ballet from the end with a dance friend...I may or may not still know most of it...
KC: One word to describe yourself?
RS: Well, I can’t decide which word to pick, so maybe indecisive.
Thank you SO MUCH Rachel and Mary for sharing your insights and time with me! I'm so inspired by your work and feel wonderful having found more body positivity + ballet/dance peeps! Make sure you check out All That Dance here, and the NHSDA page here.
Now I want to hear from YOU! What will you be doing to encourage body love and positivity at your dance studio? Get in touch and let me know below!!