Healing the Heart with Dance: Jess Michaels of Wingman for Dance

Can you feel it friends? There’s a movement happening in the dance community. Big hearted, generous, and trail blazing individuals are making some awesome shifts in the dance industry, challenging us to be more inclusive, empathetic, encouraging us to embrace new ways of thinking, and teaching.

Jess Michaels is one of those individuals, and she’s the feature of this week’s Backstage Blog! Jess is the Global Program Director for Wingman for Dance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to Dylan Hockley, one of the first grade victims in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Dylan’s Wings of Change was founded by Ian Hockley, Dylan’s dad, and Jess was hired by the foundation to adapt the Wingman for Schools program to the dance industry.

Read on for to learn more about Jess, her awesome work, and what we could all do well to incorporate more of in our teaching.

KC: What's your earliest memory of dance?

Jess Michaels Interview

JM: I started dancing quite late in life at 16 years old as I came from a single mom family. She could not afford to send me to dance class so I had to wait until I could pay for it myself. I remember my heart filling with joy during a teen beginner jazz class warm-up and deciding in that moment I would become a professional dancer.

KC: What's your background with dance?

JM: I finally found a quality dance studio at 18 year old. Started auditioning at 21. Worked as a professional dancer for 10 years. And I’ve been a teacher/choreographer for the last 20 years.

KC: Was it love at first plie?

JM: More like love at first hip isolation! Jazz was my passion.

KC: How did you get into dancing/teaching?

Wingman for Dance student dancers

JM: I fell in love with the Wizard of Oz and musicals at 5 years old. I started teaching when I retired from performing professionally thinking I would just do it for a bit while deciding on naturopathic medical school programs. I’ve never stopped. Teaching became an even bigger passion than performing.

KC: What's your favorite thing about it?

JM: Dance gave me a healthy escape, emotional freedom and a creative voice.

KC: Who are your dance heroes, and why?

JM: I loved anything and everything Fosse back in the 90’s. It was gritty, real and the antithesis of ballet. However, after I spent more time in NYC on scholarship at Broadway Dance Center & Steps on Broadway, Ballet became a passion because of the incredible teachers. Madame Darvash and Zena Rommett were my favorite teachers.

KC: Tell us about your business, Wingman for Dance.

JM: Wingman for Dance is a youth-led program of  team-building & trust-building activities for the dance industry. Wingman is a program from Dylan’s Wings of Change, a foundation dedicated to Dylan Hockley, one of the first-grade victims in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

KC: One of your goals in your work?

JM: Our mission is to inspire children to be more empathetic, courageous and inclusive young leaders.

KC: What's one of your favorite heart-warming stories about teaching?

JM: The reason Wingman and Dylan’s Wings of Change are so near and dear to my heart is because I am from Newtown Ct and was teaching at two dance studios greatly impacted by the Sandy Hook shooting. On the Saturday after the shooting, our dancers - some of the survivors from the shooting as well as students that knew many children that were killed - did not want to be anywhere else. Dance was their safe space. As teachers, we often forget the powerful role we play in our students lives. And the power of dance to heal the heart.

KC: Are there any cliches or preconceptions about dance you try to correct in your work?

JM: We are not correcting any misconceptions about the dance industry as much it is give dancers an opportunity to stretch their natural leadership skills.

KC: Is there one thing you think the dance community needs more of, less of, or to get better at?

JM: Empathy - we would all do well to develop stronger empathy skills.

KC: What's next for you and your business? Do you have any exciting projects on the horizon?

JM: Wingman has a new opportunity for the dance industry called the Youth Leadership Experience & Certification. Wingman is a youth-led program so we come to your dance studio to train your Teen Leader Team to present Wingman activities throughout the year at your studio. It is a leadership program that integrates beautifully with any assistant teacher training program a studio may already have in place or help inspire a new one.

KC: And now, just for funsies…

Burritos or tacos?

JM: Tacos, for sure!

KC: Legwarmers or ballet skirts?

JM: Thigh-high legwarmers!

KC: Disco balls or rainbows?

JM: Disco ball 24/7

KC: Center Stage or Flashdance?

JM: Flashdance

KC: One word to describe yourself?

JM: Perky :)

Jess Michaels Wingman for dance

A big thank you to Jess for sharing her time with me for this blog! You can follow Jess’s amazing work on Facebook and Instagram. Now I’d love for you to click one of the share buttons below and help spread the awesome message Wingman for Dance is all about. Have a great week!