I absolutely love teaching in higher education. From a young age, I was always certain that teaching/choreographing/directing was what I wanted to do. Once I got to college, there was no doubt that was where I wanted my career to go. One of the main things that I appreciated the most in both my undergraduate and graduate programs was the access I received to collaborative learning and support for creating my own opportunities. Outside of the classroom, I was given hands-on experience working alongside my professors on projects both academically and artistically. Whether I was assisting a mentor or producing a show of my own work, I have always thrived in the collaborative setting. Getting these opportunities early on not only allowed me to apply my training to my professional work, but allowed me to learn from my mentors as I observed, absorbed, and was inspired by their approach and artistry. Now, as a professor, I am thrilled to continue to create those opportunities for my students, as well as teach them how to advocate for themselves and cultivate the education they desire.

These unique hands-on experiences allow us to go further than the traditional classroom allows.

Producing big shows allows for big opportunities. In Spring 2022, our university closed our season with a large dance musical. Like most schools, the majority of the run crew for our productions are made up of students both within the major and beyond. Likewise, many opportunities for student assistant positions in various areas are made available. The creative team decided to approach this particular show as a large student collaborative learning experience, bringing in a multitude of designers and assistants. From directing to make-up design, choreography to stage management and beyond, student designers were working on every aspect of the production both on and off the stage. We had more students apply for positions than we had space for, and it only reassured the importance and necessity for these opportunities. I was able to bring on a student assistant choreographer for the production; not an assistant to me, or a rehearsal assistant (which are also wonderful), but an assistant choreographer. With minimal extra work on my end, I was able to mentor her through the process, while giving her space to leave her choreographic voice on the stage.

a performance of Legally Blonde

Emily was rounding out her sophomore year as a BFA Musical Theatre major and Dance Minor at the time of auditions. Her student choreography had recently been selected to perform in our fall faculty dance concert, and she is an active dance teacher at her studio back home where she has been working on both her choreography and teaching skills. The nature and style of this particular show suited her choreographic vocabulary perfectly, and with no surprise, she did a fabulous job. Through many pre-production meetings, we set up expectations and timelines, something that was vital to the success of the rehearsal process. We discussed how our dynamic would function in the space, and I had her select certain numbers and/or sections of the show that she was particularly eager to work on. Being familiar with how I work in rehearsals and class, we also discussed areas that she would like to specifically focus on under my mentorship. I should also mention that she was cast in a large part of the ensemble, as well as understudying a lead role, and acting as a swing for multiple tracks. This was no small job for anyone to tackle. In a post-mortem discussion with Emily, we discussed her experience taking on this large role, and she responded with the following:

Choreography is a skill I have developed through my work on numerous shows. As a solo choreographer, I’ve learned just as much about instructing dance as I have in all my time as a choreographer for other pieces. Observing the rehearsal process and asking my mentor questions about the industry was such an invaluable experience.”

When I asked her what specific skills she had gained, she went on to say, “Through this process, I learned so much about specific teaching techniques, and how to communicate effectively with each individual dancer. Collaborating on musical numbers helped strengthen the vision of my dances. When I had the choreography but struggled with the spacing of a number, having a mentor on hand to guide me showed me the full potential of my work. Even having my opinion asked when we were filling in counts or reworking sections was a beneficial practice for choreographing and cleaning on the spot, a skill vital in a fast-moving rehearsal process. If for no other reason, the experience of choreographing with somebody else was so special because I had another person to share those “Oooooh I like that” moments of discovery in the rehearsal process. There’s a certain feeling of fulfillment when you’re searching for the right final step in choreography and you find it. Having a mentor on hand with those answers ready was a total bonding experience for me.”

It was a priceless and educational experience for both of us. We connected quickly, and we had fun developing a rhythm in our approach together, as well as navigating many challenges that arose. She not only met the given expectations, but far surpassed them. She has aspirations of not only performing, but also continuing to choreograph and teach. This was certainly a valuable experience that is just the beginning to adding more skills she can apply to all areas. Teacher mentorship certainly shaped much of who I am today, and I am grateful to work in a program that provides the opportunity for so much individual student attention to occur. I also believe that giving these opportunities, even small ones, early on in their college career will only strengthen students’ confidence as they begin internships and preparation for graduation.

Like other musicals, I also had a wonderful dance captain, Julie, and assistant dance captain, Harrie. That team was equally vital to the success of the show, and I was able to continue their training for what that huge role entailed. They put in countless hours not just in rehearsals with me, but outside of rehearsals working with the cast, notating formations and counts, and learning every single detail of spacing and transitions. Not surprisingly, I was highly impressed by their commitment, professionalism, and ability to handle such a meticulous task.

Legally Blonde
Emily, Julie and Harrie on stage

The biggest takeaway from this entire process was how important it is to empower students to ask for opportunities, and for us as educators to support them as best we can through teacher mentorships. These unique hands-on experiences allow us to go further than the traditional classroom allows, and are invaluable to their education. Having a plethora of skills as you transition out of school only makes you more hirable, and I’m proud to work in a program that not only teaches that, but does everything we can to foster our students’ interests.

My most proud moment was one evening watching the show, when an audience member, knowing I was the choreographer, leaned over to me after a number and said, “that choreography is one of my favorites in the entire show”; to which I happily replied, “that was all Emily”.

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