by Lucy Vurusic Riner
I have had the pleasure of being the dance program director at one high school for 15 years. I am an extreme creature of habit and had I not recently decided that I needed more room for my own professional growth, I would have stayed where I was at for another 15 years. But as I leave for “greener pastures,” I keep asking myself the same questions about my life’s work: Have I made any sort of difference? Did anyone learn from what I had to say? Have I developed strong dancers? Do they love themselves and appreciate the arts? Have I touched anyone’s life?
If there is one thing I have learned over the past 15 years it’s that I’m surely not responsible for any one students’ successes in dance. I have met many teachers that like to pride themselves are “making” pre-professional dancers and sending them out into the dance world; taking much of the credit for themselves. I have always felt that my role in my students’ development was a small fraction of what made them successful dancers. They had supportive parents who believed in them (and gave them the money necessary to move forward with their training!), they had other dance teachers and choreographers that contributed to their successes by giving them a multitude of experiences and most importantly, they had their own drive and ambition to see what it is they wanted out of their lives and to go beyond just dreaming about it.
My hope as a dance teacher has always been to nurture the whole dancer. We know what it’s like growing up doing what we do. We practice and rehearse for endless hours over the span of our lifetimes. Although our goals may be in reach, our understanding of how important it is to continue growing as a dancer (should) never end. We don’t always get the support we could use from others when it comes to choosing dance as a career: Dance is competitive and there is not generally a lot of money in it. How long will you do it before your body gives out on you? And then there is the self-criticism that comes along with it. Teachers assess our progress, audiences judge our performances and choreography, but in the end we are mostly our own worst critiques. Yet as all of this begins to unfold in a young dancer’s life, I have found that my most important job as their teacher is to address these issues at the core of who they are and want to become.
Yes, technique is important, learning compositional structures is helpful and getting them as much exposure to the different possibilities out there in terms of where they can train, who they can train with and in what styles they prefer is necessary. But I believe that the core of my job has been much broader. How will they present themselves at an audition or new class that is important to them? How will they reach out and network within the dance communities in their areas? How will they learn to make good choices based on their abilities and needs? And most importantly how will they continue to grow and appreciate their bodies for the amazing things that it does for them.
Being proficient dancers is only a fraction of what I want my students to learn before they have left my class. I want them to be reflective artists and expressive performers. I want them to respect each other and appreciate how brave they each are for choosing dance as a potential life path. And regardless of where their dancing lives take them, I want them to be good to their bodies and be happy with who they are.
So what’s my legacy? HA. I’m 38 years old. I have plenty of time to figure out exactly what that is….or if I even need to have one! I have a good 30 to 40 years left in me….maybe not for dancing but clearly for teaching. And as a choreographer and artistic director of my own dance company I believe that I have to help develop the types of dancers that I want to work with professionally. And as much as I want each of them to be beautiful dancers that are invested in the work they are doing, I also want them to be kind, generous, team players that believe in themselves and love what they do along with the people they do it with. I’m not interested in helping my students just better themselves in one fraction of their lives…..after all, isn’t it the sum of each of their parts that makes them whole?
Contributor Lucy Vurusic Riner is a native Chicagoan who has been supporting and contributing to the dance community for over twenty years. She received her BS Degree in dance and dance education from Illinois State University. Lucy has been a member of Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak Dance Company, RTG Dance Company and Matthew Hollis’ “The Power of Cheer.” She has also had the opportunity to be part of the community cast of White Oak Dance Project and David Dorfman Dance.
Lucy has taught modern, hip hop, and jazz at numerous studios and high schools in the Chicagoland area. She has been the Director of Dance at Oak Park and River Forest High School since 1999. In 2005, Lucy completed her Masters Degree in Education from National Louis University and also received the Midwest Dance Teacher of the Year award and was the youngest of four finalists in the running for the National Dance Teacher of the Year award. Lucy and artistic partner, Michael Estanich, formed RE|Dance in 2010. This dancer theater company investigates humanity in movement through long distance collaboration. Lucy has also begun work on a long-term project entitled, “The Moving Vessel” which explores the impact of motherhood on the professional dancer. When Lucy is not working with independent choreographers and producing her own shows, she is at home with her two great kids, Margie and Luka, and her very supportive husband, Jim.