The Dance Teacher Awards Brought Us Together and Gave Us Hope

September 16, 2020

Who knew that a virtual awards ceremony could bring our community together in such a powerful way?

Last night, we celebrated the annual Dance Teacher Awards, held virtually for the first time. Though it was different from what we’re used to, this new setting inspired us to get creative in celebrating our six extraordinary honorees. In fact, one of the most enlivening parts of the event was one that could only happen in a Zoom room: Watching as countless tributes, stories and congratulations poured in on the chat throughout the event. Seeing firsthand the impact our awardees have had on so many lives reminded us why we chose to honor them.

If you missed the Awards (or just want to relive them), you’re in luck—they are now available to watch on-demand. We rounded up some of the highlights:

Deborah Damast inspired us to keep pushing forward.

A television screen depicting Deborah Damast accepting her award on Zoom. She gestures in excitement

As presenter and Dance Teacher senior editor Courtney Escoyne put it, the dance educators of tomorrow are indeed in good hands with Deborah Damast.

Damast, who directs the dance education master’s degree program at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, gave us a sampling of the inspiration she doles out to her pedagogy students (and her young students—Damast still teaches creative movement, too) on the regular.

“Don’t let the overwhelming nature of these times paralyze you into inaction,” she told us. “Find the light, take on the challenge and steer your ship. We are dancers, flexible in mindset and strong in design. Bring your mentors and your ancestors with you for support. And be the history that you want your students to read about. Because history is made right now.”

Bo and Stephanie Spassoff celebrated the beauty of our art form.

A screenshot of Bo and Stephanie Spassoff's acceptance speech, filmed in their home

It’s one thing to know that The Rock School has a long list of distinguished alumni. It’s another thing to hear those alums talk about their experience growing up in the school, and how its directors, Bo and Stephanie Spassoff, shaped their lives.

Several such artists joined us by video last night, including New York City Ballet’s Taylor Stanley and Russell Janzen, Ballet West’s Kaeli Ware, Boston Ballet’s Derek Dunn and Charlotte Ballet’s Sarah Lapointe. Many of them spoke about how the Spassoffs imbued in them a deep love for the art form.

“This is just the most beautiful art form and we’ve so enjoyed our whole marriage in it,” said Stephanie. “You give and then you get in return, just incredible joy and satisfaction. And when you dance to give to audiences and to uplift them, there’s nothing better than that.”

Kim Black reminded us that everyone deserves the chance to dance.

A screenshot of Kim Black accepting her award with a class of students behind her

When Kim Black got married, she had 78 flower girls, all her students. So when it came time for another milestone—accepting her Dance Teacher Award—she wanted to once again have her students beside her.

Black accepted the award from her Burlington, North Carolina, studio, surrounded by her (socially distanced) students, many of whom adorably dressed up for the occasion.

Throughout Black’s speech, she kept coming back to the word “chance,” acknowledging the mentors who gave her chances to teach, and how she strives to create opportunities for others today. Everyone deserves to dance, regardless of their abilities, Black said. (Black walks this talk through her integrative dance program, A Time to Shine.) “Keep giving people chances,” she urged us.

Patricia Dye showed us what community really looks like.

A screenshot of Patricia Dye, who is wearing a bright yellow dress, accepting her award from her home

Hearing Patricia Dye accept her award was like getting a lesson in dance history. That’s because the beloved high school dance teacher and Teachers College, Columbia University doctoral student is constantly naming the ancestors, mentors and teachers who paved the way for her—from her early teachers in St. Croix to her upbringing in Brooklyn (where she still teaches today) to legends like Pearl Primus, Katherine Dunham and Chuck Davis.

Dye has paved the way for countless students herself. The Latin origin of “educate,” she told us, is “to lead out of.” She said, “As a dance educator, I’ve been leading my students out of where they presently are to where they want to be.”

With her typical humility, Dye emphasized that it’s taken a village to get her to where she is. “I’ve learned that my community, my tree of life, is my anchor,” she said. “I teach what I’ve learned and experienced. We teach our youth to document our stories for the yet-to-be-born.”

MOVE|NYC| gave us hope for the future.

A still from A Prayer for Black Life. Kelsey Lewis wears all black and dances in the grass under a bridge

For the first time ever, all the proceeds from this year’s Dance Teacher Awards went to an organization whose mission is close to our hearts: MOVE|NYC|.

MOVE|NYC| co-founders Nigel Campbell and Chanel DaSilva (you may remember them from our May/June cover!) joined us to talk about how they’re working to create a more equitable and diverse dance field, and to foster tomorrow’s dance leaders. Then came one of my favorite moments of the event: MOVE|NYC| student Kelsey Lewis performed a gorgeous and haunting solo (that she learned on a basketball court this summer!) entitled A Prayer for Black Life, choreographed by Campbell. It’s clear that Lewis has a bright future ahead of her, and we’re thrilled to be able to support her training with the Dance Teacher Scholarship funded by the proceeds from last night’s event.

Dance Teacher celebrated one of our own.

A tv screen shows Karen Hildebrand smiling as she accepts her award

Karen Hildebrand, who passed the baton to me as Dance Teacher‘s editor in chief earlier this year, has been advocating tirelessly for dance education for the entirety of her 11-year tenure. So we decided to surprise her with her own well-deserved Dance Teacher Award. (Okay, we told her about it the week prior, but she was still pretty surprised.)

We brought together current and former Dance Teacher writers, editors, cover stars, advisory board members and more to tell Hildebrand about how she’s impacted our lives, and to send her well wishes for her next chapter.

Wendy Whelan honored the many teachers who shaped her.

A blurry screenshot of Wendy Whelan smiling on the Zoom screen

Who would have guessed that during her training, Wendy Whelan felt like she was “dog paddling through her ballet classes, trying to catch up”?

Accepting her Dance Teacher Award of Distinction, the former New York City Ballet principal and current associate artistic director told us about how at age 9, when she decided to get serious about ballet, she suddenly found herself “guessing her way through class, never knowing which body part to pull up or in, wondering what exactly the difference between the two was.” Once, she said, a teacher even asked a more advanced student to take her to the side and show her what a pas de bourée was. “I had no idea,” she said.

Whelan was not deterred. “I became a very good follower back then, and frustration became second nature to me,” she said. “But that’s often what happens. You get hooked on the process and the puzzles and the growth, and you never want to stop learning. And you never want to lose that feeling of eternally being in bloom. Either that, or you decide a career in ballet is maybe not for you.” I think I speak for the entire dance community when I say: Thank goodness the latter was not the case with Whelan.

She then spoke about the many teachers who influenced her over the years, and whose lessons she now draws on as a teacher herself. Though they varied dramatically in approach—sometimes even with contradictory methods, she said—”between them all existed a meeting point of truth, and a deep understanding of integrity and excellence.”

Whelan continued to call upon the wisdom of her teachers in her mini-class and Q&A, where she told us about the images she loves to use in class, the technique tricks she’s learned throughout her career and how her new gardening hobby has inspired her teaching.

We’re already looking for nominations for next year. 

Believe it or not, nominations for the 2021 Dance Teacher Awards are already open! We’re excited to hear about the extraordinary educators who you’d like to see receive an award next year.