It's easy to forget that even the most accomplished professionals have to start somewhere. But when you're watching your favorite dancer perform—as part of a televised event like the Grammys or onscreen in films like La La Land and The Greatest Showman—years of hard work, alongside some very dedicated teachers, have gone into that moment.
And to shine a spotlight on the instruction behind the dancing, Dance Spirit spoke with five professional dancers about the teachers who had the biggest impact on their careers. Many we spoke with credited their childhood dance instructors with giving them the tools that have gotten them to where they are today.
Sara Mearns: Principal, New York City Ballet
"It's because of my first ballet teacher, Ms. Ann Brodie, and my first tap teacher, Ms. Maura Gable Moore, that I am the artist and the performer I am today. They taught me from age 3 at my first dance studio, Calvert-Brodie. With both teachers, it was all about performing, and it's because of these women that the stage feels like home to me. We spent hours in the studio together, and I don't remember them ever being mean; they always brought the best out of me. They instilled in me that you don't have to be perfect, but just keep working at it—come back every day and be inspired by the other dancers in the studio.
Ms. Ann passed away when I was 12, but before she passed, she told my mom, 'She has to go to New York. She has to go to the School of American Ballet.' I went to my first summer course at SAB that same year she passed, and I feel like I'm fulfilling what she wanted of me."
Alex Wong: Commercial dancer
Alex Wong and teacher Bonnie Jean Anderson
"One of my most influential teachers is Bonnie Jean Anderson at Dance Factory in Canada, who taught me tap, musical theater and jazz. She was my very first dance teacher, and she instilled in me a love for dance and, especially, musical theater. Bonnie encouraged me to compete in solos when I was younger, and she would even teach me private lessons for free.
She cared about my career so much that she sent me to another studio to take ballet—which brings me to my second teacher that had a huge influence on me, Lin Mei Fang. She is an incredible ballet coach and teacher, and I can confidently say that I don't think I would have ever made it in the ballet world without her. I saw so many other talented dancers at competitions, and I truly believe had they had her, I would have come in a solid last place!"
Brittany Parks: Tap and commercial dancer
Brittany Parks and Mandy Moore
"One is definitely Mandy Moore, who has always commanded the room. I met her when I was 8 years old, and she handed me my first scholarship at Los Angeles Dance Festival. I remember at dance conventions, I would chase down wherever Mandy Moore was teaching because it was always something special. And now, since moving to Los Angeles, I've gotten to work on projects like La La Land with her.
In tap, I saw Gregory Hines when I was maybe 6 years old, and it makes me want to cry just thinking about it. When I saw him, I was like, 'I don't want to be just a dancer, I want to be a performer and an artist.' I didn't get to train with him, but I got the next best thing: Savion Glover, who trained with Gregory. Working with Savion on Broadway for Shuffle Along was a whole other level. A lot of what he's said to me has come from Gregory, who liked to say, 'Tap is connected not just from your feet, but it's also connected from your heart and your soul and your mind.' I make sure I tell that to the kids I teach now."
Adam Robert Dickerson: Dancer, Paul Taylor Dance Company
Adam Robert Dickerson and Patrizia Herminjard
"The dance teacher that influenced me the most growing up is Patrizia Herminjard. She taught me modern and contemporary classes for four years at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, and after graduating, I was lucky to work on a film project with her. I started dancing later in life, so having a teacher be formative and gentle like her was lucky for me.
She understood how I worked mentally as a dancer and was able to meet me there physically. She was patient, yet demanding, and she had a way of appreciating my journey toward success without inflating my ego or cutting me down. The most important lesson Patrizia taught me was that fundamental technique did not have to be executed perfectly, but understood deeply, and that artistry was more important than anything. In other words, 'The actor gets the job.'"
Britt Stewart: Professional, “Dancing with the Stars”
"I've had so many amazing teachers and mentors in my career, but growing up it was Jennifer Jarnot. I met her when I was 7 or 8, when I was really known as a tapper, but she saw that I had potential in other dance styles. My parents are both business people, so the dance world was all new to them. It was Jenny that expanded our minds and thoughts about what dance could be for me, and she made so many other things accessible.
I would also say that Jenny came into my life at a really critical time. I was at the point where I was starting to stand out on my team and had been told to tone down what I was doing to match the rest of the team. I started to get bullied a little bit and was feeling kind of isolated, and Jenny stepped in at the perfect time to say 'Keep going.' She would stand backstage with me and be that person that gave me the confidence to be myself and to not be worried about what other people thought."