October 8, 2013 by Nicole
Jennia Shanley is a dance educator, choreographer and performer here in Orlando, Florida. She’s been an instructor to me – for challenging and comfort level-pushing hours of contemporary – and most recently, an interview subject. I sat down with Ms Jennia to get a better understand of where she came from, her philosophy about dance and to find out why CCD is home for her.
I love talking about dance with anyone, but I’ve always felt that there’s a familiar and unique connection among dancers and our conversation was no different. It was immediately comfortable & she actually reminded me a lot of a college roommate. Here are my 10 questions with Ms Jennia. I hope they help you get to know her too.
- Tell me about your dance career. Where did it start?
My mom enrolled me in a church ballet program when I was really young in Atlanta. So from the ages of 3-7, I was doing tap, jazz and ballet there. We moved to Chattanooga, TN where I was also doing competitive gymnastics at a high level. By age 14, I had to make a life decision: dance or gymnastics. I really wanted to dance. I attended the Baylor School, a prep school with a fine arts program under the directorship of Karen Smith. This is where I was really introduced to concert dance & I learned about being in class, attending rehearsals and I took ballet, modern, jazz & hip hop. I’d always loved making up dances, from the time I was little, and I was able to do student choreography there.
I started auditioning for university dance programs and attended FL State, where I earned my BFA in dance. I was behind in terms of ballet technique, so I had a lot of work to do. But I had more modern [training] and getting to do student choreography at a young age helped me. I was able to dance and choreograph with the university company, Dance Repertory Theater. I was also given the opportunity to do a semester in NYC with Movement Research. The goal of this program was to bring in students to live the life of a NYC dancer – we took all kinds of classes, saw 70 different shows, and completed an internship, learning about the business of dance. It was a tremendous experience.
After graduation, I had the opportunity to dance with Staib Dance in Atlanta before moving back to Chattanooga and starting my own company, Ascension Dance, LLC. which taught dance in early learning centers. I was also on faculty at Ballet Tennessee and at the Baylor School.
- You have a new role at CCD – Studio & Program Manager. What does that mean?
I’m very excited about this new opportunity. Right now, I’m in a 6-month training period, shadowing Craig (Johnson, Executive Director at CCD). I’ll be responsible for running the studio efficiently, [maintaining] student accounts and attendance, introducing new clients to the studio and just generally being an ambassador for the organization. I’ll also be responsible for putting our studio concerts together, plus special events and any other performance opportunities that come our way. It’s a lot of work but it excites me. I’m really seeking to grow and expand [what we do here] to offer more dance to more people so we can expand dance education in central Florida and beyond.
- Speaking of studio concerts, the winter concert is December 21 this year. Can you tell me a little about it & what to expect?
The winter concert is Joyful & Triumphant, and this year it will focus on exploring perspectives on peace. It’s a contemporary dance concert, so all of the works will be contemporary in choreography. With that said, you’ll see a lot of variety in style. Mine is ethereal in quality – more like a contemporary ballet. But all of the pieces will address peace: making peace, coming to inner peace. Each choreographer gets to tell their story.
- What does “Dance is for Everyone” mean to you?
I believe that dance is for everyone. To me, it says that you do not have to be a certain color, a certain shape, a certain size to dance. I just think about all the different ways dance can benefit people’s lives – for performance, for just exercise, [improving] balance, strength, flexibility….A lot of my closest friends are dancers – we sweat together, we perform together, we create together. And we just create those bonds [of friendship]. There’s so much that dance can bring to your life for whatever your goals are. “Dance is for everyone” is part of our mission here and we just really want to share all those ways it can benefit people’s lives.
- Why do you call CCD home?
I moved here in May 2012. We, my husband and I, were just looking for different life opportunities. And actually, months before we moved, I’d been in contact with Craig. I’d been researching non-competitive [focused] studios and studios that focused on concert dance. And again, just really believing that dance is for everyone. Now, I teach dance – lots of classes here: ballet, contemporary, creative dance for individuals with autism spectrum disorder, creative movement, intro to acro – and I choreograph for concerts. I also dance with Mary Love Dance Projects, a resident artist here at CCD.
- How important is challenging your students?
I want to push students to their edge, but in a healthy and holistic way so that what we do here is good for the body [and] good for the soul. I also want to create thinking, intelligent and intuitive dancers.
- How do you inspire your students?
It really depends on the age/maturity level. For my babies, the 2-5 age range, in creative movement classes, it’s through storytelling and make-believe. If we’re being butterflies in the sky or tigers in the jungle – anything that’s story-related, that they can feel magical. And that’s inspirational to them.
For our elementary ages, the pre-pros are a huge source of inspiration to them. [At CCD,] they’re able to watch them in class and in rehearsal. It’s already on their radar – that’s something they want to be one day.
For our older students, the pre-pros and especially our teenagers, we know there’s all kinds of life events – school, friends, family responsibilities – [that they have], and we want to keep them on track with their goals. We find out what those are – maybe it’s studying dance at a university. Then our responsibility to them becomes introducing them to universities…or introducing them to companies or sending them to summer programs, so that they have a broader perspective of what awaits them, and hopefully keeps them excited about their goals.
In general, I try to inspire with my choreography. And I want to inspire my students to be the best performer and artist they can be, with an emphasis on moving in an authentic way, really telling the story. For example, I had a piece in the spring show about the Trail of Tears. We had a whole discussion on the history and what that meant to Native Americans, forced from their homes, their land, and forced to walk….all before we even started the choreographic process. I wanted them to understand they had a real event that they had to be responsible for on stage. They were communicating a very important message.
- What inspires you?
So many things! Seemingly, it’s never the same process twice. I listen to music – all kinds, all genres – and that inspires me to make movement. I’ll find something that just moves me and I’ll have to dance to it. Even if it’s a combination for class. Sometimes it’s a concept or story, like with the Trail of Tears piece or the upcoming winter concert piece where I was just inspired to do something “ethereal.” I can be a bit more abstract if it’s a story or concept.
[As far as working companies] I love Doug Varone & Dancers! I wish I could go to New York every season to see them! I watch absolutely everything I can from them, even if it’s just a clip on YouTube. I just love their movement. It looks so good on them. And they’re so strong emotionally. They have that….it’s almost indescribable what they have together. They take class together and create together alongside Doug. They must know each other so well – and it shows in the way that they dance together. And, the musical selections are always so beautiful and inspiring.
- What’s the one piece of advice you wish you could magically implant in student’s heads, Inception-style?
Recently, I was talking to a student because she was feeling insecure in class. I just wanted to let her know that she wasn’t alone. It sounds cliché, but we all have our insecurities. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been dancing for a year or 26 years. Even me, I feel excited and nervous when I take class. It’s just part of the process. Every class is an opportunity to improve. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll get. Don’t hold yourself back because you’re stuck in your own head. You’re a person – you’re good enough to do dance. The only requirement is that you show up. [Nicole’s note: emphasis is mine because this was SO GOOD/TRUE/PERFECT/Etc.]
It also helps to see shows. Watch professional dancing. It helps make the connection of that’s why I’m sweating so hard in class, doing ab exercises or holding this arabesque for 32 counts. One day, it’s going to turn into that. It takes a while for that to click, applying physical corrections/exercised toward an eventual end result.
- What’s your greatest joy as a teacher?
I love my students so much! I actually get emotional talking about it! I’ve been here a little over a year now and it was so hard to leave Tennessee, where I knew everyone – everyone in the dance community there. When I came here, it was this immediate connection with CCD. Everyone was so warm and welcoming and really embraced me. Just over the last year, I see my kids growing and get excited for dance class. I see them learn or apply a correction. And when those little cutie-patooties hug you and don’t want to let go, or don’t want to leave the dance studio, that just makes my heart bubble over with joy.
I can personally attest that Ms Jennia did get emotional when we talked about her students and what they and the studio has meant to her during a transitional time, leaving behind the familiar and comfortable and starting over in a new city. We’re glad you chose ours.
Thank you, Jennia for sitting down with me. Best of luck in your new position (although you don’t need luck) & can’t wait to see all of your successes!
What questions did I miss? What would you like to ask Jennia? What stuck out to you? Let me know in the Comments section!