‣ You have an almost lifelong relationship with Pennsylvania Ballet; how has your experience from student to professional within the organization led you to your current role?
My professional career as a dancer spanned over 15 years at Pennsylvania Ballet, which gave me the opportunity to train and work with many influential people in the ballet world. It is also where I met my husband Edward Cieslak, who was also a former soloist with the company.
I retired as a soloist dancer in 2007 and began teaching at a local ballet school while raising my two children. In 2016, I was asked to teach at the School of Pennsylvania Ballet and joined forces with the Ballet’s Director of Community Engagement Sarah Cooper to launch the Dance for All program for children of all abilities.
Within the early days of teaching the program, I found such gratification from watching my students connect with ballet and with those around them. I was able to witness their continual development and growth, which made me feel like the art form that I love so much could truly make a difference in the life of others and the world around us.
‣ Pennsylvania Ballet is a company committed to investing in the local community. Can you tell us more about the Dance for All program and how your talents have contributed to its expansion?
Pennsylvania Ballet’s Dance for All program allows those with a desire to dance, no matter the age or level of ability, to feel welcome and learn ballet with top notch training. Our program allows students to unlock creativity through dance and instill the confidence they need to continue their learning.
More than my talents, my passion for ballet and the growth of my students has contributed to the program’s expansion. I began writing and tailoring our curriculum for ages 5-10, and 11 years and up, based on what my students were able to accomplish.
We also identified areas in which we could expand to further promote their strength and growth. This level of customization really struck a chord with the parents and contributed to the program’s overall success.
‣ Although many professional dancers go on to become educators in the field, I am of the mindset that a great dancer does not always a great teacher make.
Considering what could be considered an extra challenge in guiding dancers with disabilities, how have you developed your skill set to best serve this population?
I began my role in this field by consulting Roger Ideishi, who serves as a program director of occupational therapy at George Washington University. Roger would take my class with the students and I would merely observe the way in which he would engage and work with them.
After each class, I would meet with Roger to discuss my learnings and apply them with my students moving forward. His mentorship was instrumental in giving me the confidence I needed to become a better teacher for students with all abilities.
I also had the opportunity to work with Occupational Therapist Nancy Ryan, who would leverage her skills to aid in my ballet classes at St. Katherine Day School for Children with Intellectual Disabilities.
I observed her teaching methods closely and what I learned was that every child had a special way of connecting with dance and reacting to music and movement. The program was so well received in the school that some teachers began taking these classes with their students each week.
The second year at the school I approached Principal Lauren Bell with my idea of launching a tailor-made production of The Nutcracker for St. Katherine Day School for Children with Intellectual Disabilities. The production took off in 2019 and allowed the entire school to be a part of The Nutcracker.