Empowering Students to Become Better Human Beings

Michele Dunleavy

Inspiration from Dance Faculty Member Michele Dunleavy

What led you to teach dance at Penn State?
It’s kind of a funny story, but initially I applied for the position of head of the dance minor and didn't get the job. Then a few months later I got a call from a friend in New York City who had just spoken to Spence Ford. She had called him because Penn State needed someone to teach jazz and tap for the 2004–05 academic year. He recommended me for the position, I talked to Spence, came to University Park to "audition," and was hired on the spot.
 
​What values or skills are you most passionate about sharing with your students?
I try to give my students information about their bodies that will empower them to make smart choices in their dance and musical theatre careers. I help them to be independent thinkers and encourage creativity through improvisational exercises. I hope they leave my class knowing something more about themselves as people than they did before the start of the semester.  
 
Who are some of your greatest creative influences?
Wow—this is tough—so many people inspire me. I'm currently re-reading some books by director Anne Bogart. I really appreciate the way she talks about the creative process.   
 
What do you believe are the ingredients for being a successful collaborative dancer?​
Say yes to everything. Don't judge the work as it unfolds—that's not your job. Be understanding and supportive when changes or cuts are made to choreography. Don't wait to be told every little thing—be proactive and make choices.  
 
How does teaching dance for musical theatre differ from other genres?
This is a great question, and one that I struggled with for a long time. I used to think that teaching for musical theatre meant teaching a fairly narrow and specific vocabulary. I no longer think that's true. With so many styles of dance currently represented on Broadway, I think exposing students to a wide variety of dance forms, vocabularies, and creative processes better prepares them for success in the field. I do think that musical theatre students tend to be very outcome based in their approach to training, so sometimes my job is helping them understand and invest in the process of learning to dance.  
 
​What is your favorite part of your job?
Seeing students really express themselves fully through dance—that moment when they forget themselves and become completely absorbed by the movement or rhythm.  
 
What has been a highlight of this year?
I took a group of students to Williamsport to see Rhythmic Circus, a tap company from Minneapolis—we had a blast!
 
Any particular choreography/choreographers in musical theatre that you're especially excited about right now?
I've been excited about Andy Blankenbuehler since In the Heights, and I'm dying to see Hamilton. I'm also pretty excited about Savion Glover returning to Broadway this spring.
 
Is a “choreographer” an expert in moving bodies around a stage or an expert in moving ideas around the world?
(I love this question! Can you share your thoughts on this?) 
Yeah, so this question was brought up in a blog post that I shared on my Facebook page. I definitely think a choreographer is an expert in moving bodies around a stage—that's sort of a given in the field. A few, very gifted choreographers, working at the highest level, might be able to move ideas around the world—but even if some of us never rise to that level, I have to hope that we are all making work with that goal in mind. 
 
What makes the dance training at Penn State so strong?
The commitment of the faculty, hands down.

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