Elizabeth Stepanek Stepien began her dance training at the age of eight at the Major School of Dance in Illinois. She trained in ballet, tap, jazz, pointe, and lyrical. She performed in their annual recitals as well as competed as a soloist in pointe and lyrical. She also performed in the Von Heideke’s Chicago Festival Ballet The Nutcracker. After graduating high school, Elizabeth studied at the Von Heidecke School of Ballet and taught ballet and jazz at the Major School of Dance. In 2000, She moved to South Carolina where she attended the College of Charleston for theater, dance, and costume design. She also danced with the Robert Ivey Ballet and performed in the Footlight Players production of West Side Story. After moving back to Illinois and getting married, Elizabeth attended Columbia College Chicago as a dance major. She studied with Liz Burritt, Peter Carpenter, Paige Cunningham, and Dardi McGinley-Gallivan among others. She also attended workshops with Same Planet Different World, The Joe Goode Performance Group, and Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan. As a recent graduate she excited for the next chapter in her life as a dancer, choreographer, teacher, and mom!
How Many Children do you Have? Boys ?Girls?
I have a son named Christian and he is 4 years old going on 16. My second child is Sophia and she is 2 years old.
Where were you in your career when your children were born?
I feel like I was just starting over. I had spent many years as a theater major as well as dancing in a small ballet company in Charleston SC. I moved back to Illinois and reconnected with my now husband. I spent a lot of time taking class and teaching.
Shortly after we were married (like 2 weeks) I started at Columbia College Of Chicago as a dance major. The summer after I started Columbia, we were pregnant. This created some challenges, but I was so ready for them. I was in knee deep in school with both pregnancies and danced with both until about 6 or 7 months.
Being a full-time student mom seems almost impossible to me. What were your strategies? Is there any perspective that you had as a mom that might have given you an advantage over your peers?
Being in school with two very small children was such a challenge. I felt guilty being away ten hours or more a day. I kept telling myself just to finish school. Of course I also wanted to be a example to my kids -- finish what you start and always do the best you can.
My strategies were to sleep on the train, which was an hour and a half each way, and to stay up after Christian and Sophia were asleep to get homework done. For the most part, if they were awake I was mom not student. I also had a great support system from my husband and his parents. They went above and beyond watching the kids, so I could finish school.
Being a mom did change things for me. School became my only selfish time. At times, it was the only place I had time to myself, which made me a better mom. What better way to feel normal again than to be in a dance class? I didn’t take it for granted. I never missed, unless my kids were seriously sick and couldn’t go to the sitter. If I was sick or injured I did the best I could.
My kids taught me to let go of things and just have fun, which sometimes is hard in the dance world. My confidence went up and I really started to dance for myself…not for a grade or to get moved up into the next technique level. My kids have brought out a better dancer. I’m not sure that being a parent gave me an advantage but I feel like it helped me grow a lot the last few semesters.
You’re a dance teacher as well. Does being a parent give you any different insights, strategies or ideas for your teaching?
I know that I teach way differently than before I had kids. But I don’t know if it’s because of the tools I learned at Columbia and the examples of my amazing teachers there, or if it’s because I am a parent.
I do know that I am way more patient with students than my own kids! I guess it’s easier when they are not your own. I feel very comfortable teaching little ones, which I'm sure is because of my own children. I am still growing and learning as a teacher. Similar to parenting, it's total trial and error. I try to be as prepared as possible, but I always have a backup plan.
Like dancers, we as parents have strengths and weaknesses. What is your best quality as a mom? What’s something that you would like to improve on?
I am awful at this question when asked about dance…strengths. I'll start with weaknesses. I would love to be more patient, especially with my 4 year old. I hate yelling so finding patience would be awesome. Learning how to remain calm when buttons are pushed or nothing seems like it’s going right is something I try to work on daily.
Ok, strengths…I encourage my kids to do what they love. I am not afraid to go out in public with my son when he decides he is going to be Peter Pan and not answer to any other name. This really happened and lasted for two days. I truly enjoy playing along with their active imaginations.
What are your strategies for finding balance between work, family, and personal time.
I am a crazy list maker. Each day I try and make a list/plan. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. At all. The kids are on a routine and life revolves around that.
Being organized helps a lot, although I probably drive everyone crazy. I usually get work done when Dane is off work or when the kids are sleeping -- a lot like school.
Personal time takes a back seat. If I want to workout it is done at 5 a.m., before everyone gets up or around my husband’s crazy schedule. I am training for a marathon and I get up really early most of the time before the kids get up.
I am still trying to figure out how to actually take a dance class myself. That's the hard part about teaching dance. It is doubly hard, living in the suburbs with the long commute to a city studio. But once life gets back to normal it will happen at least twice a month.
What?! You are training for a marathon?! How does one even embark on such a quest?
I am a little crazy! I have wanted to run a marathon since high school, but couldn’t because I was in school or pregnant. I was a distanc runner starting in junior high. In high school, I ran cross country and track all four years. I recently ran the Soldier 10 and the Allstate 13.1 in Chicago.
To start training you just run. I use an app on my phone that gives me the amount of time I need to run – this weekend my long run was 2.5 hours. I think my short run days started at three miles. It has been good for me since right now I can’t get to the city to take class. It’s a stress release and keeps me sane.
I didn have to make huge changes to my diet because I suffer from IBS and realized the longer I ran, the worse my digestive system was. So now I’m gluten and dairy free, which are my number one triggers. I feel a lot better and I am finally losing that stubborn baby weight.
I hope to add interval training and weights to improve my pace. Right now I run my long runs at about 9:40 minutes/mile and would love a 9 minute pace. The big day is September 16th and I’m getting nervous.
This will be a huge accomplishment for me.