Friday, September 12, 2014

Mom in The Spotlight: Lucy Vurusic Riner

"I feel very passionate about teaching girls to be empowered, resilient and fierce.  We talk a lot about what brings us to dance and how we can use dance as a tool to strengthen our voices as women."

Tell me about the little people living in your house.
I have an eight-year-old girl and a five-and-a-half year old boy. 

What's the secret to balancing an artistic life and motherhood?
Yikes!  Learn how to sleep six hours a day would be my first response.  

My kids and my husband are pretty awesome, and I include them in my artistic life.  They know what I’m doing and where I’m going.  They come to rehearsals and shows when they can.  I think this has kept them invested in my artistic life.  This summer Margie took it upon herself to steal a stack of postcards from our RE|Dance Group office and take them to camp to pass out all her camp counselors.  

My kids have also been the inspiration for some of my work.  I did a project called “The Moving Vessel” where I explored pregnancy and post-partum dancing with my dance mom friends.  I have also made several works about the preciousness of making someone and then having them in your life.  My newest work is called, “My Nearest Thought” and the premise of the whole work is that I’m spread so thin I can barely remember where I’m going most days.

Do you watch "So You Think You Can Dance?" 
I only voluntarily watched one of the first episodes in the first season and stopped after that….mostly because I don’t watch TV of any kind very much.  Students have shared YouTube clips with me, so I’ve seen some of those too.  I’m not really a fan.  As much as I appreciate that it has drawn more attention to dance and the athleticism it requires, I’m not sure it’s done much to advance concert dance in America.  I feel like lots of mom and pop studios are mass producing cookie cutter dancers that can do tricks and win competitions (and eventually compete for the ultimate prize on SYTYCD).  

I am more interested in the artistry of making dance and teaching my students how to use their facility wisely so they can dance more strongly and for longer.  I’m not interested in being part of trends that may not be sustainable in the long run.

You teach, and have taught, all levels of students.  How do you reach the student who is new and somewhat resistant to dance?
This is the best part of my job!  I love beginners and students who have never had modern dance.  I'm a funny person and I infuse a lot of humor in my classes.  I also believe that making things fun is a huge part of fighting resistance.  Many people think fun teachers are less disciplined and a bit too easy on their students.  I think you can have the perfect balance.  Students respect you when you challenge them, and they like you when you are fun.  There’s no problem in being both, and I draw most of my beginner modern dancers in this way.  Once they trust me, they believe in what I’m doing, and then they are a blank canvas -- willing to try anything I put in front of them.

How do you bring diversity and cultural awareness into your classroom?
This is the second best part of my job!  I’ve been fortunate enough to teach in a very diverse school where we spoke daily about diversity, stereotypes, prejudices and racism.  Now I’m teaching at a school where these topics rarely come up unless we are having meetings about it in particular.  I incorporate awareness in my classes in a number of ways. 

First, I truly believe in giving my high school dancers a holistic experience.  I want them to experience all types of dance.  Setting them on a track to just study modern or jazz or ballet isn’t my style.  I think they are still finding themselves at this age and they need to have dance experiences that will help them understand who they want to be.  I grew up taking mostly jazz and when I had the opportunity to see and take a modern dance class (because of my high school teacher) I was hooked; it’s how I chose to major in dance in college.  Had I not been given that exposure I’m not sure I’d be doing anything that I’m doing now. 

I teach African, Bollywood and last year I even added a short Croatian dance unit to my beginning level classes!  We talk about the communities where these dances are performed, the history behind them and how the movement we do today is influenced by different cultural forms.  My job goes beyond teaching dance appreciation.  I want my students to appreciate what different cultures and races have contributed to their education.  I also feel very passionate about teaching girls to be empowered, resilient and fierce.  We talk a lot about what brings us to dance and how we can use dance as a tool to strengthen our voices as women.

Jose Lucy Map duet

Your company RE Dance is celebrating its 5 year anniversary this year?  How do you keep a company vibrant and relevant in a dance landscape as populated as Chicago's?  
Yes!!!  This year RE|Dance Group hit the five year anniversary mark!  I love it!  I’m so fortunate to have RE|Dance Group and I think we’re successful for several different reasons: 
First off, I have an amazing artistic partner in Michael Estanich who is one of my dearest friends.  We have an unusual long distance partnership but it works primarily because we trust, respect and love each other.  I also have, as I mentioned above, a ridiculously supportive husband and kids. 

The Chicago dance scene is incredibly populated with tons of artists trying to make their mark.  I feel fortunate that I’ve been around the block several times.  I’m born and raised in this community.  My first ballet teacher at 14 was Natalie Rast, my first jazz teacher was Kirby Reed and I vividly remember Nana Shineflug grabbing my crotch and telling me to wake up the tiger in me when I would come from college each summer and take her class.  I feel blessed to know so many wonderful dancers, teachers and artistic directors in this city.  I think it’s enabled me to want to build my company here and work alongside my mentors and friends.

"I hate those damn booty shorts everyone wants to dance in, and I don’t need to see your belly all day either."

Go-to teaching outfit? Are teaching clothes different from dancer clothes? Or rehearsal clothes?  
Ha!  This is a topic of discussion that can get me fired up.  I’m 40.  At this stage in the game I believe I have earned the right to wear whatever I want in dance class!  This year marks 20 years of teaching in high schools.  When I started I wore what I expected my students to wear; a leotard and tights or leggings.  Then I started teaching more beginners and boys who were taking my class for PE credit and I sometimes offset the leo with a tank top and yoga pants.  Now, I literally show up in what I feel good in.  Some days that’s leggings and a cute tunic top; other days that’s a tank or camisole top with jazz pants.  You’ll never see me in shorts, that's for sure. 

As for my students, I expect them to be in whatever dress code we’ve developed at the school I’m at.  At OPRFHS they could wear their PE uniforms if they didn’t feel comfortable in their dance clothes but at New Trier we want all of our students to have a leotard with tights or leggings.  I expect my students to follow the rules we put in place for them and pay their dues.  I will tell you one thing that I know is unpopular with my students:  I hate those damn booty shorts everyone wants to dance in and I don’t need to see your belly all day either.  I’m not a fan of the black booty short and black sports bra trend these days; not to mention how it makes girls feel about themselves.

Would you rather be a young professional dancer now or twenty years ago? (Or) In your opinion, what's the biggest difference in dance now and 20 years ago?
Gurrllllll.  Twenty years ago for sure!  I thought the competition was fierce then but now it’s worse.  I think that’s because of dance on television.  Everyone is trying to make their kid a star in some way.  I get it.  My kid wants to be a star, too.  I just think it’s so much harder to find authentic dancers and performers these days.  Everyone can do a middle split and everyone can fouetté the crap out the person next to them but I’m more interested in the dancer that can break away from all the technique and classroom vocabulary and make some really interesting connections.  

I don’t go to see dance so I can see whose leg is highest or who can do the most turns. That sort of competitive dancing doesn’t interest me.  I go to be MOVED by something.  I want to leave a show feeling sad that I can’t be that person I just watched or dance with them.  I used to feel that far more deeply in the past.  The pendulum will swing and RE|Dance Group will try to take advantage of that!

What do your kids think about your being a dancer/choreographer/dance teacher?
I hope they love it.  My Oak Park students were pretty involved in my life.  They were around when I started RE|Dance Group, we rehearsed at the high school a lot and involved them in some of the processes so they could see what sort of path we were trying to forge as a new dance company.  It clearly made me cool.  We also employ many of my former students that have come back to Chicago after college and have come to me for guidance on where to go and what to do.  I feel so blessed to have had my teaching job during those formative years.

At New Trier, I’ve been able to use RE|Dance Group as a teaching tool that I think is very meaningful for them to see.  If I miss school for a tour I always connect what RE|Dance Group is doing to lessons I’m teaching them.  If Michael and I are off to perform our signature duet, “Abbot & Viv,” my will make sure I’ve started a unit on partnering, duets, or forming relationships in dance before I leave so that students can see the work I’m doing and begin work on their own creative process.  I want them to know that having a teacher who is out there working in the field can only benefit them.

Abbot & Viv

* I realize I just answered this question with the assumption that by “kids” you meant my students and not my biological children.  My ACTUAL kids don’t’ care that much.  Margie isn’t interested in being a dancer because she doesn’t want to share the limelight with her mother.  But she does want to be a performer of some kind.  Luka loves it but only if I allow him to come to rehearsals and shows with me.  Both of my kids take pride in what I do and that makes me so grateful for them.  We are definitely dancing in the family room more often than not.  One thing I appreciate is that they are both go getters and I hope that’s because they see some of that in me!

"I’ve gone a lot further than some of my most talented dance friends because I simply wanted it more.  The people who told me I couldn’t do it were NOT going to stop me."

Advice to those just starting out on their dance career?
Do it.  Do it.  Do it.  If you really want it, you don’t give up.  I started late (in high school) and I have always had to work twice as hard as many of my dancer friends.  If they went to class once a week, I went three times, because I always felt like I was catching up.  True, some of these people can still dance circles around me in regards to technique.  But I learned there's more than that -- artistic directors are willing to compromise, especially if they know that the person dancing for them is committed, determined and will bring every part of herself to the process.  What I lack in technique I have always made up for in drive and ambition. I’ve gone a lot further than some of my most talented dance friends because I simply wanted it more.  The people who told me I couldn’t do it were NOT going to stop me.

A form of dance you wish you were better at?
Ballet.  Always ballet.  But I truly believe you can’t be better at it if you can’t invest at least three days a week to it and that has rarely been the case for me.  Now, at 40, I’m still working on my turn-out and my pirouettes.  Some days are better than others but I still wish I had those damn ballerina lines.

Best FML mommy moment?  
Best one?  Maybe that one time I had to bring Margie to rehearsal when we were videotaping and she kept running into the shot and you see me on the video screaming while dancing, “get out of here before I kick you!”  

Lucy Vurusic Riner Lucy is a native Chicagoan who has been dancing, choreographing and teaching in the Midwest for over twenty years. She received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Dance Education from Illinois State University in 1996. Since 1997, she has produced, choreographed and danced in a variety of shows in Chicago and nationally. Lucy has been a member of Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak, RTG Dance and Matthew Hollis’ “The Power of Cheer.” Lucy has been part of the community casts of White Oak Dance Project and David Dorfman Dance and continues to enjoy finding work that allows her to meet new people and experience different processes.  She was the Director of Dance at Oak Park and River Forest High School from 1998 to 2012. Lucy left OPRFHS in 2012 to join the dance faculty at New Trier High School. In 2005, Lucy completed her Masters Degree in Education from National Louis University and also received the Midwest Dance Teacher of the Year award. She was honored to be the youngest of four finalists in the running for the National Dance Teacher of the Year award. Lucy started RE|Dance Group in 2009 with her artistic partner Michael Estanich.  RE|Dance Group celebrated it's five year anniversary this August and Lucy is proud to be the co-founder and executive director of this organization. 

For additional information, including upcoming performances, visit RE|Dance Group on Facebook!  You can also follow Lucy on Twitter.  

1 comment:

  1. I love hearing about other mom's lives. We are so different but so much alike. I need to learn to sleep at least 6 hours, too! Glad you're bringing these interviews back.


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