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A life on pointe

La Roche College's program prepares dancers for stage -- and studio

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

By Jill Cueni-Cohen

Gliding on pointe to delicate piano music, Liz Munshour, 17, of Ross, is in her element. Her goal is to become a ballet dancer and dance instructor, and after graduating from the preparatory program at La Roche College's Academy of Dance, she's off to a promising start.

"I can't imagine myself doing anything else. Dancing is my life," said Munshour, who plans to attend La Roche in the fall.

She auditioned to take youth ballet classes at the McCandless school in the summer of 2000, shortly after ballet dancer Gerard Holt became the dance department's artistic director.

Ballet dancing is a competitive and risky profession, but Holt has always been focused on beating the odds -- for himself, as well as for his students.

At least five of Holt's students have gone on to professional dance companies. "It's a comfort to know he's had so much success," said Munshour.

The college's Academy of Dance takes students, ages 4 through 18, and helps them decide whether to pursue a career in dance. "You need to tell dancers around the age of 14 or 15 whether or not [a professional career] will be possible, because they need the opportunity and time to make another decision," said Holt.

"Gerard does a terrific job of inspiring young people to appreciate dance," said the college's public relations director, Jeff Donaldson. "He's able to harness the best his students have and channel their efforts into putting their best foot forward."

Donaldson credits Holt with dramatically raising the quality of the school's nearly 10-year-old program. "The fact that we've turned out five professional dancers speaks volumes for the program itself, and for Gerard's efforts."

Traditionally, dancing is a youthful career that can end quickly. That's why the La Roche program offers bachelor's degrees in the performing arts as well as in pedagogy, for students who want to become instructors.

"Dancers and students today aren't ready to make [an early] commitment like we were," Holt acknowledged. "I make it clear to my students that this is a difficult business, and you need to stay one step ahead and have a plan."

He speaks from experience.

Originally from Hartford, Conn., Holt, 39, took his first class at age 11. In 1981, he began dancing professionally for ballet companies coast to coast, reaching the pinnacle of his career when he joined the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 1990. Off-stage, he began teaching parttime for local ballet schools, including Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing arts and Pittsburgh Performing Arts Theatre.

In 1997, Holt retired from dancing on-stage because of an ankle injury and his father's death and focused on passing along his knowledge. "It's rewarding to see the dancers grow and mature."

It's also comforting for Holt, whose parents and sister are deceased, to live among his Pittsburgh relatives. He said, "I missed performing for my family, and I wanted to settle down somewhere that I had roots, because it's true that you can't dance forever. Once I moved here, I started to feel my way into teaching."

The transition was nearly seamless.

According to recent La Roche graduate Mandy Wilson, 22, of Fayette County, Holt has turned the college's tiny dance department into the community's best-kept secret.

"Not a lot of people know about [the dance program]," said Wilson, who continues to take dance classes at the college to keep in shape, "but I've really liked my time here. Gerard makes me feel like I want to work harder."

Prior to joining the staff at La Roche, Holt was the ballet master for the Western Pennsylvania Performing Arts Company in Vandergrift for five years, then taught classical ballet at Point Park College for two years.

"I think I may be the only male [ballet] teacher in southwestern Pennsylvania, and I know I'm the only African-American ballet teacher and artistic director in the whole region," said Holt.

Student Aimee Miller, 18, of Ohio Township, credits Holt with her decision to become a professional dancer. "I've known Gerard since I was 9, and he was teaching in another studio," she said. "I've known him all my dance life."

Holt was the reason she decided to return to dancing after a three-year hiatus. "This year, especially, I've learned I really want to join a professional company," she said, pointing out that it's an advantage to have a male teacher.

"Women focus on the more delicate details of the dance," Miller explained. "Gerard's more into turns and jumps and fast combinations, and it's nice to be exposed to both."

It's also crucial for those taking college-level pedagogy courses to be able to teach male students masculine moves that women don't make. Currently, one male dancer, senior Damian Kush, is pursuing a pedagogy degree. "He has his own studio and has to know how to teach pointe," said Holt, explaining that only women dance on their toes.

However, Holt pointed out that his career focus has not been on race or gender. "It's been about getting a job and maintaining a paycheck," he said. "When I retired from performing, it wasn't who or what, it was what's the next thing?"

Holt hopes to turn the La Roche program into a fully-functioning ballet school and college dance department that would feed into a professional ballet company.

"If I could broaden the academy and have a solid eight- to 10-level academy, with kids going all the way through, then they'll be prepared to make their own [career] decisions," said Holt. "They can go into the college to teach, or they would have the opportunity to audition for the professional company."

Holt has been taking advantage of his position to pursue a bachelor of fine arts -- something he couldn't do when he was dancing.

"While you're training, you're hoping that by the time you turn 17 or 18 you'll get a job and start dancing. That's how ballet dancers have always thought: You keep moving, you get into ballet school and hope you don't get an injury," said Holt. "If you're lucky, you can go back to school once you're career is over."

Jill Cueni-Cohen is a freelance writer.

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