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In The News

Dr. Mary Ann Laverty named National Dance Educator of the Year
The Woodside dance teacher to be recognized at national convention in March

(February 12, 2010) - You'd never know Mary Ann Laverty is 2009 K-12 National Dance Educator of the Year from her demeanor. Many of her students at Woodside High School's arts & communications magnet program haven't heard about the honor, either. Laverty isn't talking – except through her choreography.

But she'll be speaking in March, when she's recognized at the national convention of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance. Laverty will teach a class, "Haiku as Poetic Dance," then. Meanwhile, it's business as usual for Woodside's director of dance.

All she wants to do is, well, … dance. It's all she's ever wanted to do. "My life is dance. It's something that keeps me alive, my life source," Laverty explains. She also wants to inspire others to dance. "That's my gift," she says. "I'm just trying to do my little part."

The ideals come in a low-key package. Most of her students are taller than "Dr. Lav," who favors black clothing. She's soft-spoken and collegial at a late-afternoon dress rehearsal for Woodside's production of the ballet "Sleeping Beauty." She checks out walkie-talkies used to communicate with the crew and matter-of-factly notes, "Guys, you need to be getting dressed. Act One, you need to be backstage."

Some students pull on their costumes unselfconsciously in the school auditorium. One student's costume isn't finished. She goes backstage in tights, shorts, and a T-shirt. Another dancer can't be found. "Guys, are you not concerned about getting out of here tonight?" Laverty asks from the stage. "Places for Act One. We're starting."

As the rehearsal progresses, Laverty is everywhere. She slides a cradle onto the stage and adjusts it a moment later. From behind a curtain, stage left, she signals to students on the opposite side of the stage to make their entrance. A minute later, she's stage right, clapping out a rhythm from the wings to help the dancers keep up with the music. Laverty's hand steadies a prop staircase on wheels as it exits the stage.

At a World Dance class a week later, Laverty is similarly hands-on. Or, feet-on. There are 16 girls in the class. "Take off your socks. The floor's slippery. Earrings off, too," she tells the students. She leads the warm-ups. Some of the girls sing along to "I'm Every Woman," by Whitney Houston. "We're going to do a long leg stretch now," Laverty says, and a couple of students groan. "Oh, please don't play this song," one student pleads as the teacher cues "Purple Rain," by Prince.

Laverty, wearing a Paul Taylor Dance Company T-shirt, does all the exercises with the students, whom she rivals for flexibility. As they go through the warm-up, she reminds them which muscles they're using. The group is rehearsing a dance they'll perform with the chorus at a winter concert. Laverty explains that the song, "Riu, Riu, Chiu," has a difficult rhythm. She tells the students they're dancing flamenco, "an improvisational step." Later, she advises, "Put a little bit of hip into it."

Laverty watches the students in the mirror as she dances. They all finish the dance together, heels of the matching shoes they've pulled out of a bin hitting the wooden floor in a single, dynamic crack. "That was good," Laverty observes. "Let's start over."

Laverty has taught for 25 years. She came to Woodside in 1999 to revamp the dance program. Woodside Principal Susan Tilley notes, "She has built a successful program from the ground up, and it continues to grow and improve each year."

Previously, Laverty taught at New York University, Hampton University, and Christopher Newport University. Her teaching style is low-key, but Laverty says it's mostly a result of being around the same students for years. "We're facilitators," she explains. "Once you attain a certain level, you have a lot of freedom. I'm from California, too, and we tend to be more laid-back."

A focus on the arts at Woodside also makes for a different atmosphere, Laverty says. "The one thing I love about Woodside is that it's OK to be in the arts." That doesn't ensure that teen-age boys flock to dance classes, though. Laverty explains, "With the right material, to make them feel masculine, it works. There's some bargaining involved."

Laverty says the most gratifying aspect of her job is "When the kids do pull through and surprise me. They show you that you have made an impact, that they have listened to you. Many students go on to dance professionally and come back, so you do see some fruits."
Laverty doesn't perform any more, but she does take classes when they're available locally. "There's not much for adults here," she concedes. There are ample opportunities to watch dance, though. Laverty says the Virginia Arts Festival and CNU are both dance-friendly.

John Boyles, program administrator of Woodside's Center for the Arts and Communication, notes, "She regularly takes our students to perform outside of school, as well as takes them on field trips to take class elsewhere, and see a variety of performances. Where else can dance students get this kind of education?"

Boyles also likes the diversity of the music Laverty uses with dancers: "She chooses some excellent music, so that our students experience both traditional ballet music, and pretty cutting-edge pop and contemporary music. When one group danced recently at a holiday performance, they did a modern dance to Beyonce's version of "Carol of the Bells", so it was appropriate and ‘hip.' " Laverty's own tastes run the gamut, from Jay-Z to Imogen Heap to Led Zeppelin. (She says she owns every Zeppelin album.)

Tilley notes, "Dr. Laverty is so deserving of this recognition. She represents the passionate, dedicated, and talented teachers we have at Woodside and across the school division. She is an asset to our school community, and I look forward to her continued success in the future."

Dance will be part of that future. Laverty would like to teach the world to dance. "It's the one time you can forget about the outside world and focus on yourself," Laverty says. "Dance is healing. It's been the vehicle that transported me in difficult times during my life. It involves a range of human emotions. It's your mind, body, and soul. It can change lives. It really can change lives."

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