Teacher's Wisdom: Sherry Zunker
Most dance teachers dream of sending their students into careers with prominent companies. Sherry Zunker dreams of keeping them dancing
long after the limitations of age and injury end their performing careers. Her Mature Dance Project (MDP), founded in 2008, has done just that for “post-professional” dancers who have performed with companies including The Joffrey Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and River North Chicago Dance Company. Its success has given rise to a performance group (MDP got a standing ovation at the 2009 Jazz Dance World Congress) and BeMoved, a class for adults of all movement abilities.
But this is just the latest phase in Zunker’s prolific career. She performed with Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago from 1978 to 1983 and was artistic director of River North from 1990 to 2001. She was also a soloist in the touring company of Bob Fosse’s
Dancin’. Her choreography has been performed by The Joffrey, River North, and Giordano companies, and she’s been involved in the creation of over 30 productions for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. Whether teaching working dancers, post-professionals, or over-40 students, Zunker uses what she calls “a therapeutic approach.” Lynn Colburn Shapiro spoke with her after watching her classes for River North, MDP, and BeMoved.
Do you consider what you teach to be jazz?
I’d say about half of what I teach is jazz.
What makes it jazz?
You need soul to do jazz. It has to have a grounded quality. And you have to able to control your body, to know how to isolate every single part. Also in jazz, more than some other aesthetics, transmitting emotion is essential.
How do you help dancers develop that?
I treat them like actors. In theater dance, there’s always a reason for doing what you’re doing. You have to be able to communicate that.
How does breathing figure into your classes?
It helps dancers get inside their bodies first instead of producing external movement. Starting slowly and methodically gets you dancing from the inside out and produces a richer, more mature way of moving.
How did Gus Giordano influence you?
By the strength in his style. Even before you start moving, there’s a strength to who you are. I don’t think my style really reflects his, but the essence of what he did is still in me. In class he was so inspiring. He exuded excitement—how he looked at people, how he engaged you, it just made you want to dance.
You sing when you teach, with that little breathy arpeggio of cascading notes. Why?
It’s a release. When students see me release my breath through my voice, they copy that. People learn better coming from a place of openness, not fear. I want them to experience playfulness and joy. I use a lot of humor.
How important is musical accuracy for you?
I’m a stickler about the music. I won’t let students get away with their version of it. You can be who you are as a person, but if I don’t see you paying attention to the details I’m giving, I won’t hire you.
How do you teach the Mature Dance Project differently from the company dancers you set work on?
With company dancers, I think about what they need from me to prepare for the work ahead of them that day. With the Mature Dancers, I want the class to have enough variety that it will work for everybody. It’s more about the experience, and not about executing things in an exact way. I leave it more open.
Who are your major influences as a teacher?
My first teacher, Jean Wolfmeyer in Wisconsin, probably influenced me most. First of all she gave me musicality. She was a tapper and then took jazz from Gus; she was great with rhythm. Finis Jhung influenced me most in ballet—the idea of doing something so simple but perfect, and really knowing your body. And Fosse influenced me with his emphasis on storytelling, that every movement is a part of a total dramatic context.
What about Fosse’s style have you incorporated into your work?
It’s hard to get dancers to move in a sensual way and show their sexuality. That’s not around much anymore. But Bob’s work really had that, and it absolutely stuck with me. To appear sexy, you have to have total control of your body. Fosse’s work is about having control of what’s moving and what’s still.
How do you get that sensual quality from dancers?
Instead of asking them to bring their sensuality to the table first, because so many people find that too exposing or feel too vulnerable, I start with the movement, then ease into bringing human direction and the choreographic aesthetic. And I ask them to do less. Just to stand there and look, or walk—that can be the most amazing moment. Keeping it simple, as opposed to producing movement, makes it more authentic, not as contrived.
How do your BeMoved classes compare with those for MDP or a professional company?
I always want people to enjoy dancing. I didn’t want BeMoved to be any less rich just because there’s less information to work with. It’s actually more challenging for me, because I want to give the same experience with fewer ingredients. The difference with BeMoved is that I’m very mindful of everyone’s age. What is safe for their bodies? What can they do that feels good, looks good, and makes sense with who they are at this age? I give them movement that has integrity but that’s easy to follow. I’m always looking for how I can stimulate their minds and lift their spirits. The key is self-discovery.
Photo by Cheryl Mann.