When Your Teacher Is Your Mom

Five dancers discuss how learning from their mothers shaped them.

Photo of Stacey Tookey by Joe Toreno for Dance Teacher.

At age 13, Stacey Tookey didn’t like the solo her dance teacher was creating for her, and she had the audacity to say so. “I thought I could do better, so she left me to do it,” says the three-time Emmy Award–nominated choreographer best known for her work on So You Think You Can Dance. “In the end it was a good thing,” she adds.

That teacher was Shelley Tookey, Stacey’s mother. She owns Shelley’s Dance Company, a school in Edmonton, Alberta, now in its 44th year of operation. The studio started out in the family basement, where as an infant Stacey would be lulled to sleep by the sounds of tapping and jumping. As soon as she was old enough to walk, she began taking dance classes from her mother. “She taught me everything I know to this day,” Stacey says. “There’s not one exceptional moment in my life career-wise that I don’t root back to something my mom taught me.”

That’s not to say it was always easy. Despite providing certain advantages, having your mother be your instructor can complicate an already fraught relationship. “We spent so much time together that at moments we wanted to kill each other,” Stacey admits. Like any teenager, she tested her mother—but in her case that usually happened in the studio.

“You feel like you can take liberties, not follow direction—but she would put me right back in my place,” Stacey says. She recalls the time she refused to remove her sweatshirt after warm-up, a rule Shelley strictly enforced. “I was just being a brat, and she came up and took the back of the shirt and tore it off my body,” Stacey says with a laugh. But her mother’s tough love ultimately paid off. “She ingrained in me that I had to set a good example because I was her daughter, and that has made me a very good leader.”

Ellis Wood (aloft) and her mother, Marni Thomas, kneeling, in an early version of Wood’s "Flower Fiction." Photo by Tom Caravaglia, Courtesy Wood.

Sometimes, though, being the teacher’s child has the opposite effect. Ellis Wood, a noted choreographer and director of Ellis Wood Dance, trained with both her parents—Marni Thomas and the late David Wood, former Martha Graham company members who co-founded the dance department at the University of California at Berkeley. As a little girl, she recalls “doing triplets up and down the hallway” at home, and her mother and father leading her and her sisters through Graham classes on a train during a cross-country trip. But when it came to studying with them formally at Berkeley, where she was a dance major, she would hide in the back of the room for fear of looking like she was getting preferential treatment.

“I didn’t want to be aggressive in my mom’s class. I didn’t want to stand in the front and take parts; I felt like it would look bad,” says Ellis, noting that this habit hurt her at the outset of her career. “When I got to New York I would stand in the back of auditions and wonder, Why is no one taking me?” She eventually figured out that she had to put herself out there to be noticed. Ellis appreciates that her parents focused on sharing their passion for dance rather than pushing it as a profession. “But at certain times I think more guidance would have been helpful,” she says. “One part of me felt like, Why didn’t you teach me this?”

Susan Pilarre, visiting her daughter Zoe Zien, backstage at Miami City Ballet. Photo by Lilly Echeverria.

Miami City Ballet corps member Zoe Zien received plenty of insight into the profession from her mother, Susan Pilarre, a former New York City Ballet soloist who now teaches at the School of American Ballet. Zien was 11 when she started taking weekly technique classes from her mother. Like Tookey, she had moments of “teenage angst” in  the studio, especially when getting corrections. “As a kid it’s a little more overwhelming coming from your mother rather than someone you’re not emotionally attached to,” she says. “But I always knew that she was giving me such valuable information—a realistic sense of the art form, what’s going to be rough—in a way that I was really lucky to have.” This was especially useful when it came time to look for a job. “She was very encouraging about me having a career,” Zien says. “It was frustrating for her that I didn’t end up at NYCB and I was disappointed, but she always made sure I knew there were other Balanchine companies, including the one I’m in.”

Photo of Daniil Simkin by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

While Tookey, Wood, and Zien mostly trained in a class setting, some dancers work with their mothers one-on-one. That was the case for American Ballet Theatre principal Daniil Simkin, whose parents were both professional ballet dancers in Russia and Germany. Simkin’s mother was his only teacher for 10 years—but she never pressured him to follow in their footsteps. “I was immersed in this world from early on, but for my parents it was more important to provide me with the opportunity to decide that I really wanted to do this, because they did not have that choice,” he says. “In Soviet Russia, the profession chooses you!” His mother made sure he had as normal an upbringing as possible and limited his lessons to two hours a day, a method that suited Simkin. “I think if she would have forced me to train I would have done everything in my power, for better or worse, not to do it.”

Jared Grimes, performing in DRA’s Fire Island Dance Festival. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Grimes.

Jared Grimes’ mother took a more hands-on approach. The tap artist who performs this month at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, and this fall in Cotton Club Parade on Broadway started out taking dance lessons from her in Jamaica, Queens. When he latched on to tap, which was not her strong suit, she taught him the basics and then coached him around the clock. She’d drag a plank of wood from the garage into the living room, “and we’d be up in the wee hours of morning and she’d be drilling me—‘Keep it clean! Watch your arms! Look up! Smile!’ ” recalls Grimes. “I never did anything perfect for her. Even if it was perfect for another teacher, it was not perfect for her. That used to annoy the hell out of me, but it made me a better performer.”

Heightened criticism isn’t the only challenge these dancers faced growing up. Tookey remembers walking into a dressing room where other mothers were gossiping about a scholarship she’d received and how her mother had orchestrated it “to keep the money in the family.” (In fact, she’d had nothing to do with it.) “There were all these rumors [about nepotism], but to be honest I think it’s the opposite,” Tookey says. “You actually get less attention because you’re family. You’re almost in the shadow of paying customers.” Similarly, Wood says her mother shied away from casting her in her dances at Berkeley, and Zien’s mother felt she couldn’t call artistic directors she knew to recommend her as she would any other student because she was her daughter.

Still, all of these dancers say the positives of being trained by your mother far outweigh the negatives. And all their relationships have continued to evolve—even from afar. “I’ll be struggling with something and I’ll tell her over the phone It’s this section of the ballet when I do this step, and she gives me an idea of how to fix it,” Zien says of her mother. “I know she’s dancing the step on the phone and the next day I go in and apply that and it’s extremely helpful.” Simkin, too, still relies on his mom for guidance and advice. “Her vision brought me to where I am in life. I would consider it stupid to stop listening to her now.”

Grimes and Tookey see their mothers’ influence when they choreograph and teach. “I advocate that same kind of perfection from the students I work with,” Grimes admits. “I’m probably worse than her.”

Wood and her mother are charting new territory by performing together in an intergenerational dance called Flower Fiction that also includes her daughter (they are 78, 48, and 8, respectively) at the Ailey Citigroup Theater this June. “We laugh more; we hug more; we talk more. It’s this incredible place to be in with her,” she says.

And, of course, although your mother/teacher may be a tough critic in the studio, in the audience she’s your most devoted fan. “She always reminds me that I haven’t stopped growing as a dancer,” Zien says of Pilarre, who recently saw her perform a lead role in Liam Scarlett’s Euphotic and was moved to tears. “When she comes, it’s always the best she’s ever seen me,” she says. “And then the next time it’s even better.”

Elaine Stuart is an NYC writer who has covered dance for The Wall Street Journal and The Brooklyn Rail.



The Conversation
Dancers Trending
Hamrick rehearsing Port Rouge in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy Hamrick

Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.

So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Photo by

What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?


Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Stephen Mills' Grimm Tales, which premiered last month, is the first ballet funded by the Butler New Choreography Endowment. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Ballet Austin

As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.

So where can companies find the money?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.

Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Merce Cunningham in his Changeling (1957). Photo courtesy DM Archives

Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.

Courtesy DM Archives

Dance in Pop Culture
Courtesy MPRM Communications

A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.

But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."

Keep reading... Show less
A 1952 photograph of Merce Cunningham in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three. Photo by Gerda Peterich, Courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates

One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.

This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.

The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
George Balanchine's Don Quixote. Photo by Martha Swope ©The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.

Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.

"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."

Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?

Keep reading... Show less
Sarah Lane will perform in one of the "You Are Us" benefit concerts. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy ABT

After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.

Keep reading... Show less
Malpaso Dance Company in Cunningham's Fielding Sixes. Photo by Nir Ariel, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Tan Li Min working with Queensland Ballet dancer Lou Spichtig. Photo by Jovian Lim, Courtesy Cloud & Victory

Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.

Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.

She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.

Keep reading... Show less
Alia Kache in rehearsal with Ballet Memphis. Photo by Louis Tucker, Courtesy Ballet Memphis

The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.

Keep reading... Show less
Maddie Ziegler will play one of the Jets. (photo by Lucas Chilczuk)

This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:

We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Courtesy Khoreva

The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?

Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.

Keep reading... Show less
25 to Watch
Photo credits, clockwise from bottom left: Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet; Jayme Thornton; Jochen Viehoff, Courtesy Stephanie Troyak; Karolina Kuras, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet; Jim Lafferty; Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Altin Kaftira, Courtesy Dutch National Ballet; Scott Shaw, Courtesy Shamar Wayne Watt

What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.

Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.

Keep reading... Show less
Youth America Grand Prix alumna Michaela DePrince. Photo by VAM, Courtesy YAGP

Since its inception in 1999, Youth America Grand Prix has grown to have an outsize impact on the ballet world, with more than 450 alumni now dancing with 80 companies across the globe.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Jesse Obremski captivates as a freelancer for many NYC–based troupes. Photo by Roi Lemayh, Courtesy Gibney Dance Company

At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by @FullOutCreative

Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.

In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

I've been on a crying jag since I sprained my ankle for the third time. It kills me that I can't dance my favorite roles. I'm also disgusted with myself for being a crybaby.

—Maggy, Philadelphia, PA

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Michael Parmalee/FX

It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.

But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.

"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."

Keep reading... Show less


Get Dance Magazine in your inbox