Associate Artistic Director
Tracy Straus: Spreading the Message of NDI
Watching NDI’s Associate Artistic Director Tracy Straus work with a classroom of children is a study in teaching excellence. She is an expert at engaging and motivating the young dancers, creating a learning environment that is focused, energetic and electric.
Tracy brings this same energy to classrooms across the country and around the world leading NDI’s Residency Program, most recently teaching children at the East Harlem School and PS 41 in Manhattan. She inspires dozens of professional dancers and educators each year to continue NDI’s tradition of teaching excellence through the Teaching Artist Training Program. And she is helping to create a solid forum for NDI-inspired associate programs (including the Colorado-based program she leads, Celebrate the Beat), spearheading the development of ANDI: Associates of National Dance Institute.
Tracy seemed destined for the arts, raised by two parents who were both theatrical producers. “I grew up totally immersed,” Tracy recalls. “Theater was as important to my family as food and sunlight.” Tracy started off as an actress and began seriously studying dance at age 14. “14 is late for a girl. It’s why I always felt I needed to play ‘catch up’ regarding my ballet technique.” During this same period, she came face-to-face with one of her greatest life challenges. Diagnosed with scoliosis, Tracy was required to wear a brace for two years that enclosed her body from neck to hips. “I wore that brace 23 hours a day. The one hour a day I could take it off was for dance class.” Into early adulthood, Tracy continued as an actress as well as a dancer, training at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, receiving a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Michigan in dance and literature; and performing off-Broadway.
“My greatest dance teachers I met at Jacob’s Pillow, when it was under the leadership of Liz Thompson. This is where I met Lynn Simonson, a brilliant teacher I feel blessed to have trained with. Jacob’s Pillow was a magical experience for me - performing in that converted barn, getting to take class with the Taylor company, being in nature – feeling the ghosts of all the dancers who graced that stage.”
Tracy’s early life experiences, including her work as an actor and dancer, instilled in her the work ethic and creativity that are so present in her teaching today. It was through another teacher that she first heard about NDI. The year was 1993, and Tracy was at Bank Street College of Education studying for her Master’s Degree in early childhood education. “On my break, I checked my messages and had an urgent call from my former high school English teacher and friend, Jane Bendetson. She told me she had just seen the most amazing performance at Brooklyn Academy of Music: 1000 children dancing on stage, and that I should ‘drop everything and get out there!’” Tracy took her mentor's advice and immediately hopped the subway to Brooklyn to watch NDI’s 1993 Event of the Year: Amerimusica. “I was totally blown away. I decided then and there that I had to be a part of this amazing work.”
Tracy pursued that dream with the same determination and focus she brings to her teaching. “The very next day, I went to NDI’s office, photo and resume in hand, and asked if I could audition. They politely told me that there was nothing available. So I came back the next day. And the next. And finally Ellen (Weinstein) agreed to audition me – I think she just wanted to get me out of her hair at that point – and sent me to a school way out in Brooklyn with Teaching Artist Tim Santos. I suddenly found myself on a stage with 20 middle school students, teaching to “Anything Goes.” Tracy passed the audition and was hired as an intern at Summer Institute under Lori Klinger and Catherine Oppenheimer. After a year of assisting with classes and residencies, Tracy became a full-time NDI Teaching Artist.
In 1998, Tracy left NDI. Her experience as an arts educator was expanded when she joined The After School Corporation started by international philanthropist George Soros. TASC’s mission was to bring high quality after-school programs into the public school system.
After a year at TASC, Tracy was invited to direct NDI-New Mexico’s Residency Program and co-write their Event of the Year. It was a wonderfully enriching year - working on different pueblo’s and reservations, and teaching with fantastic teaching artists at NDI-NM.
During this year, Tracy was approached by the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet to start an outreach program for children in the region, and Celebrate the Beat was born. “That first year we were in five schools, serving around 250 children,” Tracy recollects. “I would teach at a different school each day. Our first Event of the Year was dedicated to Jacques d’Amboise. I entitled it, ‘He Makes Me Feel Like Dancing.’” Celebrate the Beat has grown to become an independent 501c3, serving not only Aspen, but Vail and Crested Butte communities as well, and currently reaching 800 students a year.
Straus remembers those first years in Colorado as both exhilarating and challenging. “I have tremendous gratitude for the hands-on experience I had with NDI leading up to starting the program, and for the examples set by all of my New York City and New Mexico colleagues. I was really alone, and it was hard, but I used all of that knowledge and experience, bringing the same passion, energy and artistry into building the program. It’s why I’m so passionate about my work with ANDI: Associates of National Dance Institute.”
Since returning to NDI as Associate Artistic Director in 2004, developing the ANDI program has been a major focus for Tracy. “ANDI provides a living, breathing asset to people who have dedicated their lives to creating successful programs based upon the NDI model. It’s such an important resource for creative input and to share best practices.”
Straus also serves as NDI’s Residency Director, bringing NDI programs to such places as India and Ethiopia, and is in charge of NDI’s Teacher Training Program. “The Teacher Training program continues to evolve – I think this year’s was the best yet. Program Director Aileen Barry and I are continuously re-assessing, taking what we’ve learned to create the best experience possible.”
by Angel Gardner
April 6, 2009
leads a Teacher Training Workshop in New York City