Susan McGuire: a mentor who knows modern


Teaching modern technique to more than 100 dance majors in a ballet-oriented college program is no easy feat.

Butler University associate professor Susan McGuire started out as a ballerina like many of the students that she has taught over her 11 years at Butler.

“If you’re really lucky enough to fall in love with something else, then the decision (for a career) is made for you,” McGuire said.

During her professional career, McGuire danced ballet. But now as an adult, she has started dancing modern.

McGuire said she fell in love with modern dance when she saw the Martha Graham Company perform “Diversion of Angels” at an outdoor concert put on by The Cleveland Orchestra.

“It was a complete life-altering experience,” McGuire said. “It was absolutely like falling in love with someone at first sight.”

With goals of joining the José Limón Company in New York City, McGuire began training in modern dance. She also maintained her position at a company in the Northeast Regional Ballet Association, all while teaching full-time.

She moved to New York in 1972 with her husband and son to pursue her modern dance career.  Because McGuire was in her late 20s, she said she was concerned about her ability to continue in professional dance.

“Like everything else it was fits and starts and loss of confidence,” McGuire said.

To help support her family, she and her husband drove taxis during her first year in New York. Within a year of taking classes at the Martha Graham School, where she was on full scholarship, she was offered a position with the main company where she danced for three years.

After leaving the company in December of 1976, she and her husband scraped together some funds so she could do a two-week workshop at the Paul Taylor studios. Taylor noticed her within the first week and invited her to work with him setting a new piece.

After working together four days a week for two months, Taylor had created a new piece based on McGuire. He subsequently offered her a position in his company. She was in already her early 30s, but she said she saw it as the start of a new chapter.

“It was a glorious beginning,” McGuire said. “Those were the golden years of Taylor.”

During her 15 years as a professional, McGuire danced all over the world in places such as Southeast Asia, Central America and the former Soviet Union.

Her current students and colleagues recognize her value to the dance department.

Erica Johnston, senior dance performance major, sees McGuire as a mentor not only in dance but in life as well.

“(Knowing McGuire made me continue to be analytical without being self-critical,” Johnston said.

After her sophomore year, Johnston went to the Paul Taylor summer intensive in New York with a work-study scholarship that McGuire helped her get.

McGuire has also counseled Johnston on companies that she should audition for this upcoming spring. Her counsel is appreciated by students when the professional dance world seems so overwhelming. She said that working with McGuire has changed her mental approach to dance and life.

“Her class makes me discover how much more I enjoy moving in an earthy, modern way,” Johnston said.

“She’s helped shape where I’m going in life. I’m very thankful because she’s so wise and gifted.

“She changed my life.”

Johnston sees McGuire as a strong teacher for her ability to point out individual corrections. She demands specificity from her students,  giving them the tools they need to succeed in the professional world.

Stuart Coleman, senior dance pedagogy major, said he sees McGuire as the greatest mentor he has ever had and respects her for the guidance that she has provided him.

“I definitely feel safe in saying that as I leave Butler and progress with my career, that she is always going to remain someone who I revere with the most admiration,” Coleman said.

Coleman said McGuire’s modern class has transformed him as a dancer and given him a sense of confidence as a person.

McGuire leaves an impact on both her current and former students.

Marissa Finlay, sophomore elementary education major, only had  McGuire as a professor for one semester of her freshman year, but still remembers what it was like to be in her class.

She recalled being pushed to the limits of her dancing and how nerve wracking it was to attempt to reach that level of perfection that McGuire demands of her students.

Now pursuing a teaching career of her own, Finlay can appreciate the quality of McGuire’s instruction and her value to the department.

“I think you need someone that’s going to have a very firm hand, but students aren’t going to be afraid,” Finlay said.

Finlay said she wants to be that kind of teacher students can connect with.

Dan Peelor, dance department staff musician, has known McGuire ever since she came to Butler 11 years ago. He plays for the lower two levels of her modern classes.

“It’s been nothing but a pleasure from the very start,” he said. “She’s very sensitive to the music.”

“For a dance teacher to have a deep knowledge of music is not all that usual.”

Peelor said McGuire is serious about her work, which is important for a professional organization such as the dance department.

At this point in her career, McGuire has taught and directed at several institutions, including the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, the London Contemporary Dance School and the Paul Taylor School.

Even though she has been a teacher for more than 11 years, McGuire said she still has some insecurities about it.

She said she feels constant responsibility to her students to give them something useful.

“I don’t always live up to my own expectations,” McGuire said.

At the same time, she sees the teaching process as rewarding.

She said the first couple of weeks are challenging while the students are getting acquainted with the new material, but then the class coheres and becomes like “one big organism.” She said it is satisfying for her to see the work coming to fruition.

McGuire said she recently has looked to the past more than look to the future, but she anticipates staying at Butler and continuing her work in exposing ballet students to classical modern technique.

“I can continue to grow as a teacher and as an artist, but I don’t have to look at the next big step because there isn’t one,” McGuire said, “And that’s fine with me.” DSC_0735


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