Jessica Totaro is a New Jersey choreographer and dance educator. She has spent the majority of her life dancing and her entire career teaching. Her goal has always been to provide her students with what she felt her dance education lacked—emotional support for her as a human and creative. She aims to foster both personal and artistic growth in her dancers, and as a former student myself, I can say that she is incredibly successful.
Totaro, or Ms. Jess to her students, is the kind of teacher you never forget. She inspired me and continues to do so in my everyday life and artistic endeavors. With her help, I’ve become more comfortable paving my own path and have realized that a career in the arts isn’t impossible. That’s why I was so happy I could recently catch up with her in an interview where we talked about everything from how her career started, to the challenges posed by 2020. Here’s what she had to say about life, dance and more.
When did you first start dancing and when did it become more than a hobby for you?
I first started dancing when I was three or four. I began because my sister started dancing and I wanted to do everything she did. So I started at a really young age.
I started to really fall in love with dance thanks to the people around me. I didn’t really go to that great of a studio growing up, and we didn’t have internet, so my outlet—the people I looked up to—were the older girls I danced with. They were two years older than me— juniors and seniors in high school— and they were part of the dance team at our local high school before I transferred. They encouraged me to audition for the performing arts high school in Howell.
There wasn’t one big “aha” moment, there were just moments where I found myself gravitating towards the idea of continuing dance. I always felt like I needed more, like I didn’t learn enough. So that’s where that ball started rolling. Then I went to high school for dance. And my senior year, my modern dance teacher Melanie Kramer took us to Rutgers University. The Mason Gross Dance Department had a dance day, so high school students could go and take a class with professors. That’s when the light bulb went off. I wanted to continue dancing throughout college and pretty much the rest of my life.
You went on to later attend the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. What were your four years there like?
Very eye-opening. I always felt like I was playing catch up a lot with my technique, just because I didn’t have strong technique leading up to my high school years. That was just from having a lack of ballet and a lack of discipline from the studio I first attended. So my experience with Rutgers was that I was hungry. I kept wanting to learn more.
In college, you start to dig deeper into yourself as a human being and as an artist. So you’re kind of stripped of everything you’ve learned prior to getting to college—you’re starting from the ground up.
You have a better sense and a better work ethic than if you were a kid. I feel like I found my heartbeat with improvisation and my choreography classes. Chips were breaking away at who I really was as an artist, and I kind of navigated through the gaps in my technique that I was always feeling growing up.
Was college the first time you had experienced a choreography project? When did you start to shift from performer to performer and choreographer?
I started a little bit of choreography in high school. We would be given pieces of music and we had shows like Eve of Choreography, which was all student choreography and was kind of the way that I started to get interested in how I could manipulate music to movement. It was something I had in me—I was always creating dances as a young kid, but to have a structured class was amazing.
It started in high school, and then once I got to college and there were full courses, projects and assignments on choreography. That’s when I started to pick up the idea of “I wish I had learned this in my studio. I wish I had this type of information at a younger age.” That way, I wouldn’t have simultaneously been learning about myself and trying to figure out how to be a choreographer in the modern, contemporary discipline. And that really trickled into my teaching method after I graduated (as you know).
When did you start teaching?
I started in September of 2010. That’s when Kimberly [Houli]—Ms. Kim at Dance For Joy—hired me. I think I just found an ad on Craigslist. One of my professors, Randy [James], said “If you can help it, try to only get jobs that are in the arts.” I’m someone that likes to dabble in a lot of things, but once I heard that information—that was kind of my promise to myself that I was going to try to just get jobs in the arts. So I started teaching right away, right out of college. Now it’s my eleventh year teaching…oh my gosh, holy crap!
What type of environment do you want to create for when students step into a classroom?
This is what I love to talk about! I was often insecure, hard on myself, wanting to look like the girl next to me and needing validation from my teacher. [A common thought was] “Why couldn’t my leg go as high as my friend’s during the ballet barre?”…which is why I would go to the bathroom during adagio, because [that thought] was something I didn’t want to confront.
There were some teachers where I did appreciate the tough love. I didn’t always need a pat on the back; work ethic is important. But when it comes to my specific classes, which are contemporary, modern and choreography, teachers that I felt were super nurturing to me in college were most helpful. They didn’t do things to praise me but they validated my creativity. Which means they validated me as a human being, and what I have to say and offer to the art world, or just to myself, or whoever I’m speaking to. I always wanted my students to feel that same level of comfort, not necessarily with their technique, but with their creativity. I believe that every student, every person, has the ability to create. It’s just about tapping into it and understanding how to do that more often without fear of judgment.
So when I started teaching, that was always my mission. Every kid deserves to feel good within their own bodies—no matter what they look like—and should have an opportunity to create. To step away from the technique every once in a while and feel like, “Oh, I belong here. I deserve to be here. I deserve to choreograph and be creative.”
That’s amazing… and you’ve definitely succeeded in creating that environment—I can vouch! A couple of years ago you started a new teaching initiative, the Movement Arts Project. What exactly is that?
Movement Arts Project is a student-based, pre-professional dance company where students have the opportunity to meet once a week. (Sometimes multiple times a week if we need an extra rehearsal for something.) But the basis of it is to create repertoire, which is partly my choreography, partly student choreography…it’s really about dance education.
So every month, these dancers have a guest artist that will come in to teach. I try to bring in multiple styles, so they’re not just learning modern and contemporary from one teacher all the time. I value the idea of being able to learn from as many people as you possibly can. So it ranges from musical theatre all the way down to resume building, nutrition for dancers, yoga and acro-yoga. We had Heather Favretto, who is the rehearsal director for Pilobolus. She came in a bunch to do some partnering workshops and some movement workshops.
Why did you decide to create the Movement Arts Project (MAP)?
The whole reason I started this was because I had a lot of students who wanted to audition for a performing arts high school. I was noticing a pattern that there are dancers who are so creative, they maybe need a bit more time with their technique and totally deserve to be in a performing arts program, but unfortunately, the way those things work is that the people with the best technique who do the best in the audition, they get to be in the performing arts program.
And that’s just how it goes as a dancer, you need to create that thick skin. But my heart goes out to the dancers who struggle with their technique. Like I always say, if I auditioned for FPAC with my technique back then now, there’s no way I would have gotten in. I was a hot mess going into high school. And there are also students who don’t live in a specific district, so they can’t audition for these programs.
There was one student in particular who I worked with, and I was pushing for her to get into a program, but just because of the nature of an audition, she didn’t wind up getting in. It was a little bit of a light bulb for me to start this program for dancers who want to continue their dance careers at a collegiate level or train further with different companies or audition. I wanted to try to give them similar experiences within their studio and outside of the studio performance opportunities.
That’s where I think I found the missing link in certain studios—it’s one or the other. You’re either training a lot, or you’re doing competitions a ton, or maybe it’s just recreational. So I found this gap in education. What is the goal? Do you want to go to college, or do you want to audition?
Totally. Do you find that this program helps students decide whether or not they want a career in dance?
Yes. With this program, sometimes there are students who come in and realize, “You know what, I actually don’t want to do this, because it’s a lot of work. Or this isn’t the field I want to be in.” So it was for the dancers who wanted more and couldn’t really get it anywhere else. MAP created that safe space in a studio, catering to those types of dancers.
I always feel like I want to give my students what I didn’t have. I want them to be wonderful people, humans and artists in the dance community. So they can know what they’re talking about, and so they can appreciate it. Then they are able to have valid opinions and the vocabulary to talk to someone in a professional company and ask them meaningful questions that are a little more layered than just, “I like what you do, you have great legs.”
So do you have anything coming up? Either with the Movement Arts Project or just that you’re looking forward to?
What I’m trying to navigate right now, is that I’m in this place where I want to be respectful of the dancers who feel comfortable performing other places while being safe. So we have started to shift into choreography mode. I’m setting a duet on two of my dancers that are in MAP right now, and we’re going to try and get into some film work. A film of a duet I submitted to a dance studio on Pope’s Island was screened during their Halloween-themed festival.
I’ve just been looking around and I’m seeing a lot of film opportunities for dancers. We also have a student choreography showcase. The showcase is called POAL, or Performance of a Lifetime. We are going to hopefully run it at a limited capacity. So that’s happening at the end of February or March.
So kind of just smooth sailing and keeping our eyes open and ears open, and I have plans to do some guest work…but having that be through Zoom. I’m also creating a couple of classes where I’m reaching out to choreographers or companies and seeing if we can have a master class virtually. So we’re still streaming live, and we’re still having that experience—it’s not just through a recording. Instead, it’s a little bit more of a personal setting.
That’s exciting! It’s—dare I say—one perk of everything happening considering you can bring in artists from everywhere because you can connect virtually.
Totally! I did that at the end of April. I reached out to a guy who does a lot of floor work, a lot of threading…it’s kind of difficult to do at home, which we realized after we’d done it. I realized people were getting rug burns from their carpets…so adjustments definitely have to be made to dance at home!
But I know for me personally, I took so many classes! As you said, the “perk” was that I took classes from Broadway Dance Center, from Peridance—just different technique classes. I was really able to connect with different people and different types of dance. I danced with people in Italy and Germany. In April I connected with a dance studio in Scotland, and I was teaching a choreography class there. I had a choreography residency through Zoom with a studio in Scotland!
And it was kind of eye-opening. I think we had this wall up as artists where we had to travel or buy tickets to see a show. Now, we can use technology to our advantage and reach out to people all around the world and learn from them. And I think that’s the best thing that I’m trying to take out of this [time] and offer to my dancers. Let’s keep the positivity going. There’s something bigger that’s going on, and we need to take advantage of that so we can learn more about ourselves and be better artists once we’re able to be more face to face with people.