Dance teachers inspire, motivate

Concerts honor WSU’s Teressa McWilliams and Dayton Ballet School’s Carol Jean Heller.

I’ve interviewed many visual and performing artists over the years and there’s one thing many have in common.

They pay tribute to a special teacher who made a major difference in their lives.

Two Miami Valley teachers who’ve inspired thousands of dance students over decades are being honored for their myriad of contributions to the world of dance. At the Wright State University Spring Dance Concert this weekend, Teressa McWilliams, professor of dance and a choreographer, will mark her retirement from the university. If you’ve been lucky enough to experience one of Wright State’s musical theater productions, you’ve seen Terri’s extraordinary work. Over the years she has choreographed more than 80 musical theater and concert productions.

Carol Jean Heller is well known for choreography she’s created for the Dayton Playhouse and for her work with the Dayton Ballet School where she’s been both teacher and administrator for decades. Now at almost 80, she continues to teach Gold Tap classes once a week at South Dayton Dance Center for tappers ages 60-80. The Dayton Ballet School will honor her at their upcoming “Alice in Wonderland” on Sunday, May 15 at the Victoria Theatre.

A lifelong passion

Both women began dancing even before heading to kindergarten. Both have spent a lifetime in the world of dance–as performers, choreographers, teachers.

At age four, Heller took her first ballet class and loved it immediately. Later she discovered tap. “Basically, I just love dance,” she says, quoting cartoonist Charles Schultz: “To live is to dance; to dance is to live.”

McWilliams, who began dancing at age three, says she’s always been drawn to the nonverbal nature of dance–the dynamics, rhythm, physicality and visual designs in space.. “There’s such power and passion in the way the body can be crafted moving through space,” she says.

Both women have always relished teaching. “It’s a balance of training the body and encouraging the creative soul,” notes McWilliams, who says she loves the daily connection and interplay with students who are pursuing their dreams. “I not only love teaching them the skills necessary for their own growth as technicians but mentoring them as young artists.”

For Heller, it’s an opportunity to watch a child grow. " You start them out as preschoolers,” she says. “They learn to skip, hop, jump and not to be afraid of getting in front of an audience. Later they learn discipline and how to organize their lives. Those are skills they will use the rest of their lives whether they dance or not. "

Dancing through life: Carol Jean Heller

Heller, who remembers dancing for Dayton Ballet founder Josephine Swartz when she was a little girl, was running her own dance school at age 17. She later moved to New York where she danced with the Ballet Repertory of New York City and studied tap with Jack Stanley, Gene Kelly’s teacher. “After three months I was homesick and missed my family so I returned to Dayton and opened Carol Jean’s Dance Academy on Main Street where I averaged six classes a day and 150 students each year,” she relates.

Heller’s son, Chris, knows his mom sometimes wonders what would have happened had she stayed in New York. " I think her resume shows she would have been poorly missed right here in Dayton, Ohio,” he says. “She was needed much more here.” Over the years, Heller became a faculty member and examiner for Dance Masters of Ohio, taught ballet and musical theater at Dayton’s Living Arts Center, worked on a number of local children’s TV shows and as a guest choreographer at the University of Dayton. She choreographed 35 shows for the Dayton Playhouse, winning the Playhouse’s prestigious Blackburn award for Best Choreography 20 times. In 1986, Heller began teaching ballet and tap at the Dayton Ballet School where she also started an adult tap program. After more than 20 years as the school administrator in both Dayton and Centerville, she semi-retired in 2017 and became the evening receptionist downtown.

Jonna Grove of Tipp City began dancing with Heller at the age of eight, and has fond memories of their dance-related adventures. “She would take me everywhere to perform and audition,” Grove recalls. “We performed at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base Officers Club and downtown when they were trying to save the Victoria Theater. One of my favorite auditions was at a Memorial Hall cafe. “I was hired on the spot until they found out I wasn’t old enough to drive.”

Dave Seyer didn’t start tapping until he was in his 30s. “Carol Jean taught an evening tap class at the Dayton Ballet and very patiently taught all of us first timers,” he recalls. “It didn’t take long before the class was picking up the time steps and able to put moves together.”

Rodney Player, who worked with Heller both on and off stage at the Dayton Playhouse notes her outstanding work ethic and her talent for gauging the skill level of her dancers. “She created interesting choreography that could be executed by the cast and great visual entertainment for the audience,” he says. “Her smile and her attitude made it a pleasure to be part of any show.”

Dayton Ballet’s artistic director, Karen Russo Burke, says it has been wonderful having Heller as part of the team for so many years. “The first person many dancers see when they come in is the school administrator,” she notes. " Carol Jean took great pride in welcoming each and every student. She always made sure that they learned the etiquette of the ballet art form in a loving and respectable manner.”

Dancing Through Life: Teressa McWilliams

McWilliams’ career path began with undergraduate and graduate degrees in dance followed by 11 years in New York City as a performer. She landed at Wright State in 2002 where she’s taught everything from dance history to jazz dance. She worked in Japan and the USSR, received three Kennedy Center Meritorious Achievement Awards for her musical theater choreography and was the 1999 recipient of Artist Fellowship in Choreography from the Kansas Arts Commission. As head of the dance program at Wright State for 19 years, McWilliams has choreographed a dance musical each fall and a concert dance piece every spring. Among her favorite WSU musicals: “West Side Story,” “Hairspray,” “Chicago” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Megan Wean Sears, a 2006 Wright State grad who now serves as drama teacher and director/choreographer at Archbishop Alter High School and as director/choreographer for Epiphany Players, says it’s hard to put into words the impact McWilliams had on her as a student and continues to have on her life today.

She is one of those once-in-a-lifetime mentors,” says Sears, who has toured as a performer throughout the nation. “As an artist and educator, I admire her talent, work ethic, knowledge, energy, motivation and wisdom.”

Another former student, Sarah Staker, says McWilliams is one of the reasons she’s had a 12 year career with the Rockettes. “The foundation she instilled in me during my four years at Wright State has guided me throughout my journey on and off the stage,” says Staker. Dionisia Williams, associate artistic director of Short North Stage in Columbus, says McWilliams always pushed her students to go past their comfort zones, focus on their work and strive for artistry of their own. “Terri is also one of the kindest and most caring people in the world who genuinely cares about her students during and after graduation,” she adds.

Joe Deer, artistic director of Wright State’s Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures department, labels Willliams one of his favorite people and one of the most gifted artists he has ever worked with. “She has very high expectations for her students and her collaborators,” he says. " She comes to class or rehearsal incredibly well prepared with dances well imagined, meticulous notes and great ideas ready to share and revise.”

The McWilliams piece being performed this weekend at the school’s Spring Dance Concert seems especially appropriate at this time. It is titled “Exits.”

“Exits are ubiquitous, involving layered decisions and choices about moving forward, shifting sideways, and changing direction,” McWilliams has written. “This work dynamically explores the idea of exits through the lens of movement, tracing the simplicity and complexity of exits and the unexpected paths and interactions they reveal.”

For both of Dayton’s gifted teachers, here’s wishing for a retirement filled with wondrous " unexpected paths and interactions.”


What: Spring Dance Concert at Wright State University honoring Teressa McWilliams

When: 2 p.m. today, Sunday, April 24.

Where: Festival Playhouse,

Tickets: $5 for students; $10 for seniors and $15 for adults.


What: Dayton Ballet School’s “Alice in Wonderland” with honored guest Carol Jean Heller

When: 3 p.m. Sunday, May 15

Where: Victoria Theatre, 138 North Main Street, Dayton

Ticket information: Tickets are $20 for reserved seating.

For more information contact: Anne Davis, Dayton Ballet School Administrator (937) 223-1542 or

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