Lizzie MacKenzie Pontarelli voted Chicago’s Top Dance Teacher!

Happy National Dance Week!

I have a big week planned on the blog in celebration of National Dance Week and the close of Chicago Dance Month.  A few weeks ago I asked readers to tell me who your favorite dancer teachers are and why, and I was awesomely surprised to receive nearly 150 nominations!  Of those, the seven teachers who received the most votes (there was a three-way tie for 5th place) are clearly doing a great service to the Chicago dance community.  Thank you for all you do!

And now, drum roll, here are the Top Five (plus two) dance teachers in Chicago!

#5: Melinda Wilson

DSCN2229Melinda Wilson holds a M.Ed. from DePaul University (Chicago) and an M.A. from the University of Illinois with additional course work at Northwestern Illinois University. She has trained at Lou Conte Dance Studios, The Dance Center of Columbia College, the Joel Hall Dance Center, Moming Dance Center, Pineapples (London), The Dance Works (London), Centre de Danse de Paris (Goube of the Paris Opera Ballet), Batsheva Dance Company (Tel-Aviv), and Centre de Danse du Marias (Paris). Melinda has danced locally with David Dorfman, Urban Bush Women and Timothy Buckley.

Melinda has choreographed 15 full musicals, 6 full ballets, 13 dance concerts and over 37 concert dance pieces which have been performed and taught throughout the world. Her awards include the Golden Apple Award, Dance Chicago Outstanding Choreographer (New Voice) Award, three consecutive Suave Performance Plus Teacher Awards, two first place choreographic trophies from Barcelona Dance Grand Prix, Who’s Who Among Teachers, nine Oppenheimer Teacher Incentive Grants, Dance Teacher Magazine’s 2007 Honor Roll for Outstanding Teacher, National Honor Roll’s Outstanding American Teachers for Exceptional Performance in the Motivation and Empowerment of Today’s Youth, BP+ Educational Grant Award Recipient, Katy Memorial Foundation, and the Successful Strategies Award for Dance Curricula (Volume IV). She is a member of International Dance Council CID-UNESCO, has served as a dance curriculum specialist for the Chicago Board of Education, a test writer for the Illinois Board of Education’s Dance Certification section and a passing score reviewer for the National Evaluation Systems, Inc. She is a presenter for The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University and travels throughout the world teaching master classes. Currently, Wilson is a teacher of Ballet, Modern and Jazz at The Lou Conte Dance Studios of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and Dance Artistic Director at Curie Metropolitan High School for the Performing and Technical Arts.

What her students had to say:

“I have taken many ballet classes for beginners. Most of the teachers are not good at teaching very basic skills; they tend to teach difficult technique.  I guess teaching very basic things for accomplished dancers is very hard to explain and needs lots of patience. Melinda is the first person to have explained basic skills very patiently with all her effort and passion. She is always happy to give extra instructions after the class. When we don’t get it after 5 minutes, she will be there for you until we figure it out.  She is that kind of person and is loved by all the students in the class.”

“Melinda is a phenominal dance instructor, choreographer, and person. She has made me discover my love, passion, and talent for dance. During my high school years of working with her, she gave us life changing opportunities from trips to New York, and amazing master classes. She not only taught me dance, but prepared me for the real world, and college. Melinda is a great candidate for Chicago’s best dance instructor. She is truly one of a kind!”

#5: Szewai Lee

szewai_leeGrowing up in Hong Kong, a tiny yet lively city that is packed with fast moving people, cars and high-rises, Szewai (C-Y) Lee fell in love with dance at an early age as she found freedom on the dance floor and a creative outlet for everyday stress. In the process of perfecting her pirouettes and jumps, she discovered that dance is not only a visually stunning art form, but also a practice of self-discipline, patience, courage and being in the moment. The ultimate joy of dance lies in these discoveries. Szewai feels grateful to be able to share the joy of dance and to inspire people to make such discoveries themselves on a day to day basis.

Graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a BA in Dance, Szewai is trained in a variety of dance forms including ballet, modern, jazz, ballroom and Latin. She has been teaching ballroom dance since 2006. In 2009, she co-founded Ballroom Dance Chicago and grew it to become the city’s top-rated ballroom dance studio. And in 2013, she founded Duet Dance Studio as she continues to spread the joy and benefits of partner dancing to the world. 

What her students had to say:

“I’ve always believed myself to be a terrible dancer. I’m stiff, bereft of rhythm, and have traditionally had trouble learning even the simplest of dance steps. When I got engaged a few years ago, however, it was to a dancer – and she really wanted to do a nice dance for the wedding. I was convinced there was no way it was going to happen, but I humored my fiance, and we ended up going to Szewai.  I felt comfortable with her almost immediately. She never made me feel as clumsy as I know I must have looked, particularly next to my fiance who had been dancing almost her entire life. She was very patient with me. A lot of the footwork seemed at odds with what my body wanted to do naturally, and she helped me come up with methods to more easily remember what I was supposed to do at what time. We started to work with Szewai in early spring, and by the end of the summer, we had a choreographed dance made just for us to our song. The dance was one of the most memorable parts of the wedding – and it was a great wedding! We might not have been able to win any awards on So You Think You Can Dance?, but our friends and family were hugely impressed. In fact, years later, they STILL talk about it.”

“Szewai has the patience of a saint working with people who have two left feet. I was always so impressed with her preparation as well. Regardless of how many students she taught throughout the week, she always remembered where we left off from the week before and would make efficient use of our time. She really helped my wife and I perfect our wedding dance and we have recommended her to all of our friends.”

#5: Nick Pupillo

faculty-pupilloAfter an accomplished career as a dancer, teacher and choreographer, Nick Pupillo decided that his main priority would be to nurture young talent by developing Visceral Studio Company. In 2007, he founded Visceral Dance Center to provide the Chicago community with a new venue for artistic and technical growth. In 2013, Pupillo takes on the role as Artistic Director of Visceral Dance Chicago. This new contemporary company will be dedicated to provide a comprehensive environment designed to cultivate dance education, creation and performance for choreographers, dancers and audiences.

Pupillo graduated from Indiana University with a Bachelor of Science in Ballet, under the direction of Jacques Cesbron, Virginia Cesbron, Leslie Peck and Violette Verdy. In 2001, Pupillo joined the acclaimed Giordano Dance Chicago where he toured with the company throughout the United States and internationally for three years. Additional performance credits include various roles with the Ruth Page Foundation Nutcracker, Brass Theater featuring the Star of Indiana, Dance Chicago, Schaumburg Dance Ensemble, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Stars of Dance Chicago, and Dance for Life. He has worked personally with many esteemed choreographers, including Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Ron DeJesus, Randy Duncan, Mark Godden, Jon Lehrer, Eddy Ocampo, Tony Powell, and Davis Robertson.

Pupillo has worked with the Pride of Cincinnati, a world class winter guard, and The Cavaliers, an award-winning DCI champion drum corps, as a choreographer and instructor. He has set pieces for Chicago Dance Crash, Inaside Chicago Dance, Nomi Dance Company, Webster University, University of North Carolina, Greenville, and The Chicago Academy of the Arts. He has received various awards for his choreography, including “The Dance Chicago 2005 Outstanding Choreography Award” and “The Dance Chicago 2012 Outstanding Choreographer Award, Body of Work”. Pupillo teaches across the country, providing master classes for studios, university programs, and companies. He has taught for the Jazz Dance World Congress, Chicago Dance Connection and Chicago National Association of Dance Masters. Pupillo is currently a continuing artist in residence at Culver Military Academy.

What his students had to say:

“Before I began dancing with Nick, my technique seemed hopeless, I was just another competition dancer in the crowd with no future in dance, my dancing was awkward, and it was all just a hobby. No one had ever seen the potential I had and just stuck me in the back or placed me in a low level for the company and put me front just because I could memorize the choreography. Then, I went to take class at Visceral and Nick saw me in class and he asked to work with me. Within a year, my technique had improved to the point where I wasn’t even the same dancer. What makes Nick so special though isn’t just the way he can see the potential and pull it out of a dancer and continue to push them, it’s the fact that he cares so much about his dancers, whether they’re 7 years old or 17 or 37, a part of his youth company or just come to class every other week. He pushes every dancer further than they can see themselves going.”

“I’ve seen him grow from being a teacher right out of college to where he is now. He is always determined to give a great class and recognize everyone who comes. His passion and knowledge come through everything he does.”

#4: Ricky Ruiz

Ricky RuizRicky Ruiz received his initial dance training in his hometown of Miami, FL where he was a student of Amanda Tae, Manuel Castro, Vivian Tobio and Heidi and Joe Melchiona among others. Early on, Ricky was performing in industrials, corporate events and Univision Network. He attended Coral Reef Senior High under the tutelage of Rebecca Santalo, director of the Magnet Dance Program. In the Fall of 2003, he started his college career at the University of South Florida on academic and talent scholarships. In the Spring of 2007 he graduated Cum Laude with a BFA in Dance Performance and a focus on Modern Dance. While in college Ricky had the honor of working under Ann Reinking, Debra McWaters and other seasoned Broadway performers and directors at the Broadway Theatre Project. Throughout the four years at USF Ricky had the diverse experience of performing choreography by Jose Limon and Bob Fosse, as well as being trained by Michael Foley, John Parks, Gretchen Ward Warren and members of the Trisha Brown Dance Company. Upon graduating from USF Ricky moved to Chicago where he began dancing with River North Dance Chicago, under the direction of Frank Chavez. Throughout the four seasons spent with the company he performed works by Chavez, Lauri Stallings, Robert Battle, Sidra Bell, Kevin Iaga Jeff and others. He toured the United States as well as Europe and South America. In his last season with the company he was Chavez’s choreographic assistant for the work “Simply Miles, Simply Us” commissioned by the Auditorium Theatre.

While in Chicago, Ricky has also performed with Elements Contemporary Ballet, Fracisco Avina, Lizzie MacKenzie, and has trained under Gustavo Ramirez Sansano. Ricky is an enthusiastic and passionate teacher and choreographer. He has created work for festivals and concerts in Castano Primo, Italy, Dance Chicago, and the University of Jacksonville Dance Department. He is often a guest teacher and choreographer for schools and studios around the country including Coral Reef Senior High, FSU, GSU, and OU. He has been an adjunct faculty member at Roosevelt University and Chicago High School for the Arts. Among his regular teaching, Ricky is often times a guest teacher for Chicago based companies River North Dance Chicago, Thodos Dance Chicago and Danceworks Chicago. Ricky is also on Faculty for VIP Dance, where he is a judge and master teacher for their national competitions and workshops. In the Chicagoland area Ricky is the director of the Jazz and Contemporary programs at the Academy of Dance Arts in Downers Grove and has been on faculty of Visceral Dance Center since the Fall of 2008.

What his students had to say:

“Ricky’s classes are amazing, and I am eager to come and learn every week. I really think he deserves this award just to let him know how much he means to all of his students and how much he has impacted our lives.”

“Ricky is such a wonderfully inspiring person and teacher to be around day to day.  He has changed the light of our studio and people now see us in a different way.  The energy he brings makes us dance and perform to an amazing extent that we never thought we could reach.  The Academy of Dance Arts would not be where it is today without the love, care, and dedication that Ricky has towards his passion to teach dance.”

#3: Trae Turner

Trae Turner“Hip Hop is not something you do, it’s something you live”

Trae Turner is one of the most popular Instructors/choreographers in the Mid-West, he will entertain and energize a diverse group of students with positivity, a patient personality, and dance techniques.

Trae Turner embraces multiculturalism, as he is a recognized and highly regarded choreographer/Instructor at Lou Conte Dance Studio, Visceral dance studio, University of Chicago, and Trae is also a part of the teaching Faculty at Columbia College. He travels to dance studios all over the country, and has trained with some of the top choreographers in the world such as Marty Kudelka, Sky Hoffman, Kevin Maher, Wade Robson, Laum and others. Trae has danced for recording artist Kelis, New York rapper Fat Joe, Phenix Phenom, and Andre McCray. Over his 13 year career he as opened for Ne-Yo, Rod Stuart, Janet Jackson and more. In 2009 he created and is Artistic Director of his own Hip Hop Company BOOM CRACK! However it is not his role as an artistic director that he prides himself on, but rather his hard work to inspire and train young dancers to be positive hard working professionals that are aware that they have the ability to inspire others. “Hip Hop is not something you do, its something you live” is a statement that Trae Turner not only believes in, but lives by. Trae works closely with D.A.R.E, Kumba Linx, ASM, and other High School and College organizations to bring together people of all races, not simply to dance and express love for the culture of hip hop, but to learn to respect one another. It is this kind of open attitude and desire for his craft that makes Trae one of the best choreographers in the Mid West, not just known for his movement, but for his ability to teach hip hop technique, and how to perform. With packed classes and dedicated students he is inspired by dancers and they are challenged and inspired by him.

What his students had to say:

“Trae is an amazing teacher and mentor in every way. When I first came to his class, I was on the fence about my passions for dance and not really sure how much longer I planned on dancing in the future. I was uninspired and bored. After dancing with him for a year now I am a completely different dancer. He pushed me in a way that was foreign and a little uncomfortable at first but I kept coming back. I found that I got better every class and if I felt stuck, Trae always had a solution. He knew exactly how to correct me and how to inspire and motivate me. He encouraged me to be confident, strong, and self aware. He placed a huge emphasis on knowing my goals in dance and reaching for them everyday. It’s hard to even put it into the correct words the love and appreciation I have for Trae as a person and as a teacher.”

“He is simply phenomenal.”

#2: Kelly Tonge Hill

Kelly Tonge Hill

Kelly Tonge Hill was a founding member of the River North Dance in Chicago where she was a principal performer for eleven years. Kelly has a strong Classical Ballet background. She began her training at age eight in the Elgin area with Lisa Boehm and Shelia Straka and later concentrated her studies at the Ruth Page Foundation in Chicago. She was the first recipient of the Elgin Area Performing Arts Scholarship and later received a full scholarship to study at Lou Conte Dance Studio in Chicago. Kelly has toured internationally in various commercial and industrial trade shows. She also appeared in the Chicago films The Visitors, Sole Survivor and Road To Perdition. She is currently a master teacher for the River North Dance Workshops held in Chicago. Kelly is also the Dance Director of the Larkin High School Fine Arts Academy- Dance Department. A teacher at Gould Academy since 1987, Kelly has former students who are now dancing and working professionally. Kelly is known for her Ballet training methods and her unique River North (concert style) of Lyrical Jazz.  Kelly also holds a B.A. from National Louis University.

What her students had to say:

“Ms. Kelly is an amazing teacher. She is always there for her students, she makes sure we understand what needs to be corrected and how to correct it. Also, there’s never a dull moment in class. We work hard but have fun. Being in her class and just having her as a teacher makes me want to be the best I can be.”

“Kelly has been teaching me dance all through high school. Not only does she teach ballet- she inspires her students too. I have Kelly as a teacher five days a week, yet every one of her classes feels fresh and exciting. ”

“Ms. Kelly is truly an amazing person. I spent almost every day with her from the age of eight to the present eighteen. Every step of the way in my dance decisions, college decisions, even personal decisions she has been there for me with open arms. She always knows the perfect things to say and has been the most effective ballet teacher. She truly is an outstanding person and teacher with the warmest heart. Not only is she a wonderful person, but I have watched her turn so many students into phenomenal dancers. She is so humble and would never think that she even would deserve something like this, even though she serves as a second mother to all of her students.”

#1: Lizzie MacKenzie Pontarelli

Lizzie MacKenzie by Jon Mackoff

Lizzie MacKenzie Pontarelli is the Artistic Director of Extensions Dance Company and founder of Extensions Dance Center.  She enjoyed 6 years dancing and touring internationally with River North Dance Chicago following 5 years doing the same with Giordano Dance Chicago.  She is currently dancing with Ron De Jesus Dance  and Chicago Repertory Ballet, as well as continuing her work with various independent choreographers.  The year 2012 marks her 13th season dancing under the direction of Harrison Mceldowny with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in their annual “Welcome Yule” Christmas spectacular.  She has worked closely with various choreographers, some of the most influential being Laurie Stallings, Sidra Bell, Harrison Mceldowney, Kevin Iega Jeff, Robert Battle, Frank Chaves, Mia Michaels and Ron De Jesus.  She has studied under Alexandra Wells and Amy  Shullman at Springboard Danse Montreal, where she also had the opportunity to work with Coleman Lemieux Dance Company, performing the work of resident choreographer, James Kudelka.

Her Choreography has been seen in numerous festivals and University’s around the country and also on Chicago’s own Inaside Chicago Dance and Nomi Lamad Dance Company.  She has been given various awards for her choreography, including the “New Voice” honor from Dance Chicago in 2006, the “Choreographer of The Year” from Dance Chicago in 2008 and she was a finalist in the A.W.A.R.D show for her piece entitled “Altered Interactions” on Nomi Lamad Dance Company.  She has been honored for her contemporary choreography at Youth America Grand Prix and has had numerous finalists in the NFAA Young Arts competition, including a Presidential Scholar in the Arts in 2011.

In August of 2002, Lizzie was featured on the cover of DANCE magazine and has since been featured in various magazines as a model for Leo’s Dancewear and Illinois Theatrical.  Lizzie spends most of her free time teaching and choreographing all over the U.S and her contemporary class has been listed in Dancespirit magazine as one of the top 3 dance classes to take in Chicago. She is currently on faculty at Extensions Dance Center, ChiArts and Steps Dance Center in Naperville.

What her students had to say:

“[Lizzie] is not just a teacher, she is an inspiration and my mentor.
She makes me feel supported and loved when I am dancing.
I think she is not just the best in Chicago, I think she is the best there is!”

“Lizzie is a phenomenal mentor that leads each and every one of her students towards success. She puts as much dedication into each dancer as they out into their work. She conducts a strong work ethic and uses all of the knowledge she has gained through her professional career to pass on a train technically strong and honest artists.”

“My dance teacher, mentor, and close friend is the artistic director of Extensions Dance Company and I truly admire her. Lizzie Mackenzie is an amazing teacher as not only does she command any space that she’s in and make sure that everything and everyone is completing the task at hand, but she does so in a way that is kind, thoughtful, and personal. Lizzie takes the time to really get to know the students that she works with and is mindful about catering to other’s needs as well as her own. No matter what, she always ensures not only that the work gets finished, but that the work presented is of the highest standard and best quality. Lizzie is honestly one of the most amazing women I know. She teaches others in a way that makes people not just complete the task, but feel inspired to work hard and make the absolute most out of whatever task they take on. Lizzie has not only inspired me to be the best dancer I can be, but also the best human being I can be. WIthout her,  I would have never had the confidence in myself to pursue dance and I would have been a completely different person. Without question, LizzieMackenzie is the best teacher I have ever had and I will carry with me the lessons I have learned from her for the rest of my life.”

Honorable Mentions…

Through this project, one thing became crystal clear: Chicago has a long list of outstanding teachers and it doesn’t just end with these seven!  Here is the full list of additional teachers who received nominations, all with inspired and passionate messages from their students, parents, and colleagues:

  • Emily Stein
  • Gus Giordano
  • Katilyn Vega
  • Jennifer Grapes
  • Laura Wade
  • Natalie Rast
  • Kirby Reed
  • Mme Peff Modelski
  • Claire Bataille
  • Vanessa Truvillion
  • Reginald Harris
  • Sara Ford-Thomas
  • Maliwan Diemer
  • Lisa Sheppard-Shipman
  • Holly Pace
  • Kelly Hume
  • Kim Fletcher-Stibal
  • Watmora Casey
  • Libby Komaiko
  • Stacy Bowden Lewis
  • Josh Manculich
  • Alaina Murphy
  • Eddy Ocampo
  • …and even a vote for little ol’ me


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