The Stage is our Canvas

Thinking back to high school elicits certain memories—the chatter and bustle of students between classes, the sound of sneakers squeaking on gym floors, the feeling of anticipation as you take your seat to begin an exam. What about the comforting sensation of swapping your regular shoes for ballet flats? Or that moment when you’re 10 minutes into your barre exercise and realize, for the first time all day, you’re completely focused.

Some Mt. Lebanon grads may be nodding in agreement, but those last two are uncommon elsewhere.

Only 12 percent of public high schools offer dance instruction, according to the most recent National Center for Education Statistics report on Arts Education in Public and Secondary Schools, conducted in the 2009-2010 school year. That was down 2 percent from the previous study, in 1999-2000. And with nationwide cuts in K-12 funding for the arts creeping into headlines over the past decade, it is doubtful that the next report will show an increase.

The Mt. Lebanon High School dance program began in 1972. Today, more than 300 students participate in the program, which includes classes for all skill levels, plus a dance company.

The fact that Mt. Lebanon High School has a dance program is already an anomaly. But with dozens of distinguished alumni and honors including a Presidential Citation Award from the National Dance Association and a Best Practices in Pennsylvania Arts in Education Award, our dance curriculum is extraordinary.

Cecilia “CeCe” Kapron is at the center of its success. Mt. Lebanon School District hired Kapron to build the program in 1972. Former Fine Arts Coordinator Joanne Bailey, who believed a well-rounded fine arts program was not complete without dance, championed the concept and helped guide the school district through the hiring process.

COVID-19 pushed the dance program to go virtual. Mt. Lebanon’s online dance courses adhered strictly to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Academic Standards for Arts Education in Dance.

“Mt. Lebanon was a pioneer in offering a dance program,” says Kapron. “The program includes history, performance, criticism and aesthetics, providing an opportunity for students to become effective communicators through self-expression.”

Last month, she welcomed 310 students to its 49th school year. Kapron has taught at Mt. Lebanon longer than any other faculty member in the school district.

Today, the Mt. Lebanon dance program includes three levels of instruction (Dance 1-3) in classical ballet, tap, jazz, musical theater and modern dance, plus an audition-only dance company. Maddie Tieman, an alumna of the program, assists Kapron by teaching a portion of the course load.

Many students come to the dance program to fulfill their physical education requirements for ninth and 10th grade. Others, more serious about dance, may continue with the program, or audition for the dance company, which performs a multiple-day recital the end of the first semester, and again each spring, when they help choreograph and perform in the musical.

“My favorite part about being in dance company is daytimes (daytime performances during the school day),” says senior Marissa Furfaro, Lebanon Hills Drive. “We choreograph a variety of different-genre dances and perform the show six times in front of our peers.” Furfaro was just accepted as a trainee at Zeitgeist Dance Theatre. She plans to get a BFA in dance and become a professional dancer.

While hundreds of students enroll in dance classes, historically the dance company only has 20 to 30 participants. These students are usually interested in pursuing dance in some capacity after high school, but Kapron will accept anyone who passes the audition.

“Dance company is a class like no other,” says Mt. Lebanon senior Julianna Ellis, Castle Shannon Boulevard, a four-year member of the dance company. “I get to create, be myself and do what I love with a group of girls who share the same love for dance as I do.”

The dance program does have some gender diversity; however the dance company is often composed of  all girls. “But I have had boys in the company. At one point there were three!” says Kapron. “Also, keep in mind, we usually have between 20 to 25 boys who dance in the spring musical.”

The dance program offers students the chance to learn choreography—something not often taught at private studios.

Kapron remembers when Joe Manganiello, 1995 Mt. Lebanon graduate and television star of True Blood fame, put his dance class skills to work in the musical Oklahoma! during his senior year. He played the lead, and in that role, he had to perform a 20-minute ballet partnered with dance company member Joelle Gates (formerly Rodzwicz), also Class of ’95. Gates went on to play Meg in the Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera and was the dance captain for the Phantom Company. Both were named “Most Likely to Become a Movie Star” in their senior yearbook.

“Several [students] each year go on to study dance. Maybe not major in dance, but taking on a dance minor or getting involved in dance programs offered at colleges,” says Kapron. “Some even go on to dance in professional companies, on cruise ships, or to teach professionally. A number of students also wind up involved in arts administration in dance.”

In addition to performances for students during the school day, the dance company performs a recital at the end of first semester and then assists with the musical in the spring.

Then there are students like senior Lily Staib, Sunnyhill Drive, who want to follow directly in Kapron’s footsteps. “Mrs. Kapron has inspired me to take on a similar career path to hers because of how much passion and love she has, not just for dance, but also for her students … She is completely dedicated to her craft, and I will forever live my life inspired by her passion for her career,” says Staib. Staib intends to study dance and physical education in college so that she can lead a program like Mt. Lebanon’s someday.

Kapron was one of 13 finalists for the 2015 Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year Award. She has also been Pennsylvania’s Dance Educator of the Year, the National Dance Association’s Dance Educator of the Year and was named a Teacher of Distinction by the Teacher Excellence Foundation.

“The program is stronger than ever … the district and the community support arts education, and they recognize dance as a piece of that,” says Kapron. “When they built the new high school, they even built two beautiful new dance studios!”

At press time, Kapron did not expect any major changes to the curriculum in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, when COVID-19 forced schools to close last March, the program barely missed a beat. Students continued to choreograph and learn their dance projects—they submitted videos rather than performing in-person.

Mt. Lebanon’s online dance courses adhered strictly to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Academic Standards for Arts Education in Dance. At the time this was written, it was not yet decided whether online dance classes would continue as part of Mt. Lebanon Cyber Learning Academy. But Kapron will continue to lead the program through whatever this new school year will bring, as she believes dance is an integral aspect of a fine arts education.

Dance teacher CeCe Kapron has been at Mt. Lebanon since 1972, longer than any other teacher in the district.

“Dance is very closely related to the visual arts,” says Kapron “The stage is our canvas, framed by the proscenium arch. The artist uses a paintbrush, and the dancers use their bodies. They move through time and space, on stage, manipulating the elements of choreography so the dance begins to take shape. Now you have this visual picture on the stage. And voila! There’s your artwork.”

Photos by Linda Hackett