Dancing queen

Award-winning dance teacher Lucy Riner keeps OPRF kids on their toes

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By LINDA DOWNING MILLER

Lucy Vurusic Riner describes her job at Oak Park River Forest High School in straightforward terms. "Basically, my job consists of getting here at 6:30 in the morning and leaving at 7 at night," she says, with a short laugh and a direct gaze.

The 31-year-old dance director oversees a curriculum of dance classes offered within OPRF's physical education department, a role she has held for eight years. During the school year, Riner typically teaches five dance classes a day. She also leads the Orchesis dance troupe, a group of student dance enthusiasts who rehearse after school nearly every day in the fall and spring. And November through January, she's busy choreographing the school's winter musical.

Riner also choreographed this year's summer musical, Once Upon a Mattress. She planned and taught six dances, including three large-group numbers, and attended a full battery of rehearsals for the 75-member cast.

If hours worked measured a teacher's commitment, Riner would clearly qualify as committed to her students. But hours worked are not mentioned in the criteria for Illinois Dance Educator of the Year, an award Riner earned in the 2004-05 school year from the Illinois Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

The criteria focus instead on teaching creatively, offering a curriculum that meets student needs, promoting an understanding and appreciation of dance, providing creative opportunities for students, serving as a positive role model, and actively participating in dance organizations.

So much for that old saying, "those who can, do; those who can't, teach." Riner seems to be doing it all.

"Lucy is just the consummate professional," says Marcia Hurt, director of the OPRF High School physical education and driver's education department. "When you visit her classes, not only are they incredibly well conducted, the kids are just so engrossed and are having so much fun. Everybody's participating to the maximum."

And Riner's dance skills?

"I am in awe actually of her talent professionally," says Hurt.

Discovering dance and opportunity

Riner admits that teaching was not her first career goal. Born and raised on the north side of Chicago, she started taking dance "seriously" at 14, though she'd had a few childhood dance classes. As a teenager, she trained at the Joel Hall Dance Center and the Columbia College Dance Center.

She later enrolled at Illinois State University and double-majored in modern dance and English. At the time, the dance degree was offered with a teaching certificate. "My parents wouldn't pay for my college unless I got certified to teach," she remembers, attributing her English double major to the same persuasive forces.

Before she'd completed her degree, Riner spent a summer in New York trying out the dance world. "I thought that if I had a successful summer that I would just stay. I took a lot of classes, got a job waiting tables. I ended up dancing with a hip hop company, [but] it was much more of a commercial dance company," she says, recalling performances at conventions and the like. "I came back to Chicago and things just started falling into place for me here. I found everything I needed."

Riner found the opportunity to student-teach at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire. She met her future husband, Jim, that same year. A sudden vacancy at Stevenson later enabled her to move directly from student teacher to full-time director.

"My intent was going straight into dancing," she explains. "When I started getting salary and benefits [at Stevenson], I was able to move out of my parents house and into my own apartment in the city. I will admit I sold out a little bit."

Despite that sentiment, she views her subsequent move to OPRF as another lucky opportunity. She came to fill the shoes of friend Robin Hill, who planned to launch her own studio after 15 years as the high school's dance director. Though Hill threatened to return after a year off, Riner felt fairly secure.

"I knew she'd be successful," she says.

Riner found OPRF a refreshing change from Stevenson, where the elaborate dance program involved evaluating and placing students in successive levels of class difficulty. Riner had to answer to disappointed parents and to change her clothes in between each class if she wanted to walk the halls. Sweats or workout clothes were not permitted.

"It took me awhile to get used to a lot of freedom here," she says.

She points out that despite her work hours, she has been able to pursue her own dancing and choreography alongside her teaching. In her second year at OPRF, Riner even worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov, as part of a community cast for his White Oak Dance Project.

"That kind of fell into my lap," Riner explains.

As an alumnus of Columbia College's Dance Center, she learned of the need for cast members to augment Baryshnikov's traveling troupe for eight planned performances in Chicago. "They were post-modern dances, so they were super, super easy," Riner says.

She's nonchalant about her brush with greatness. "He more or less just sat around with us. We'd all be stretching, and he'd just stretch with us. He had someone else bossing us around."

Since 2001, Riner has danced as a regular member of the Mad Shak dance company. For five years, she organized and ran a choreographers' festival with friends in Chicago called Motivity, and she regularly produces an offbeat dance show with friends in February, "Duets for my ValenSwine."

Riner recently took part in the MOMENTA Alumni Association's "The Nature of Dance," presented at the Doris Humphrey Memorial Theatre in Oak Park. She danced in two pieces and choreographed another, titled "A Partial Shade of Sun."

"I probably average about 15 shows per year," she says.

Hustling for the kids

Dance is one of several P.E. requirements at OPRF, so every student must take at least one nine-week class. Those who enjoy dance can take many more, provided they satisfy other requirements. Riner notes that all classes "have to be open to all levels [but] also challenge some of the higher-level kids."

In her first year at OPRF, Riner had agreed with Hill to teach the existing dance curriculum. She has since introduced new elements, such as hip-hop, Latin, and African dance, popular in many dance studios. She eliminated older staples like square dancing and folk dancing and has continued to teach successful offerings, such as "Dances of the Decades."

"That's how I get the boys in," she says, noting that the emphasis is on dancing with partners. "They feel needed."

Last year, Riner piloted a Pilates and yoga class. "I feel high school kids need variety. They don't know what they like yet," she says. "The idea is to give them the opportunity to do something they might not have the guts to go out and do on their own."

Riner points out that high school can be chock full of adolescent attitude, a place where students often give each other a hard time. "In dance class, you have to shed all of that attitude. You are vulnerable," she says.

She sees it as an ideal place to teach respect for others. "There's not enough of that happening anywhere, but if it can happen anywhere, it can happen here. It's so diverse here," she observes.

Riner remembers being embarrassed when a crew came to videotape her teaching, as part of the award nomination process. "I was teaching the hustle from Saturday Night Fever. Then I thought, 'Well, if they want to know what I do, this is it!'"

Along with parent and student recommendations, Riner's hustle ultimately earned her recognition beyond Illinois. She was selected as Midwest Dance Educator of the Year and became the youngest of four finalists for the National Dance Educator of the Year award, bestowed at Navy Pier last April.

Before an audience that reminded her of a Miss America eventâ€""it was horrifying," Riner notesâ€"she was recognized as "runner up." The distinction will require her to teach six master dance classes to other dance educators next year, in places like Iowa and Indiana. (The winner gets to teach in more glamorous places, Riner adds.)

At 31, Riner doesn't necessarily feel experienced enough to teach other dance teachers, but she has seen herself gain a lot of confidence in front of her students. Early in her teaching career, she recalls looking out at the sea of student faces and thinking, "Well, maybe I won't do that," about an unconventional move or idea. But she's become more comfortable taking risks.

"You'd be surprised at what they're willing to do … football players in their ballet class, doing plies. I don't masculinize them, dumb them down," she says. "There are definitely enough students in the population that want to do it. The others feed off their energy."

Mentoring young dancers

During the school day, Riner emphasizes, she's not in the business of trying to create professional dancers. After hours, as director of Orchesis, it's another story. "The kids are so talented in Orchesis that you can do a lot of things with them," she says.

Riner oversees two seasons and two shows for the in-school dance company, as well as the kids' involvement in additional activities and festivals. She holds one try-out in the fall for interested students. Many come with years of dance training, but Riner says it's a misconception that "all the kids are from the Academy [of Movement & Music]," though many are.

"A lot of the kids who try out have taken classes there," she says, but the club draws from many other organizations.

"Ten percent are people that have never had any formal dance training at all," Riner adds.

She tries to keep the group to less than 65 students to maximize opportunities for the performers. In the fall show, seniors planning to continue their study of dance have the opportunity to choreograph their own pieces. Riner describes the show as "comparable to a modern dance show you might see in the city." The spring show is geared to entertaining the high school audience.

"Orchesis is freely collaborative, with everybody putting their two cents in," she says.

Riner sees it as a complement to the advanced dance training many students balance with their Orchesis rehearsalsâ€"a chance to explore performing and working with other dancers. She also uses her contacts in the dance world to make Orchesis almost a career counseling resource.

"I know all these people that I dance with. I'm almost doing the kids a disservice if I don't pick up the phone and call them," Riner explains.

She typically brings in three guest choreographers in the fall and one in the spring. Students have worked with dancers from Hubbard Street, Joffrey, Melissa Thodos, and other companies.

Gina Hoch-Stall was a senior in Orchesis last year as well as a long-time Academy student. This fall, she'll be studying dance and journalism at Temple University in Pennsylvania. She notes that balancing her roster of activities last year was a struggleâ€"she also sang and worked on the student newspaperâ€"but that Orchesis "was always my favorite thing to do."

"[Riner] had control of the dance troupe. You could tell it was going to turn out to be a great show no matter what, but at the same time she allowed us so much freedom. She kind of fostered our own creativity," she says.

Hoch-Stall was impressed by the performance and networking opportunities and by Riner's own example: teaching, dancing in a company and even pursuing graduate school. (Riner earned her masters in education in 2005.)

"You could see how someone could make it work and be a great mentor," notes Hoch-Stall.

Susan Stall, Hoch-Stall's mother, happens to teach a course on youth and youth culture at Northeastern University. One of the course's points is how essential it is for teens to have young adult mentors.

"Lucy has been definitely one of those people for Gina," says Stall. "She is genuinely enthusiastic. She sets limits, but she does it in a way that gives the kids autonomy. It's not just her dance skills which are phenomenal, it's the way she teaches and is available for the girls."

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