By MeLinda Schnyder - Photography by Aaron Patton
When 4-year-old Denise Celestin started to dance down the aisle of the theater during a screening of the ballet movie “The Red Shoes,” her mother asked if she wanted to take ballet lessons.
She’s been dancing ever since.
Celestin trained in classical ballet all the way through high school and her ballerina dreams were still strong. Most of the serious dancers who planned to pursue a career in ballet were moving to New York right away. Celestin, though, wanted to perform as well as get a college education.
“This was the 1970s and there were few dance programs at universities,” she said. She started college while continuing to train with her ballet school in her hometown of New Orleans, where she also performed with the regional company. Then she discovered Texas Christian University in Fort Worth had a dance program that allowed her to earn a bachelor’s degree. She performed with the regional Fort Worth Ballet while in school and stayed there to earn a master’s degree as well.
“I realized I wouldn’t be able to dance forever and I needed to think about what I was going to do after my career,” she said. “I had a talent for teaching so I got my master of fine arts so when the time came that I had to stop performing I could transition into teaching.”
Celestin danced professionally for 16 years with respected American ballet and opera companies before turning to university teaching, first at universities in Ohio and then coming to Wichita State University in 1992. She is a professor of ballet and also a Dorothy Johansen Hauck Faculty Fellow in Dance.
Within WSU’s College of Fine Arts is the School of Performing Arts, which has four programs: Theatre Performance, Theatre Design & Technology, Musical Theatre and Dance. WSU is one of just 82 accredited institutional members of the National Association of Schools of Dance and offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Performing Arts-Dance – for those focused on performance—and a bachelor’s degree for students who want to study technique as well as a second interest, for example business with the thought of operating a studio.
“What is unique about dance at Wichita State is that our dancers have a lot of influences from faculty who have actually performed professionally before they have gone on to get their credentials to teach in the university,” Celestin said. “We did our craft and our art, and experienced a professional setting so we can share with them what it’s really like to be in a dance company, how you do auditions, how you pace yourself in a performance.”
Another highlight of WSU’s dance program is that the faculty represent diverse styles of dancing.
“We don’t do one genre, we want our dancers to be well-rounded so there’s ballet, modern dance, jazz,” Celestin said. “Our director of the dance program is a mime artist. You don’t find that anywhere in a university.”
Celestin teaches all levels of classical ballet technique. She also shares teaching duties with fellow professors in choreography, dance history, methods of teaching and dance kinesiology.
She has a special interest in the collaboration of music and dance – teaching musicians the full body movements to the dance forms they play.
“I was trained by my mother in piano so I love music, and of course we all use music as dance artists,” Celestin said. “I have a special love for wanting to connect musicians and dancers. Musicians want to know stylistically how to approach playing a dance form. They can learn from music teachers and history how to do that, but when they actually do the dance it enlightens musicians on how that feels in the body.”
Celestin and colleague Sylvia Coats, a retired piano professor at WSU, are regularly invited to present interactive sessions on historical dances in numerous international, national and regional venues.
You’ll also find her involved in the Wichita arts community, including choreographing for other WSU fine arts programs, Wichita Grand Opera and Wichita Contemporary Dance Theatre. She also teaches a weekly class for high school students at Wichita Children’s Theatre and Dance Center.
“I’m so grateful to be here in Wichita and to be part of a wonderful, giving arts community,” Celestin said. “Doing my art here and functioning as an academic is the best of both worlds. It keeps me young, vital in my art and I learn as much from the dancers as they are learning from me.”