The Beauty of Dance: Spotlight on Todd Rosenlieb and TRDance

Three dances wearing red dresses. They are lit from above. One dancer is lifted above the others. She is reaching up with one hand.

Words by Moriah Joy.
Photos courtesy of TRDance.

As performances and classes are moving into a virtual environment, some artforms encounter more challenges than others. However, as creativity is at the center of the arts, places like TRDance in Norfolk have been able to overcome these roadblocks. I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of the founding members and the Artistic Director, Todd Rosenlieb. Todd started dancing in college where he very quickly realized the passion that he had for concert dance and decided to pursue an M.F.A. in Performance & Choreography at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts in New York. From there his career evolved as he has served as a dancer and choreographer for various companies and institutions as well as Company Director for the Erick Hawkins Dance Company. Then seeing the need in Hampton Roads for a professional dance presence, he decided to establish his own studio which has now been flourishing in the community for almost fifteen years.

A male dancer lifts a female dancer gracefully in a museum.
TRDance celebrates the Munch Exhibit.

As of this moment, Todd’s focus is on his Norfolk studio and nurturing the skills of dancers of every age, style, and ability. After the shutdown, they quickly moved to online classes and have been successful in maintaining their class schedule with their teachers of high notoriety. They are currently offering a variety of classes every week featuring the dance styles of jazz, modern, ballet, pointe, tap, hip-hop, and pilates. At the studio, inclusion is at the forefront of their mission, whether that is offering a safe space for members of the LGBT community or those with mixed abilities such as Down Syndrome and Autistic Spectrum Disorder. 

“…By celebrating your artform, the discipline [of dance], you can encourage and accept diversity and inclusion, all people. No matter their abilities or their gender or their race, anything. It’s so important that the human form be represented not the individual or any preconceived notions about them.”

Their mixed abilities classes came about 10 years ago after a grandmother approached Todd wanting to provide the same kind of opportunities for her grandson as other children. The words she used in describing her grandson have been an inspiration to Todd and his program ever since as she said her grandson “came to us with Down’s Syndrome.” She had seen some stories about adaptive dance classes on the Oprah Winfrey show and was interested in starting a program in the Hampton Roads area.

MixMo class group photo
TRDance’s MixMo class.

“I knew nothing about it. I was like okay, ‘I love you, let’s try this.’ She was very active in the Down Syndrome Association of Hampton Roads and we had seven or eight kids in our very first class. I gotta tell you- the first class after 25 minutes I was out of tricks. I thought, I am not prepared for this. But [after] I applied creativity, reading the room, knowing I had done my research of course, and was working with physical therapists from CHKD as part of the collaboration- it became amazing, joyful.”

TRDance has since expanded their classes working with various organizations such as St. Mary’s Home, the South Eastern Virginia Training Center, the Ability Center of VA Beach, and many more. Todd’s original program has come full circle as the very first student who inspired the program ten years ago has been able to rejoin their classes, despite having moved away five years ago. The virtual classes have allowed for reunions amongst various students as well as the instructors to see how they’ve grown from children to young adults. These reunions truly show the strength of the dance community lies within the dancers, not the distance between them. Along with the dancers being connected, the families of those involved are also a big part of the dance community. One of the ways in which TRDance is hoping to show their appreciation to the families is by doing a virtual cocktail party for the adults and dance party for the kids with a DJ to continue that sense of connectivity. 

A zoom class for MixMo.
TRDance’s MixMo Zoom classes allow students who have moved away to participate again.

As the worries of the world have been very difficult for many community members to bear, Todd has also been leading guided meditations as a way to engage in “constructive rest.” One of the techniques he uses in his meditations is the idea of putting worries, concerns, or anything else that weighs heavy into a backpack. This idea has the beautiful implication that our worries are only as strong as we allow them to be and do not make us who we are. Todd also stressed the importance of mental well-being so that as individuals we can be better equipped to help those who depend on us and ultimately make a better nation. He has used dance as a way to have conversations about the importance of mental health as previously partnering with the Chrysler Museum. The beginning of both his dance sessions and guided meditations start with the notion of simply allowing the experience.  

“Leave your ego at the door. There is no success or failure here, we are experiencing our bodies, our minds, the music, our imagery, our companionship and our friendship all together in one room.”

While dance is beautiful to enjoy and watch on TV or through viral videos, there is an uniqueness to the environment that is created when going to see a show live. Feeling the music echo through your ears, with the soft whispers and commentary of fellow participants, along with the exuberance passed between dancer and active participant. The true beauty within that experience is something that Todd calls “the interpretive web.” He joked about how people will come up to him after a performance to ask what a dance meant, replying with inquisitiveness to ask what it meant to them, then upon listening to their interpretation finding sometimes that he liked it better than what he had in mind. 

TRDance company and alumni group shot.
TRDance company and alumni.

“Dance can be scary to people. They are afraid they’re not going to know what it means. It doesn’t matter if it makes you feel an emotion. Everyone sees through the eyes of their experience, be it touch or gesture or form or shape that relates to your life…your emotional status,…your relationship status. That’s what the meaning of art is, to touch the human being, to look deeper than what it might look like if it wasn’t a part of their life.”

For anyone seeking a way to engage with an artistic community, grow as a dancer, or simply just try a new way to stay healthy and active, check out the TRDance website for more information.

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