Finding the steps

Kristen McGrew leads a ballet class at the JCC.

While teaching a level four ballet class, Kristen McGrew extended students’ arms and squared their hips while the accompanying pianist drifted from Chopin to “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Drop the tailbone. Breathe,” McGrew said. “Relax the feet.”

The 46-year-old former ballerina stepped into the role of Dance School director at the JCC of Mid-Westchester last fall, replacing Jayne Santoro, who has taught at the school for 30 years.

Santoro, 65, started as a teacher at the Dance School before becoming the pre-professional ballet program director in 1997 and then director of the school in 2002. She currently teaches eight classes per week and hopes to continue teaching next year.

In her nearly two decades as Dance School director, Santoro achieved many of the goals she set forth. Initially, she hoped to enlarge the space, which comprised only one dance studio. Over the years, the center added two more studios, the latter of which was built with funds donated in honor of Santoro’s 60th birthday. The former director also diversified class offerings, expanding programs in tap and hip-hop and creating a more robust program for adults.

“When I first started, we were basically a ballet school with preschool classes,” she said.

Additionally, she hired pianists in ballet classes so students could practice to live music.

Under Santoro, the staff grew from roughly 12 teachers and two or three piano players to 18 teachers, six pianists and more than 70 weekly classes for students spanning ages 7 to 88.

In seeking a replacement, Santoro wanted someone with extensive administrative and dance experience. “You have to really be able to go from wearing one hat [as] a director to switching gears and being a teacher,” she said.

McGrew’s background fit the bill perfectly. She danced professionally for decades, most recently at Eglevsky Ballet Co. for 12 years. For nearly that full stretch, she served as ballet mistress, teaching company classes, setting schedules, rehearsing dancers and acting as a liaison between the artistic director and dancers. She owned her own small dance company, Nomad Contemporary Ballet, and still teaches at The Ailey Studios in New York City.

The 2018-19 season marks the team’s “transition year,” with McGrew taking on administrative tasks while Santoro teaches the lion’s share of classes. McGrew will take on more teaching responsibility next year.

For now, she spends most days learning the JCC community, combing through class offerings and honing her vision for the school. “I’m really getting into the administrative side and how it functions as an organization,” she said. “I’m really thankful that Jayne set it up that way for this year.”

Looking forward, McGrew plans to expand adult programming by adding more variations workshops, in which students learn short excerpts from famous ballets, and adult beginner pointe classes. She plans to add modern training to the curriculum with the Horton technique, which explores a “hybrid between ballet and modern.”

“Jayne was able to maintain technique ... which unfortunately I think slips in a lot of schools,” McGrew said. “You can build any sort of program on top of ... what she kept alive.”

Of her decision to step down, Santoro said, “I think I was just ready. I’ve done it for so many years,” adding, “It’s not been hard because I trust Kristen ... I hope it continues to thrive and grow and stay [with] the integrity of what a good dance school should be.”

McGrew currently teaches two youth ballet classes each week, and will lead a monthlong adult variations series through January.

In a recent class, she was both corrective and gentle, prompting smiles from many young dancers. She led students in their bar warm-up with a singsong rhythm — “plié, tendu, dégagé” — like a French nursery rhyme.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” she told them. “We work with it.”

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