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Retiring MHSA dance teacher Sandra Jordan reflects on her best advice to students

MHSA dance teacher Sandra Jordan speaks with a student in class.For nearly 29 years, Milwaukee High School of the Arts students have absorbed dance instruction and life lessons from teacher Sandra Jordan in the school’s dance studio. Now, this semester is her last at MPS.  

Jordan, who is among the teachers retiring from the district after this school year, spent her entire MPS career at MHSA and taught dance to scores of students. Many of those alumni now work from Milwaukee to California; two have danced with superstar Beyoncé. Jordan estimates 500 of her former students have made dance or teaching dance their profession.  

“Whenever I can, I bring them back,” to show her students still in high school that nationally known dancers have come out of MHSA, she said. And she’s brought in dancers from visiting companies performing in Milwaukee whenever possible to give her students advice and even a master class.  

“This dancer right here started at Level 1,” Jordan will tell her own students. “You can do it, too, but you’ve got to work for it.”  

She points out to her students that “when you get out in the real world, this is what they’re looking for.” And, she tells them, “The dancers in Milwaukee are not your competition … it’s the dancers out there,” nationally — they meet their competition when they go to college to study dance.  

She discovered her own interest in dance while growing up in Alabama, where her school offered gymnastics. “I realized I was better at rhythmic dance,” Jordan said, and she started on her path, first as a dance major at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She left college to join her mother in Milwaukee and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  

Jordan earned a bachelor’s degree and worked in administration before starting at MPS. She then earned a master’s degree in dance and choreography at UWM, and a master's in arts administration from UW-Madison. 

At MHSA, Jordan has taught ballet, modern jazz dance, and dance composition — that is, choreographic skills. When it comes to styles of dance, “I love them all,” she said. “If you do good dancing, I’m all in. And it’s very inspiring to watch dancers creating their own choreography.” Sandra Jordan leads a dance class at MHSA.

Inspiration for dance moves can strike Jordan anywhere. “Any kind of sound I hear sometimes triggers my body to move,” she said. In a copy shop recently, she heard three copy machines operating at the same time. Her mind went not to her print work but to a dance movement, and she began thinking of choreography to the sounds of machines.  

Openness is something she encourages in her students. “You’re opening yourself every time to a new experience,” she said.  

The advice she stresses to her students is this: “You must be humble, because there’s already going to be somebody in the room who is stronger technically than you.” Humility might not sound like it’s related to dance, but Jordan argues that it is.  

When dancers walk into a studio humble, they’re saying, “I’m going to learn something new; you’re going to teach me something new.” 

“Life is long. You never stop learning,” Jordan said. Dancers always are adding to their skills and developing character, she said. 

As part of her instruction, she prepares her students for auditioning. 

“Understand that you will be rejected. Rejection is a part of this field. It doesn’t mean that you’re not good,” Jordan tells her students.  

Being told “no” really is being told “not yet,” she observed. “Every time you audition, it’s experience that you put in the back of your mind,” to summon for the next audition, or the next practice.  

“You’ve got to work hard,” Jordan said. Dance, she said, is pushing the body beyond its limits. “It’s hard work, and you might get tired, but that’s the nature of the beast,” she said. 

Dance slippers show evidence of how hard dancers work.“When that curtain opens and you see that audience and you dance for your life that night, and they give you a standing ovation… that’s worth it,” Jordan said. 

In class, she teaches combinations — the steps that make up a dance — quickly, so students’ brains begin to process dance steps faster. It prepares them for what they’ll face in college, she said.  

Jordan observed that more students now want to perform, but they’re less focused on training. She tells them that they have to train, No. 1, to achieve their technical skills, and No. 2, practice and rehearse, before they can get to No. 3 — performing. “Can’t do 3 without 1 and 2,” Jordan said. 

Although hundreds of her students have gone on to dance professionally and to teach dance, others have gone into fields including medicine and law. She’s urged them to keep dancing.  

Whatever your career, “dance is a stress relief,” she said. “Take a dance class.”  

Jordan has been recognized for her teaching. In 2023, she received the Wisconsin Dance Council’s Margaret H’Doubler Award for outstanding contribution as an educator in the field of dance. This year, she was a finalist for the statewide Herb Kohl Educational Foundation Teacher Fellowship. 

Although Jordan is retiring from MPS, she’s not retiring from teaching — she will continue as a dance instructor at Signature Dance Company in Milwaukee, where she already has taught in the summers and some evenings. After advising students for almost three decades, she now is following her own good advice: Just keep dancing. 

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