Seton Hill instructor always wanted to dance, teach |
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Shirley McMarlin
TaMara Swank, Seton Hill University assistant professor of dance, stands for a portrait on Nov. 21, 2016.

From childhood, TaMara Swank of Greensburg knew two things: that she was destined to dance and that she was destined to teach. The Fredericktown, Fayette County, native studied dance with a ballet concentration at Point Park University and earned a master’s degree in exercise science from California University of Pennsylvania.

She is an assistant professor of dance at Seton Hill University, having started by teaching one ballet class there in 2004. Prior to that, she owned Studio 22 Arts Inc. in Franklin, Venango County, a performing-arts center that offered instruction in dance, theater, voice, piano, guitar, art and martial arts.

Question: Where did your story start?

Answer: I always knew I wanted to be a teacher from when I was very young, and I also loved dance. I’ve always been a mover. When I was young, I didn’t know I was choreographing my own pieces, but I would invite my friends and the neighborhood kids over, and I would make them be in shows.

I didn’t start till I was about 11 or 12 with jazz, and I really didn’t have much of a ballet background until later.

Q: What led you to study exercise science?

A: I really have an interest in dance science. Even though my degree isn’t specifically for dancers — it’s more oriented toward sports — it focuses on how the human body moves and in understanding the use of the muscles. That really informs my dance teaching.

Q: How did you end up at Seton Hill?

A: My husband’s originally from Greensburg, and we ended up moving back here in October 2003. I reached out to Seton Hill in November or December, because I was going to take classes for myself. It turns out that the person I called was on the theater faculty and she said, “The lady teaching the morning ballet class can’t teach in the spring. Would you be interested in interviewing for it?” They hired me to teach that one class, two mornings a week.

Q: What has happened since then?

A: Little by little, the other faculty person said she thought the program was in good hands with me, and she said, “I think I’m going to allow you to take over.”

Shortly after that, I started a community dance program for children that we call SHUDA — the Seton Hill University Dance Academy. Then we implemented the dance minor and, then, shortly after that, we started working on the dance major. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve gone from teaching one class to having a dance major with beautiful dedicated space for the students to learn in.

Q: Would anything surprise people about how you teach dance?

A: At Seton Hill, we use technology in the classroom, and I love that. It helps the students to self-assess their work. They record themselves and are able to watch their movement. There are apps that can slow the movement down, so they can scroll along to watch their movement from, say, fourth position into a pirouette. They can see if where their energy is going is good or maybe where it’s throwing them off balance.

Q: Anything else?

A: I wish that the community knew more about what we do here. I’ll talk to folks, and they don’t always realize that the student performances are open to the public. We do dance, theater and music performances; there’s the art galleries. There are so many opportunities for students to show their work.

Q: Do you have a student performance coming up?

A: This semester, I’ve been teaching a rehearsal and performance course (to Seton Hill students). At the beginning, we talked about what do we want to do for the final performance. We came up with the idea of a dance performance of the Duke Ellington “Nutcracker Suite.” The show will be Dec. 2.

Students are stage-managing, so it’s really their concept. We worked on choreography, and the students are all performing at least twice in two different groups, and we do an opening and finale. Our university students are designing the costumes, as well.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or [email protected].

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