Michele Hanlon’s first solo performance was a strange experience.
She was dancing in a piece composed by a graduate student at the University of Arizona as part of her bachelor’s degree in dance.
She started with her back to the audience and turned as the music started. She then promptly forgot the rest of the dance.
Hanlon, who has been teaching at UTD for 20 years, has never stopped dancing, instructing or improvising since then.
She was the youngest of six children in a single-parent family and could never take dance lessons as a child.
“(It was) a big family, so I think there were some struggles, which made that hard for my mother to provide.”
At Tucson, she started out as a business major, a reliable path that her family understood.
Her time in the business program didn’t feel satisfying, and she took a semester off from her major to take philosophy and dance classes. She auditioned for the dance program and was accepted. She had to start at the beginner’s level and had a lot of catching up to do.
“I really didn’t look back at that time,” she said. “I was where I wanted to be and needed to be at that time. You hear people say when you’re making a choice like this — to go into a risky field — it’s not really a choice but something you’re compelled to do and you have to do, and that’s how it felt.”
She graduated from the University of Arizona, and after working for a dance company in Tucson, she married and moved to Dallas. She then worked for three different dance companies before starting her own dance company, ElleDanceWorks, in 1997.
As a dancer, few can succeed in the professional market without adequate training in their childhood, she said.
For Hanlon, her lack of training worked in her favor, helping her adapt as required under the guidance of her teachers at the university.
Hanlon has performed for several dance companies throughout her career, but she is slowly transitioning into choreographing full time. Last year was the first year she went without a single performance.
“I’ve moved into a different role, and I’m really enjoying choreographing,” she said. “The role would have to be right, because, you know, the body doesn’t do what it used to be able to do.”
Her style evolves from a concept, and she likes to have her dancers speak to the audience during her dance pieces. Her routines, mostly modern and contemporary, stretch the boundaries between the performers and the audience. In one of her more recent dances she had her dancers walk off the stage and perform in the audience.
She joined UTD in 1994, back when the dance program was smaller and a dance company in residency taught the classes. Hanlon had just received her master’s form TCU, and the dance company had been looking to bring on a teacher.
The first classes at UTD were taught during lunch breaks in between the dance company’s rehearsals and in the evenings.
When she first came to the university, she was required to combine three techniques in her class: ballet, classical and jazz.
With the growth of the program, dance is now an available concentration for arts and performance majors. There are separate classes for each of these techniques, as well as for composition and dance appreciation.
Dance is offered as a minor now that is open to students from all majors, making teaching at UTD a unique experience for her, she said.
“It’s a blessing to be able to work with a lot of people who are not just focused on dance and aren’t going to go out and become professional dancers,” Hanlon said. “I really like that about teaching here because you get the opportunity to introduce this art form, this way of thinking and looking at the world to so many people that wouldn’t maybe hear about it otherwise and might not seek it out if it wasn’t here available to them.”