January 3, 2013

A lifetime of dance

Westport woman dedicated to teaching passion


---- — WESTPORT — For more than 30 years, Caroline Thompson has taught and inspired youngsters in the joys and intricacies of dance. 

“I love seeing my students as they grow up, becoming good athletes, (having) fun dancing and not being self conscious on a dance floor. Past students still come up to me in the grocery store and identify themselves. They remember,” Thompson said.

From the tips of their toes to the ends of their fingers and the tops of their heads, Thompson makes her young students aware that every part of them is a part of the dance. 

“Now you are playing the piano. Wiggle those fingers,” she tells them during a recent dance session in Westport.

The youngsters assume different roles, most in pantomime, as they cavort in a variety of expressive moves. 

“OK, Superman, wave those capes,” Thompson tells the dancers as they fly about the room.

Role-playing as farmers, the students go through the motions of putting on their high boots, jackets and gloves and heading out to the barn. 

“Watch out for those horse droppings. Let’s pick up our feet,” she says as the students go through the motions.

“Dancers use their bodies, not their vocal chords,” Thompson tells her troupe when a few start chatting. 

“Sometimes dancers also have to be very still,” Thompson said as the group played a game. 

Thompson invites the students’ parents and grandparents who generally sit in the background to participate in the exercises. She also joins the youngsters. 

“When are we going to do dancing?” a student asks.

“I know everyone hates sit-ups; let’s make them fun. We’re ballerinas, not truck drivers,” Thompson teases.

Thompson has been teaching in Westport since the fall of 1980; she taught the preceding spring at the Elizabethtown Social Center. Several parents of her current students are also protégés. “I actually started as a dance assistant in my dance school when I was 13 and did the same with the JV gymnastics team,” Thompson said.

“At 5, I loved to dance, and still do,” she added. 

She continued through her adolescence and studied with several teachers and techniques during high school. Thompson entered SUNY Cortland as a physical-education major with a dance concentration. She studied at Jacob’s Pillow through Springfield College the summer before her sophomore year and then transferred into fine arts, but she continued taking dance classes. 

Although she has never performed with a professional company, Thompson participated in many performances and competitions as an amateur.

Discussing her philosophy, Thompson said: “My hope is that children learn how to move their bodies and to control their movement. Mentally, it is a discipline. Dance helps in all sport and creative movement. It is a mind, muscle and music — where appropriate — relationship. Fun is important, too. As a dancer gets older, movement becomes part of one’s soul.”

Thompson’s students range in age from 4 to 11. 

“I have had older (students) and occasionally 3-year-olds, but older ones get involved in sports or seek technique-specific classes elsewhere,” she said.

“For the 4- through 6-year-old class, we concentrate on basic movement with a small touch of classical ballet and other basic dance steps they might want to learn at a later time. With the older classes, I try to focus on classical and modern ballet and basic tumbling with weekly introductions of specific steps for dances such as the waltz, polka and square dancing.”

Thompson’s motivation is her love for the arts, and though she receives some compensation from the Westport Youth Commission, it is very little. And, with funding cuts, she make less now than she did in 1983.

Currently, all of her students are female, but that has not always been the case. 

“Often I’ve had male students. One year, I had eight boys and three girls. Joe Dayton started at 5 or 6 and continued as my assistant until he graduated high school,” Thompson said.

Her dancers have a public performance in conjunction with Westport Central School’s annual talent show in May. Students have until March to sign up. The group will rehearse in April and May. Classes are generally held at the Westport Heritage House at 3:30 p.m. on Mondays. There is a minimal charge for Westport residents and more for students who reside outside of the town.

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TO LEARN MORE Caroline Thompson can be reached at 962-8373 for more information.