Alumna Deb Delpopolo Establishes Dance School Where Skill and Self-Esteem Go Hand in Hand

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When Deb Delpopolo attended Mercer County Community College in the early 1990s, she took more courses in psychology than required. "My advisor told me I didn't need all of them, but they were so interesting to me," she says.

She has put that knowledge to use in more ways than she could possibly have imagined when she graduated from Mercer in 1995 with an A.A. in Liberal Arts.
As owner of All That Jazz Dance Academy in Hamilton since 1998, she has created an instructor-friendly and kid-friendly dance school that emphasizes building self esteem almost as much as developing dance skills. "Children will grow, and become more confidant and talented if they love what they are doing!" she maintains.


Deb Delpopolo with happy dancers at All That Jazz

Delpopolo believes that creating a positive environment starts with the instructors. In addition to providing a solid technical foundation, it's important to have instructors who like being there, she says. She is proud of her teachers, almost all of whom are former students. "They are dedicated and loyal, as well as unbelievably talented," she says. She also draws on professionals, periodically bringing in guest dancers and choreographers from New York City and Los Angeles.

Delpopolo herself started dancing at the age of two and never stopped. "I always looked forward to dance class," she recalls. Striving to instill that same kind of enthusiasm in her students, she says, "We treat the children with respect. There's no embarrassment. We want it to be fun."

Clearly this philosophy sits well with her students. Currently, ATJ is offering 50 classes per week for over 200 students in tap, jazz and ballet and more, including a new breakdancing class for boys only. There are 10 instructors, plus Delpopolo herself, who teaches several classes a week. In order to prepare students for a broader performance experience, the school also offers classes in acting, singing and guitar. "For those who want to perform, it's important to be well-rounded," she says. Her students range in age from pre-schoolers to adults.

By the time they are eight years old, ATJ students can take their dance skills to the next level, with all classes on the roster open to them, including choreography. "I want them to be creative, not just robots," Delpopolo says. She lets students select their own costumes for public performances.

Even in competition dance, Delpopolo's belief in fostering self-esteem shines through. "There are no auditions. Everyone can be part of it. I'm not going to tell an eight year old they can't do it. And it's always worked out. We've earned high scores, judges awards and highest honors."

For her most accomplished students, Delpopolo founded Silver Lining Dance Company in fall, 2009. The dance company is more select, Delpopolo admits, but she brought in judges from outside the studio to minimize hurt feelings. The company's 10 performers dance in a contemporary style that she considers exciting and different. "Not too many rules," she says.

Delpopolo has taken this troupe on the road, performing at the Hamilton Senior Center and the Goddard School. ATJ also gives back to the community through an annual holiday performance for charity in December. "We collect for Womanspace, AFEW, Jerry's Kids, and more," she says. "We believe in community spirit."

While her students are giving back to the community, they are getting much in return, according to Delpopolo. "The benefits of dance for teens are indisputable," she says. "It's something productive to do, a way to stay physically fit, and it keeps depression away."

That's her psychology background talking again. As a Mercer student, Delpopolo took dance, of course, and performed with the Mercer Dance Ensemble under Janell Byrne. "She was wonderful. I loved her choreography." But she also immersed herself in the humanities and fondly recalls Professor Angela McGlynn, now retired. "My psychology courses focused on relationships - how to argue, how to deal with people." A course in child psychology has proven especially helpful, she says. And, because tuition was affordable, Delpopolo was able to take extra courses that interested her.

Some of Delpopolo's former students, a few who are AJT instructors, are currently studying at Mercer. "I tell my dance students, 'Go to Mercer! Everything is available there.'"

With an almost 24/7 commitment to her studio, Delpopolo has not yet cleared enough space on her calendar to return to college, but says it is on her list. When she does head back to the classroom, she plans to attend Mercer to study art, photography and more advanced Italian. "You can learn at any age, right?"

Just ask her adult class in hip hop. "It's very popular. They love it," she says.

Learn more about All That Jazz Dance Academy here.

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