By JOANNE L. PAPAIANNI
It was a directive from a famous dancer that set Asbury Park’s Michele Burrell on a path to her life’s work.
As a young woman Burrell studied with Madame Maria Swoboda, the famous dancer and dance teacher, at a Spring Lake studio.
Burrell says Swoboda, who had taught at leading ballet studios in New York including the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, American Ballet Theater and the June Taylor School, looked around at her students and came to the realization that there were not many opportunities for African American dancers.
“She then looked at me and said ‘You will teach,’” Burrell said. “She taught me how to teach dance. I didn’t know she was a famous dancer.”
Burrell, the owner and director of the Asbury Park Technical Academy of Dance, reflected this week on the the last two decades as she and her dancers get ready for the final performance of her original ballet “Amistad.”
“This is the the last performance, it’s being retired this year, it’s my creation,” she said.
The ballet and 20th anniversary celebration is Sun., June 10 at 5 p.m. at the Paramount Theatre on the boardwalk in Asbury Park.
Burrell’s excitement about the performance was obvious as was her pride and devotion to her former students.
“It feels wonderful. Through our doors we’ve had a lot of college students. Our college rate…they all go on to further their education,” she said.
Burrell said many have become dance teachers or professional dancers. Some even went into the medical field becoming doctors, neurosurgeons, specialized pediatric nurses and engineers.
Burrell, a lifelong city resident and inductee of its Hall of Fame, opened the doors to her dance studio in the then abandoned Asbury Park Press building, 603 Mattison Ave., 20 years ago. The rent was reasonable rent and she promised she would fix it up.
“It was empty, there was no ceiling,” she said.
In a labor of love her father, who she called “very handy,” learned how to fix it up, installing an office, ceiling and ballet bars.
“My dad fixed it up,” she said. “We had our first recital a year later and then he died.”
Burrell said 20 years after learning to dance herself she looked around the city and found there were no opportunities for youngster who wanted to dance without going out of town.
She says there were three reasons city children were not dancing, the first it was not affordable, the second the studios were hard to get to, and third outside dance studios were not always welcoming to Asbury Park children.
“So I started a dance studio in Asbury Park for the kids of the community,” she said.
When she opened her doors she had 40 students. Over the years the number has fluctuated and this year there are about 70 students. She estimates she has taught about 1000 students.
Burrell also teaches dance at the Asbury Park High School’s Dream Academy and is also a long term substitute teacher for the district.
She recently received an arts education award, 2018 Community Champion of the Arts, from Monmouth Arts.
Throughout the interview Burrell kept heralding her students accomplishments on and off the stage.
One of her students will not be at Sunday’s performance because he is dancing professionally in Europe, another was a backup dancer for Beyonce at one time and another is an engineer creating medical machines by watching surgeons in operating rooms and designing machines that enhance recovery.
Another works in New York city in the social media marketing field.
“All of it – it’s wonderful and successful,” she says looking back on her career.
Many of her students now tell her that the discipline she taught them has led to their success in their chosen fields.
She said one student said it was that discipline that helped her get through medical school.
Another who said while other students became tired she was able to push on and complete the course work to become a specialized pediatric nurse.
“Amistad” Sun., June 10 at 5 p.m. at the Paramount Theatre. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for children.