Slippery Rock University Dance Instructor Teena Custer, 37, has had her share of dancing experience, from going to college for dance, dancing modern, contemporary and hip-hop dance styles and being on MTVs “Made.”
Custer said she has been dancing since before she can remember. Custer got her interest in dance when she was 12 years old from watching television shows pertaining about dance and by attending school dances. By going to her school dances, Custer said she got immersed into what is now called the hip-hop culture style of dance.
“At that time, it was just what everyone was doing,” Custer said. “I didn’t know that this style of dance would be my profession later on down the line.”
Custer said one of the first television shows that made her realize she wanted to be a professional dancer was a show titled “In Living Color,” a multicultural sketch comedy television show, which was on the air during the early 1990’s. One of the female dance groups on the show, The Fly Girls, really inspired Custer to become the dancer she is today, she said.
When Custer was young and first started dancing, she said that it was hard for her because contemporary and modern dance wasn’t really something that was popular at the time. Custer has won many awards, which not only increased her credibility as a dancer, but, she said, also increased her confidence as a dancer. Custer said she hopes to teach students that they can do anything they put their mind to.
Custer said that when she decided to go to college for dance at Slippery Rock University in 1997, she said she had no idea what that type of dancing that entailed, because she had never had any formal training.
Now, Custer said, she’s fully immersed in all dance cultures. She said she started teaching at Slippery Rock University in 2004, shortly after she graduated from the university in 2000, as a sabbatical replacement and has been teaching here on and off ever since as an instructor.
“I always knew that I would teach because I really enjoy it and I taught gymnastics when I was younger, but I wanted to perform more than anything, which I still do, but you have to pay the bills,” Custer said.
Custer’s work has been shown at the Sadler’s Wells Theater in London, the Ford Amphitheater in Los Angeles and at the American Dance Festival at Duke University. She was also featured in Dance Magazine’s “Top 24 to Watch” in 2007, and was featured on MTV’s “Made.”
“Doing “Made” was really fun,” Custer said. “I wasn’t actually the coach for the B-girl that wanted to be made into a dancer, but during the last day of filming for the show, they brought her to this club and they told her she was just going to come watch the battle and then she ended up having to battle me, so it was this big dramatic, ‘oh, you’re going to battle Teena Marie.’ It was fun. I was nice to her, though.”
Although Custer said she has her MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in Contemporary Dance Performance from The Ohio State University, she mostly associates with the breaking dance style. Breaking, also called breakdancing, is a type of dance that originated from African American youth.
“I’m a dance junkie,” Custer said. “I trained a lot in modern and ballet for my degree, and then also my time here at Slippery Rock was mostly modern dance based. At the same time of doing all that, I started training in breaking. So, that would be my evenings and weekends, or whenever I had time. After I trained in that for a while, I started picking up other street dancing styles like house, and waacking and locking.”
House dancing is a social dance that includes dance moves such as footwork, lofting and jacking. Waacking dance styles involve moving the arms to the beat of the music, and locking is the dance style that is most associated with the Hip-Hop style of dancing, which includes freezing and locking the body from fast movements into a certain position.
Custer said that her all female-street dance crew, Venus Fly, incorporates a lot of house, waacking and locking into their routines. Venus Fly just celebrated its ten-year anniversary, Custer said.
She said she doesn’t have a certain favorite dance move, but if she did, it would be something upside down and on the ground.
“That’s where I live,” she said.
Ursula Payne, chair and professor of Slippery Rock University’s dance department, 46, said she thinks Custer is a great asset to the dance program and to the students as well. Payne said that Custer possesses something that most Slippery Rock dance professors don’t.
“I think Teena has been a great asset to our program, not only for her expertise, but she brings an approach to dance, with her knowledge in street dance styles, that is really cutting edge, and it’s material that our students need to know,” Payne said. “There’s not too many people like her that have training as a modern dance artist and that have the kind of street dance credibility that she brings.”
At times, Custer said she doubts her abilities as a dancer, because in the hip-hop dance world dancers are very honest when they think other dancers aren’t good.
“I think that in hip-hop, the battle scene is really raw and people will tell you very blatantly if they think that you’re wack, whereas I feel in contemporary dance or concert dance, they’ll just say it behind your back,” Custer said. “Either way, there’s always going to be haters or people that don’t like what you’re doing, and you have to just keep moving forward.”
If she wasn’t a dancer, Custer said she has no clue what she would be doing. She said that she couldn’t imagine doing anything else, but that if she had to choose another profession, it would probably be a job in fitness, or hair and fashion design.
The most enjoyable thing about dancing for Custer is the feeling and the high that she gets when she’s dancing, especially if it’s her favorite kind of music. She said that for her, dancing primarily therapy. She also said the hardest thing about dancing is staying up on the training.
“Just working on your craft constantly takes up a lot of time,” Custer said. “Sometimes life gets in the way, but I try to work around it to do the thing I love.”