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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Judge Memorial Catholic High School dance teacher Nathan Shaw teaches a class for boys. Most of them are school athletes competing in football, basketball and lacrosse. The class requires strength, flexibility, body control and balance.
All for dance at Judge Memorial Catholic High School

Profile » Nathan Shaw’s program getting unprecedented interest — and reaching new heights.

By Kathy Adams

Special to The Tribune

First Published Mar 13 2014 04:19 pm • Last Updated Mar 18 2014 09:52 am

Since dance teacher Nathan Shaw arrived two years ago, Judge Memorial Catholic High School — known for its academic rigor and successful sports teams — has a new stat to boast about.

Of the 750 students at the 90-year-old Salt Lake City school, nearly one quarter take dance. And this year, Shaw’s 8 a.m. all-men’s dance class hit an unprecedented enrollment of 18 athletes, all of whom play at least one other sport.

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"Dancers are athletes and they are warriors," Shaw said. "I adapt the class to them so, for example, if they had a big game the night before and some of them are injured, we’ll do stretching and rebuilding exercises. I want them to learn to listen to their bodies."

The unusually high number of boys taking dance classes at Judge (two or three is much more typical) is perhaps the most striking sign of the growing popularity Shaw’s program is enjoying.

"We had 100 kids sign up for the beginning level coed class so we split it in half and added another section," said Shaw, who is now teaching six classes a day, from beginning modern techniques and creative movement to advanced men’s dance with "crazy partnering and physicality."

In getting more boys involved, Shaw cited help from head football coach James Cordova, who advises his athletes to take dance for their required art credit.

"We do a lot of conditioning and flexibility training," Shaw said. "The athletes leave my class with more core strength and the new ability to touch their toes."

Shaw said it also helps that he’s not a "stereotypical dancer."

"I have always lifted weights and I have always been the biggest guy in the dance studio," he said. "I think giving them this different representation of a male dancer opened their eyes to the possibility of what dance can be.

"Every day my goal is to fill my dance studio with hard work but also laughter and joy."

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Ask the young men why they started taking dance and you’ll hear: "To fulfill an art credit" or "It looked like fun." Ask them why they stay, and the answers are more complex. Some express an appreciation for the strength, flexibility and coordination dance adds to their athletic skills. Others enjoy performing for pep rallies to boost school spirit while providing the opportunity to show off their rather impressive athleticism in a new way.

But most say it jump-starts their focus for the rest of the day and decreases sports injuries.

"I’ve really enjoyed my time dancing at Judge," said Gabe Rechsteiner, a senior who joined men’s dance last year halfway through the semester and now also participates in the school Dance Company. "Mr. Shaw has truly created an environment that facilitates creative self-expression and physical fitness. It’s a great break from the competition of high-school athletics, and I mean hanging out with pretty girls all day doesn’t hurt either."

Shaw, who grew up in Thousand Oaks, Calif., came to Utah to attend Brigham Young University as a musical theater major and transferred to the University of Utah to pursue a dance major. After graduating, he danced and taught at several places in Salt Lake City before earning a spot as a full-time company member with Repertory Dance Theatre in 2006.

He spent six years at RDT before becoming the first person hired by Judge in 28 years to head the dance program, taking over for Jeanette Sawaya, the department head from 1984-2012 who continues as a guidance counselor and yoga teacher at the school. (As Sawaya began to ease out of teaching dance several years ago, another respected U. graduate and choreographer, Natosha Washington, played an important role in building Judge’s dance program before accepting a job at Northwest Middle School.)

"Nathan has quickly built this program in size and depth," Sawaya said. "He has a rapport with students and the teaching skills to back it up."

Shaw gives much of the credit for his development as a teacher to his mentor, West High School dance teacher Hilary Carrier, who began hiring him in 2006 to be a guest teacher and choreographer for her students.

"After the class or rehearsal, she would give me feedback and we’d talk through what worked and didn’t work in the class," he said. "She also gave me ideas for composition assignments to teach students how to problem-solve and work collaboratively."

Carrier said she met Shaw when he was a senior at the U., and was immediately impressed by his enthusiasm and passion for dance.

"He taught and choreographed for my students and I watched him develop into an accomplished teacher," Carrier said. "His sense of humor and comedic timing endear him to the students, but it is his true commitment to teaching that is so effective."

During dance class, Shaw keeps YouTube running on his laptop, ready to type in the latest band or song suggestion from students. He says it keeps the kids engaged and the music fresh.

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