If you ask Susan Chitwood why she loves teaching dance, she will tell you it stems from her love of music.
“I love music, I have heard music in my head all my life and every move I make is to music,” Chitwood said. “I teach people to be able to put their bodies into alignment and to move to music.”
On Wednesday and Friday, Chitwood will host her 50th annual recital at Jacoby Auditorium at Umpqua Community College. She opened Chitwood Studio of Dance in 1969 with seven years of teaching experience and a love of teaching.
Chitwood is a native Oregonian; she moved to Roseburg when she was two years old. She was born with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disorder that occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s tissues. When Chitwood was 15, she had to learn to walk again because of the pain and damage caused by the disorder. By age 20, however, she was enrolled in the School of American Ballet in New York City.
Unfortunately, Chitwood’s father became seriously ill, requiring her to return home. Yet one particular moment from her time at the school stuck with her.
“Well, I thought I wanted to be a ballerina when I was a kid and my teacher kept telling me ‘you’re going to be a teacher. You’re a teacher,’” Chitwood said. “Even when I went to New York City — the School of American Ballet is to ballet like Harvard Law School is to law and I went to the School of American Ballet. The second day I was there, they noticed I was helping some girl and asked if I would like to get a job teaching there at the school. And I went ‘no!’ But, when I came back to Roseburg and started teaching, that gave me all the self-confidence I needed. If they wanted me to teach at the School of American Ballet then I must be a good teacher.”
Now, Chitwood teaches some of the children and grandchildren of her original students. Her students range in age from seven years old to adults in their 50s and 60s. She even has one class made up entirely of one family — 11 siblings using her class to reconnect with one another.
“The class is all one family. It’s 11 kids in the same family; they range in age from 11 to 31. Two boys and nine girls,” Chitwood said. “Some of them took lessons years ago. Like the girl that’s 31, I think she was 14 when she first started ballet... and then some time later I had five of the younger ones one summer and all of a sudden, they are all here. The two youngest ones decided they wanted to take ballet ‘cause all of their other siblings had it and they hadn’t been able to. So they took (classes) last year and then, all of a sudden last summer, the rest decided they wanted to come back too.”
Chitwood’s primary focus is on ballet, though she also teaches jazz and tap.
“Ballet is the strongest dance discipline and so I require all of my students to take two ballet classes per week. If they want more, like tap or jazz, that is in addition to the two ballet lessons,” Chitwood said.
No matter which dance style her students want to focus on, Chitwood’s ultimate lessons have remained the same throughout the years: respect one another, be honest with their own abilities, try to do more and to always do their best.
“I don’t tell my students that they will all become professional ballerinas,” Chitwood said. “I just tell them that I want them to do the best they can.”
Chitwood’s recital will be held at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 19, and Friday, June 21. Tickets are $6 and can be purchased now at the studio, from students or at the door on recital days. It will feature all three disciplines that Chitwood teaches. For the second year in a row, the recital will include “Amazing Grace.”
“50 years — I just go one day at a time. It doesn’t feel like 50 years,” Chitwood said. “I have done other things. I worked at an insurance company, I taught history as a tutor, but teaching dance is what I was meant to do.”