Professional dancers take new career tracks teaching in Soldotna
By JENNY NEYMAN, Peninsula Clarion, AK
Sept 2 2004

The kids at Vergine's Dance Studio in Soldotna this year may not fully
grasp the intricacies of ballet, what it's like to audition for a
dance company or how much work it takes to be a professional dancer,
but they're learning from people who do.

Two new instructors at the studio, Andrea Mariano and Aram Manukyan,
are bringing their professional dance experience to share with

"We don't want to babysit, we want to train, that's why we have
professionals here," said Vergine Hedberg, owner of the studio. "I
value their knowledge and talent and want to pass it on to the

Mariano grew up in Colorado and graduated from Oklahoma City University
with a bachelor's of performing arts degree in dance.

"My mom put me in classes when I was 2 or 3 and I just stuck with it,"
she said.

Manukyan works with Hillary Schneider as Aaron Hawbold watches in a
rehearsal Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Jenny Neyman

Her first trip to Alaska was with a U.S. tour of "Spirit of the
Dance," which performed in Anchorage. She's been a dance instructor
in Colorado and, before coming to Soldotna, she was performing in
a Las Vegas show on Saipan Island in the N. Mariana Islands. Alaska
is quite a change from the tropical conditions she's been living in,
but one which she's enjoyed so far.

"I love it. It's so beautiful," she said. "... I grew up in a small
town, but I think this is a little smaller. But I love it so far."

Mariano said she's excited to meet the community and get it involved
in supporting dance and the arts. She's teaching jazz and tap at the
studio and hopes to teach an Irish tap class at some point. Mariano
also is involved in the studio's production of "The Nutcracker,"
which will be performed Dec. 11 and 12. She will perform the role of
grandmother although she's only 25.

Teaching kids has been a nice change of pace from performing
professionally for Mariano.

"They're just so carefree, so open," she said. "They're willing to
work hard. ... It's refreshing to see kids supporting each other in
auditions. It's not cutthroat (like it is in professional dance)."

Manukyan, 32, brings more than 20 years of professional experience
to his job of teaching ballet and character dance. He's also
choreographing this year's "Nutcracker."

Born and raised in Armenia, Manukyan studied at the Armenian National
Choreography Academy. He performed in the Armenian National Ballet
Company for two years, then went to Ukraine to perform ballet for
six years. He studied dance instruction at the Russian Academy of
Theatre and Arts GITIS in Moscow.

Manukyan has traveled across the world performing classical dance,
just about everywhere but Africa, England and Australia. In 1997, he
moved to the United States to perform with the ballet in Annapolis,
M.D. He's also performed in ballets in Cincinnati, Ohio and Tennessee,
including a stint as ballet master. For the last two years he's been
with the ballet company in Sarasota, Fla. He is settling in Soldotna
with his wife and three children after teaching an intensive dance
class this summer at Vergine's.

"When I told people I was going to Alaska everybody said, 'You're
going to Anchorage?' I told them, 'No, Alaska is bigger than just

His kids haven't seen snow in years and the prospect of moving
somewhere so out-of-the-way seemed daunting at first.

"My wife was cautious about moving here," he said. "(But) the warmth
of the welcome of these people here was amazing. We're pretty happy
here. ... It takes a pretty much open person to feel good in a small

Being a professional instructor may seem a little lack-luster compared
to the accolades and glamour of being a professional dancer, but
Manukyan said teaching has its own rewards.

"If you see you can help them accomplish something, that's what
teaching is all about," he said.

Working with young dancers has its merits, too.

"Professionally, I'm just amazed with the students here. Myself,
being in this profession for 23 years, I was amazed by the kids'
dedication, their performing abilities. ... I can just get things
out of them that I can't get out of professionals."

But Manukyan cautioned that dance is not for anyone who isn't willing
to put time, energy and dedication into it and that goes for parents,
as well.

"If you want your kids to be involved in something and be good at it,
you have to focus them," he said.

Ideally, Manukyan said he would like to get fathers and more boys
involved in dance so he can offer partners dance classes. The United
States seems to be unique in fostering the stigma that dance is for
girls and sports are for boys, Manukyan said. In other countries,
just as many boys take dance as girls. Manukyan said dance offers the
same physical exercise and competition as sports, but also offers an
education in art.

"It's a wonderful education, even if you don't become a dancer,"
he said. "... It's so combined, so complete a kind of education."