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Rob Kleinendorst, who spent 21 years dancing for the legendary Paul Taylor, begins second act at Anne Arundel Community College

His shoulders back and head held high, former Paul Taylor Dance Company stalwart Robert Kleinendorst is in the midst of executing a grand jete into the unknown.

Two years after wrapping up his professional performing career, Kleinendorst, 48, embarked in August upon his second career as head of the dance department at Anne Arundel Community College. His task? To rejuvenate a program that has an established track record of success but has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Kya Ellis, in front, with, from left, Elise Wood, Bronwyn Burgess, Jena Baker, Kennedy Williams, and Victoria Ofori. (Emmy Ryan is hidden behind Baker.) Rob Kleinendorst, the new Artistic Director of the Anne Arundel Community College Dance Company, works with the dancers during a rehearsal. Kleinendorst, 48, danced for 21 years with the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Kya Ellis, in front, with, from left, Elise Wood, Bronwyn Burgess, Jena Baker, Kennedy Williams, and Victoria Ofori. (Emmy Ryan is hidden behind Baker.) Rob Kleinendorst, the new Artistic Director of the Anne Arundel Community College Dance Company, works with the dancers during a rehearsal. Kleinendorst, 48, danced for 21 years with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

“I loved dancing with Paul Taylor more than anything,” said Kleinendorst, who left Brooklyn and moved to Severna Park this summer with his dancer wife and their two children.

“In my 21 years with the company, I never missed a show. I missed only two rehearsals: one apiece when each of my children was born. (His daughter, Sadie is 8, and son Axel is 5.)

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“I never marked a rehearsal in my life,” he said, referring to the dance term for going through the motions at a practice session to conserve energy for an upcoming performance. “I always gave it one hundred percent. I used to worry that when the day came that I had to retire, I would spiral into a depression.”

Yet, during a recent rehearsal of the college’s dance company, Kleinendorst appeared visibly engaged and upbeat as he guided the eight students through new choreography of his own devising. He joked with one student about her excessive water consumption and playfully tapped another on the back. Gentle corrections on the line of a leg or the angle of a hip alternated with frequent and sincere compliments.

Kleinendorst was selected earlier this year from among 60 candidates to replace the dance department’s founder, Lynda Fitzgerald, who recently retired after 34 years.

“Rob is a really good teacher and excellent communicator,” said first-year student Bronwyn Burgess, 19, who has a background in ballet.

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Rob Kleinendorst, the new Artistic Director of the Anne Arundel Community College Dance Company, provides the rhythm as Bronwyn Burgess, right, and other dancers practice during a rehearsal. Kleinendorst, 48, danced for 21 years with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Nov. 9, 2021 p7
Rob Kleinendorst, the new Artistic Director of the Anne Arundel Community College Dance Company, provides the rhythm as Bronwyn Burgess, right, and other dancers practice during a rehearsal. Kleinendorst, 48, danced for 21 years with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Nov. 9, 2021 p7 (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

“Modern dance is not my primary style. But Rob gives really specific corrections so I’m never lost or confused. And he makes learning fun.”

Fitzgerald joined the community college in 1987. At the time, the dance offerings consisted of one class in ballet and jazz that were part of the physical education department, she said. By the time Fitzgerald stepped down this summer, dance was an independent associate degree program that offered 25 credit courses.

During her three decades of building the dance program, Fitzgerald watched talented dancers blossom, disproving the myth that a community college is rarely a path to a professional dance career.

AACC’s dance program alumni include Christopher Scott, the Takoma Park native and Emmy-nominated choreographer for “So You Think You Can Dance” and Jamile McGee, who placed third in 2011 during the first season of that same reality show. Kurt Gorrell made a career of dancing in musicals, performing in the national tours of “Contact” and “Movin’ Out.”

Finally, Fox viewers who tune into “The Big Leap” this fall are being treated to dazzlingly inventive leaps and spins on the lanes of a bowling alley, on a fire escape and on top of a basketball (yup, you read that right). These moves were co-choreographed by Lance Guillermo, an AACC alum.

“I have seen students grow and thrive in our dance program,” Fitzgerald said, noting that a community college education is a more affordable option for cash-strapped students. “Financially, it is the best deal going,” she said.

After Fitzgerald announced her retirement, the five dozen applicants were slowly winnowed down to four finalists who each taught a virtual class last year.

“Rob was the only one of the four who took the trouble to learn the students’ names,” Fitzgerald said.

“He has great experiences and great connections and a passion for teaching. He is our calling card, our best-kept secret. He is this gem and he’s right here at Anne Arundel Community College.”

Rob Kleinendorst, the new Artistic Director of the Anne Arundel Community College Dance Company, explains a movement as he works with the dancers during a rehearsal. Kleinendorst, 48, danced for 21 years with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Nov. 9, 2021 p4
Rob Kleinendorst, the new Artistic Director of the Anne Arundel Community College Dance Company, explains a movement as he works with the dancers during a rehearsal. Kleinendorst, 48, danced for 21 years with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Nov. 9, 2021 p4 (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

In addition to dancing for 21 years with Paul Taylor, Kleinendorst earned his master’s degree in dance from Virginia’s George Mason University in May 2020. Administrators hope his presence on campus will generate new excitement in a dance program, that, like its counterparts nationwide has struggled during the pandemic.

Colleges across the U.S. have seen their enrollments fall off as a result of COVID-19, according to Higher Education Today, a blog put out by the American Education Association. But while private and public four-year colleges have seen decreases respectively of 4.5% and 2.8% during the pandemic, the decline at two-year community colleges has been a worrisome 12%.

At the height of the dance program’s popularity about a dozen years ago, Anne Arundel Community College graduated about 20 dance majors.

But the pandemic-induced closures hit performing arts programs hard. While remote learning is never easy, it’s extra difficult to rehearse a string quartet online when the musicians can’t establish the eye contact required for instantaneous communication. It’s challenging for a teacher to find the right words to adjust a dancer’s posture over a computer screen instead of simply lifting her leg five degrees higher into the air. By the time in-person learning resumed this fall, Kleinendorst’s dance majors had dwindled to two.

He plans to increase that number in part by visiting area high schools and conducting master classes, in the hopes of meeting kids with the same untapped potential that he exhibited while growing up in Minnesota in the 1990s.

Kleinendorst said he didn’t put on his first leotard or walk onto the sprung wood floor in a dance studio until he was a sophomore at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

Rob Kleinendorst, the new Artistic Director of the Anne Arundel Community College Dance Company, center, works with the dancers during a rehearsal. Kleinendorst, 48, danced for 21 years with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Nov. 9, 2021 p1
Rob Kleinendorst, the new Artistic Director of the Anne Arundel Community College Dance Company, center, works with the dancers during a rehearsal. Kleinendorst, 48, danced for 21 years with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Nov. 9, 2021 p1 (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

As a boy, his first loves were sports and theater. He played football, baseball and hockey and displayed a natural gift for moving his body to create believable characters on stage — a talent that choreographer Taylor later used to his advantage. It was while Kleinendorst was in college and planning on a career performing in musical theater that he decided he’d better learn how to dance. He signed up for his first movement class — and after one session, his life had changed.

“I was just agog,” Kleinendorst said. “I discovered that when I removed the intellectual element of words and boiled communication down to body, gesture and movement, it just totally connected. Our bodies are the most basic form of communication. Everybody laughs. Everybody cries. Before we had written or spoken languages, people spoke with their bodies.”

The Paul Taylor troupe, with its exuberant physicality and eclectic repertoire was a perfect fit for Kleinendorst’s style. He joined the junior company in 1998 and was promoted to the main company two years later. For more than two decades he was a company mainstay. He performed 98 roles in 77 of Taylor’s dances and originated 28 of them.

But like all athletes whose primary tool is their bodies, dancers peak at a comparatively young age. Through a rigorous regimen of working out at the gym and riding his bike and avoiding bad habits — Kleinendorst said he never drank, smoked or took drugs — he bought himself an extra decade of his professional career. It wasn’t until he was 46 that he was forced to acknowledge that he was past his prime.

To his own surprise, taking the next step into teaching was much easier than he had anticipated. He found he loved instructing students at all levels, at seeing “light bulbs go off in their heads” (in his words) when students mastered a challenging step sequence.

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“I gave dancing my everything,” he said. “When I look back, there’s nothing more that I think I could have done, should have done. Because I had no regrets, when the time came, I could move forward.

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“I thought that moving away from New York and retiring from Paul Taylor would make me sad. But I love it here.”

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