An Ellicott City woman who honed her love of dance — and teaching — as a student at Mount Hebron High School has been named Maryland's K-12 Dance Educator of the Year.
Kassandra Serafini, 27, who was named as the award-winner by the Maryland Dance Education Association, said that guidance and inspiration she received as a teenager formed the basis of her career.
"Being involved in dance and theater at Hebron, at 16 years old, I experienced the profound impact dance education has on our students in our schools," Serafini said in an email. "It certainly impacted me."
Serafini still helps choreograph musicals at Mount Hebron and Howard high schools, works with students at Howard County Summer Theatre and is a guest teacher at Dance Connections studio in Ellicott City.
But her main gig these days is in Anne Arundel County, where she teaches a dance liberal arts program and a performing and visual arts dance magnet program at Wiley H. Bates Middle School in Annapolis.
There, a message to students on her classroom door sums up the philosophy she works to convey: "You are the reason I am here."
"I always say to my students that I am proud to be a teacher," she said. "I'm more proud, however, to be a dance teacher — and I am the most proud to be their dance teacher."
Serafini has been dancing since age 3, but said the seeds of her career were planted at Mount Hebron. She moved to Maryland as she was entering her freshman year and "quickly grew to love my new home."
Much of that love emerged through dance. At Mount Hebron, she performed with the school's dance company and served as its dance captain for her junior and senior years. She also performed in school theater productions, she said.
"At Hebron, I learned that sharing my passion of dance allowed me to build relationships and form connections with others," she said.
She credited her instructors — dance teacher Dina Reyes, choreographer Amanda Slatin and math teachers Tom Sankey and John Strebe — with motivating her at a young age. She said Mount Hebron gave her the opportunity to participate in an intern/mentor program where she could teach others.
"I realized I wanted to make teaching dance in the public schools my future and my career," she said. "I found a new voice and purpose within myself, and knew I wanted to give others that opportunity.
"I realized this was my calling in life."
Serafini was nominated for dance educator award by Judi Fey, treasurer of the Maryland Dance Education Association and a retired dance teacher who was working for Anne Arundel schools when Serafini was hired.
She said she's seen many teachers during her 45 years in education, and Serafini struck her as a natural.
"The kids just respond to her," Fey said. "They always have, since day one. They are excited about being in her class, and they are joyful in her class."
Serafini said she belives "all students have a story," and in her class that story begins with a show of respect.
Students line up outside her door, and when it opens she meets each with a curtsy. They reply with a curtsy or bow — it's a professional-level move that is done in the dance world, she said.
The beginning of class is quiet. Students enter a dim room with relaxing music playing, change clothes for the class, then sit down on the floor to complete exercises that include vocabulary, a cardio warmup and stretching and strengthening moves.
As the studio fills with up-tempo music, Serafini moves along with her students and the class gravitates to practicing techniques. Class wraps up with time for creative exploration, then reflection, Serafini said.
She calls dance "an entire artistic experience," but said her mission is to tap movement to teach "so much more."
"In dance, my students are learning 21st century skills that allow them to thrive," she said. "It is my job... to not only teach dance, but to teach them how to positively contribute to our society. They are learning creativity, collaboration, respect, etiquette and so many more life skills."
Bates is an arts integration school — arts is included in other classes to support core concepts such as reading and math. A few years ago, Serafini collaborated with an English language arts teacher to bring movement to a lesson about Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."
Students from her class were grouped with English students, then came up with choreography that summarized different parts of the play. At the end, they had developed a full dance piece.
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Serafini will receive her educator award at a conference later this month. At a recent class her students celebrated her win — presenting her with a bouquet of flowers, and a big hug.
Keira Hofeling, an eighth-grader at Bates, and Callie Hofeling, a former student who is now a sophomore at Annapolis High School, wrote a letter to support Serafini's nomination for the award.
In the letter, Hofeling said Serafini was the reason she didn't quit dancing after losing confidence. She recalled how Serafini invited her to her studio during lunch just to talk, and said her teacher always encouraged her to have a positive outlook.
"It made a huge difference in my life just knowing she cared about me," Hofeling wrote.
For Serafini, that encouragement is an extension of what she received as a student in Howard County, where her teachers "invested their time and energy in me.They encouraged me, motivated me, and believed in me.
"They paved this path for me by providing countless opportunities for me to create, perform and teach," she said.