I'm glad that what I do makes people happy, and give meaning and purpose in their lives.
I started doing calisthenics when I was three years old. When I was 13, I started ballet. As I started late, I had to take class with children around age eight doing grade 2 ballet. I started at Ecole de Ballet in Morphett Vale, but after a year my Mum switched me to Susan Taylor’s ballet school, so I could train seriously to become a dancer. I was able to progress much faster through the grades than other children due to movement skills I’d gained doing calisthenics for 15 years. My goal was to audition for the Bachelor of Arts in Dance at the SA College of Advanced Education on Kintore Avenue (which later became the Adelaide University course). My teachers were Simi and David Roche for contemporary. They had a very yoga based practice, and we studied yoga, as well as ballet, Indigenous dance, kinesiology, and more. I didn’t complete the course though, as I was keen to move out of home and be independent, so I deferred the course, then didn’t go back.
I thought it was too late for me to ever go back to dance, but then in my mid twenties, I found a ballet studio near my home that accepted adult dancers with experience, and gave them the chance to continue to progress and take exams. That was Tenison College of Dance, with Jacqui Johnson and Kenneth Norman. I had the opportunity to take ballet and modern exams in the Imperial Society of Dance (ISTD) syllabus, and completed my Intermediate Ballet and Advanced II Modern exams. I also undertook teacher training in the ISTD ballet and modern syllabi, although I wasn’t able to take the exam because of lack of examiners in Australia with the qualifications (my teachers were two of the only Australian examiners, and UK examiners of that calibre only came out rarely). I did have my first teaching experience at Tenison, teaching both the ballet and modern syllabus to the grades, and choreographing for the annual concert.
I loved performing at Tenison College, and my jazz and modern teacher, Effie Saloniklis, was an inspirational teacher and choreographer, and gave me a passion for performing and choreographing. In fact, Tenison had a choreographic competition each year for their students, and in the leadup to it taught their students a range of choreographic techniques. My first choreographed dance pieces presented on stage in a theatre were in this competition. I was frustrated though with putting in so much effort to learn Effie’s beautiful modern dance pieces, but only getting to perform them once. It was then that I had my first ideas of creating an adult dance performance group.
In 2004, I moved up to the Barossa to be an Arts and Community Cultural Development Officer for Country Arts SA. I was still coming down to Adelaide twice a week for classes with Tenison. Working with the local community and artists made me realise that anyone can be an artist, you just have to do it. That was the second inspiration to start Move Through Life, which is now known as Dragonfly Dance.
We did our first performance in October 2004 at the Marion Cultural Centre. All but one of the eight dancers were from Tenison, and two dancers in particular, Kirsty Duncan and Deborah Searle were my founding partners. I hired the theatre, we sold tickets from a shoe box, Deb did the marketing, Kirsty did the graphic design, her mum made the costumes, and several of us dancers choreographed I remember standing on stage during the curtain call and thinking that I would never be able to top that feeling. We did a season almost every year, with the productions becoming more sophisticated with each year. In 2015, we put a pause on the performing side of the company and focussed on classes. In 2020, fresh back from the COVID shut down in Adelaide, I restarted the performing company.
While I was still working in the Barossa, I signed up for the Graduate Diploma in Creative Industries (Dance Teaching) at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). The teacher training that I did with ISTD taught me about the dance techniques, their syllabus, how it progresses, and learning how to break down the steps. What I studied in the graduate diploma wasn’t genre specific. We learnt a lot about dance teaching methodology, understanding how people learn, safe dance practice, assessment and feedback, and anatomy and physiology. From those studies I´ve learnt so much that changed the way I see dance. There´s so much more than showing steps and giving them to people. I had signed up for the Graduate Diploma, intending to then enrol to do an additional year and get a Masters degree. Unfortunately, QUT decided to cut the course, and weren’t taking any new enrolments. If I’d signed up to do the Masters at the beginning, I would have been able to do the extra year. I was very disappointed!
I had started teaching at Tenison in the nineties. I then taught at Mighty Good Talent School when I was in the Barossa in 2004, and then at Starlite Dance Academy, which is where I met Diana Scalzi. I also taught at Directions Dance Academy for several years, at the same time and after I finished teaching at Starlite. This is where I first taught an open jazz and a contemporary class. I began teaching for Move Through Life (Dragonfly Dance’s original name) when we decided to have some company classes between performance projects. Then our class program grew as it became clear there was also a demand for beginner adult classes. I wanted to learn all the things I’d missed out on when I deferred the Bachelor degree in dance, so I hired the people I wanted to learn from to teach our company class. This included people like Simon Vaughn, Tim Rodgers, Shane Placetino, and Matthew Plummer, who had all dance in the Australian Ballet Company, and contemporary teachers such as Larissa McGowan, Katrina Lazaroff, Billie Cook, Carol Wellman Kelly, Scott McEwan, who had danced with and taught at companies like Tasdance, Australian Dance Theatre, Buzz Dance Theatre, and more. We also ran a choreographic program, and had amazing choreographers as an artistic advisory panel. I learnt so much from these people, about the dance styles I teach, about how to teach, and how to choreograph.
I only recently started teaching tap. I had done a few tap lessons, beginner adult and more experienced tap with younger teenagers, but most of my tap is self taught. I started doing Flamenco at Cas de Flamenco five years ago, and I think the foot work in Flamenco helped me a lot with learning to tap, even though it is very different.
I love so many things about teaching dance. I love being connected to so many people and I see as my job is to make people feel welcome and make people feel included. I also love the opportunity to create, make up things and analyse in order to work out what some people need to know in other to being able to execute more complicated step. It´s a fascinating journey of continuing learning. Which is what I was looking for in my work, to continue to learn, not to do the same thing every day. And we definitely get that teaching dance.
I teach ballet, jazz, contemporary and tap. Ballet was the first thing I started teaching at Tenison, and then modern. I started teaching contemporary at Directions Dance Academy. The latest dance style I started teaching was tap, which I did when we came back from the Adelaide COVID shutdown in 2020.
I am also learning Flamenco, as a way to dance for myself, not to teach it. But learning Flamenco has taught me a lot as a teacher for two reasons. One is that it showed me what it was like to be a beginner again. Flamenco is very different and I’ve found it challenging. It has complex rhythms created with the feet, movements in the hips that are quite different to jazz, intricate finger movements, and the use of props like the manton (shawl), fans, and we even did a dance called a Farruca with a hat. It was when I first realised that sometimes you can’t even ask a question because you are so lost you don’t even know where to start. Second, Flamenco is in Spanish, just as ballet is in French. So I discovered what it was like to be a beginner in a dance form that uses a language and terminology you don’t understand.
Another aspect of my life that contributes to my teaching is my relationship with music. I started playing the piano when I was eight years old and guitar in my teens. I had singing lessons in my twenties, and was a song writer for several years. I studied a year full time doing a Certificate IV in Commercial Music (Performance). During the certificate, I did an advanced rhythm course. I am fascinated by rhythm and this deep understand of rhythm even gives me a visual image of that in my mind. Also, I guess being a musician helps me to understand how you change the dynamics of expression through volume or tone, particularly for something like tap.
Psychology and science
I also have an Honours degree in psychology. I have a Bachelor of Science. My major was psychology, but I also studied chemistry, biology, exercise physiology, and biochemisty, and philosophy. My background in psychology gives me a different perspective as well as understanding of how people learn, what motivates them, what discourages them, and how groups behave. I think this influences on the way I teach and how I run the studio. I like to organise and categorise things, and this has culminated in me developing a syllabus for each of our dance styles, so that there is consistency between our classes, regardless of the teacher, and so there is a pathway to progress that has been designed with adults in mind. In 2022 I ran a teacher training beta trial, and all of our teachers at that time participated in it. I simply love teaching. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I remember in primary school the class was asked what they wanted to do when they grow up. All the other girls said secretary. I said teacher.
Forming Dragonfly Dance
Having a break from dance in my early twenties and coming back later made me want to keep the door open for people who haven’t been able to dance before or who want to return after a break. My personal experience showed me that it´s important to do that for other people. I was fortunate enough to find a studio that accepted to dancers like me who were experienced and adult dancers, because I didn´t wanted to do a beginner class. I didn´t wanted to join in with younger kids either, so I understand how it feels to be an adult, and how hard it can be to find a place where you feel welcome. I also went to a lot of open classes, and remember that often no-one in the room acknowledged me, not even the teacher. I remember one teacher, Felecia Hick, was the first one that actually acknowledged me and made me feel welcome. This cemented in my mind the idea that a dance studio should create a space where people feel like they belong. I don’t want anyone coming to Dragonfly Dance to feel like I felt when I wasn’t acknowledged. I want them to know that they are seen, that they matter, and that we love having in the studio and the class.
It´s being a long journey building Dragonfly Dance, and it has evolved. There´s a lot of demand for adults dance classes at the moment. I love the joy that I experience when I teach. Time flies. I never look at the clock and wish the time would pass. The time just flies. I guess I´m in flow. I love seeing people having fun and connecting with each other. I love to see them to learn and to grow, discovering what amazing things they can do if they learn how and practice. It´s also about I am doing something that adds happiness to the world. I’m glad to be running a business that it´s positive for people´s lives.
For me the most important thing is that people have fun and enjoy themselves. And ‘fun’ doesn’t just mean always laughing and mucking around. Fun can be kind of serious. Enjoyment is probably the best word to describe it. My purpose it to increase the level of enjoyment, and part of it is mastering a movement and feel the satisfaction of achieving it. To be able to master something to the point that you don’t have to think too much so you can experience flow – to just be in the moment and enjoy it. I think technique is really important because it creates a base that enables you to fly on top of it.
I also think it´s really important to focus on different elements of dance at a time, because there´s so much to think about, especially in ballet. You can´t think of all at once. You can´t learn all at once. So, to spend some time on foot articulation, getting that right. Or during an exercise I might say to the students “I want you to do this exercise really thinking about your turn out”, or “I am not too much focused on the bottom part of your body, I want to see your expression through your arms”. I believe that if you can have your attention at one thing at a time and each of those things can develop and grow into a point which become a low level of consciousness where you can just do it. As to bring into your body as an automatically thing that you do. So as a ballet dancer if I stand up next to the barre, I am going to pull out myself in turn out. It just happens. I don´t need to think about it too much. It´s a base level that it´s part of me now. I like when people are interested enough to ask questions.
Biography and qualifications
Jo McDonald is the founder of Dragonfly Dance. She began dancing at age 3, doing calisthenics, and then began ballet at age 13, jazz in her teens, contemporary at age 18, and tap as an adult. She has been teaching for 30 years, and has written / is writing the Dragonfly Dance syllabi in ballet, jazz, contemporary and tap.
Her relevant qualifications include:
- Bachelor of Science (psychology major) from the University of Adelaide
- Honours Psychology from the University of Adelaide
- Certificate IV in Commercial Music (Performance) from Adelaide TAFE
- Graduate Diploma in Creative Industries (Dance Teaching) from Queensland University of Technology (QUT), and she made the Dean's List of Merit
- Grade 6 piano in the Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB)
Her highest level dance exams include:
- Modern Theatre Dance, Advanced II, Imperial Society for Teachers of Dancing (ISTD)
- Ballet, Intermediate, ISTD
Jo recently completed the Progressing Ballet Technique (PBT) teacher training for Level 1.
She worked for over ten years in the arts sector for Country Arts SA and Regional Arts Australia.