Dallas — When professional dancers have to face that fact that the love of their life (and their career) is over, it can be devastating. For this reason, Fort Worth native and dance career counselor Suzie Jary has dedicated 20 years of her life to helping thousands of dancers through these challenging transitions.
On Aug. 31, Jary will take center stage as the Dance Council of North Texas honors her for her work with Career Transition For Dancers (CTFD), a non-profit dedicated to helping dancers transition to new careers. The Dance Council Honors are part of the inaugural Dallas DanceFest, Aug. 29-31, showcasing excellence in dance and celebrating outstanding leaders in the field.
“She helped us through transition after transition, always with enthusiasm, empathy, and love,” says Elizabeth Van Vleck, former dancer and Administrative Manager of the Dance Council of North Texas.
Having danced professionally for 14 years, Jary knows first-hand how to begin again. Now once more, from the beginning.
The Language of the Body
Jary began perfecting her pirouettes at Margo Dean’s School of Ballet in Fort Worth at age five. Looking back, it was a fun, safe place to be. She loved the music and the movement.
“Dance is the language of the body,” Jary says. She studied with Margo all the way through her second year at Texas Wesleyan University, where she focused on drama and speech. When a call came into Margo’s from Casa Mañana asking if she could send them some dancers because they needed a Louise for Carousel, Jary got the job.
“Margo created a lot of opportunities for people,” she says.
During her time at Margo’s, she danced with Casa Mañana’s Summer Musicals and the Fort Worth Opera. Jary was also a charter member of Ballet Concerto in Fort Worth and danced with the company throughout high school.
“Margo became my mentor and second mother and I’ve stayed in touch with her over the years.”
Margo’s son Webster, also a professional dancer, is now the school’s director. He’s known Jary since he was four.
“Suzie had dance in her heart and enough talent to succeed,” Webster says.
At age 15, she received a scholarship to Southern Methodist University’s summer dance program. At 16 she was awarded a Ford Foundation scholarship and was selected by the late Violette Verdy to study at the School of American Ballet, the training school for the New York City Ballet. At 17 she received another scholarship from the Harkness House in New York.
Another triumph came at age 17 when a fellow dancer and friend who had entered the Miss Teen Fort Worth pageant encouraged Jary to enter the pageant for moral support, you might say. With ballet as her talent she won the title.
“I was surprised and my friend was supportive,” Jary admits. My winning meant a lot to my mother, because she had wanted me to enter as well. I was glad I did something for her.”
Goodbye Fort Worth
At the age of 20 Jary was asked to join the cast of Brigadoon at a dinner theater in Denver. Now equipped with her Actor’s Equity card, she was on her way.
“That started my 14 years of professional dancing.”
Jary toured with dinner theater musicals for the next three years. Then at 23, she joined some of her dancer friends in New York, where the lights of Broadway are the brightest around. But it wasn’t all that glamorous at first.
“I spent my first eight months in New York delivering singing telegrams,” she chuckles. But the gig had its moments, as she recalls. “One day in May Gracey Tune called up and wanted someone to call her brother Tommy [Tune] and sing to him because it was National Tap Dance Day.”
Soon she was dancing again, performing in dinner theater, off-Broadway, summer stock and with the national tours of Oklahoma! and David Merrick’s 42nd Street. Then she was asked to join the Broadway production of 42nd Street and performed in the musical for three years until it closed in 1989.
“She had a long run with 42nd Street,” Webster Dean reflects. “That is an outstanding accomplishment. Musical theater is hard work.”
In spite of her busy schedule, Jary made time to return to her hometown. “When I came home to visit, I always took a ballet class at Margo’s—I still do today.”
In 1985 on one of her visits to see her parents during a week off from 42nd Street, she met Eric Pratt “at the barre” in ballet class at Margo’s. He was taking the class to improve his volleyball game, he said, but later admitted he was there to meet girls. It worked. They have been married for 23 years.
Back to the Drawing Board
Jary first learned of Career Transition For Dancers while she was on tour with 42nd Street. She went to CTFD in 1986 and embraced many of their services, including counseling, self-assessment, support groups and seminars. After receiving a scholarship she started taking college classes the last year-and-a-half she performed on Broadway.
She attended Hunter College, an elite unit of the City University of New York. In 1990 she completed her undergraduate degree, earning a B.A. in Psychology.
“I always wanted to get into counseling because I liked helping people.”
While in school, Jary continued to dance. She joined a company in Europe, performing at the Monte Carlo Sporting Club with headliners such as Tommy Tune, Barry White and Stevie Wonder.
“It was an exciting and fun time but I was the oldest dancer, and I was starting to feel a change in me,” she admits.
So she returned to Hunter, earned a Master of Social Work in 1993 and the next year, began her new career with Career Transition For Dancers.
“It was very clever of her while dancing on Broadway to start getting herself prepared for her next step,” Webster Dean says.
Every Dancer Dies Twice
For a dancer, leaving the stage can create an identify crisis. “Dancers are very hard on themselves; they work very hard and have to deal with a lot of criticism and rejection,” Jary says, having been through it herself. Moreover, many get started dancing professionally in their teens so they did not go to college or learn life skills; as a result they do not know how rebuild their lives.
“I know that background. And I know what it’s like to feel lost. You’ve had a passion and now you think there will never be another passion…it’s a little death,” Jary says.
These are the very reasons it’s important to address the emotional and practical side of transition. She tells her clients it’s ok, that change is messy for everyone. This is a process; but dancers in particular don’t like to look messy.
“Dancers already have great skills,” Jary says. “They are hard workers, they are disciplined and organized and are great at following directions. These are important attributes to have and they do have options.” There are many avenues they can take while some find new beginnings in the professional dance world.
In 1996 when Van Vleck was transitioning out of modern dance in New York, and feeling lost, she met Jary through CTFD and became a client.
“I didn’t understand the anxiety of being stuck in the middle of things,” Van Vleck admits. “Suzie helped us get out of our fears and to be objective and embrace our strengths. She brought hope and validation and encouragement to my life and has helped in almost every career decision I’ve made since."
“Here I am now in Dallas after working in New York, L.A and Utah. I was able to transform and empower myself because of her.”
Suki John met Suzie in New York in 2001 while working on a freelance story for the New York Times. Because of her background in dance, she was assigned to write an article about CTFD. To research the piece she attended several of Jary’s workshops and since she was also a dancer was able to participate.
“I had just had a baby and it was just after 9/11,” John says. When the writing assignments went away, John took Jary up on her offer to give her career counseling.
“She had me think about my dream job, which was a university job.” So after working with Jary, John and her husband moved to Connecticut where she earned a Ph.D. and the couple moved to Fort Worth. She now teaches at Texas Christian University in the dance department.
Jary gets people to think outside the box,” John says. “She helped me visualize what I wanted. She is one of the most positive people you will meet and has the kind of energy that is infectious.”
Now she invites Jary into her classes to speak to her students about how to move forward with their careers.
As a dance career counselor with CTFD, Suzie creates a supportive and encouraging atmosphere.
“First I sit with the person and let them tell me their story and make sure they know that their fears are valid and to acknowledge the magnitude of the change they are dealing with,” she says. “They need to know that they have a ‘place and partner’ for the process.” The program, she says, will support them in this process—it’s open-ended and customized to fit people.”
Many of them go on to dance-related jobs, perhaps teaching dance, yoga instruction or fitness training.
Jary is also a board certified trainer, educator and practitioner of psychodrama. Her workshops use experiential and action methods that allow individuals to connect with each other and strengthen their ability to recover, heal and grow personally.
Jary worked in the CTFD New York office until 2008, when she and Eric returned home to Fort Worth to be close to their aging parents. Even though Fort Worth is now home base, Jary continues to travel to Los Angeles, New York and points in between to facilitate her CTFD workshops and counseling sessions. She recently facilitated a workshop in L.A. in July that attracted more than 100 participants.
In addition to her work with CTFD, she recently accepted a position with Weatherford College as the Faculty and Clinical Coordinator in the Substance Abuse Counseling Certificate/Human Services Provider Program. She also maintains a private practice in Fort Worth in psychotherapy and career counseling. And, when she has the time, she teaches dance at Jo Bond’s Dance Ranch in Saginaw.
Jary says today she identifies with being a dancer more than ever.
“My identity as a dancer is a lifelong role that is inseparable from who I am. My connection with dance informs how I approach life. The adaptive skills I learned in dance—striving for excellence, focus, persistence and working with others—are transferable to all areas of my life.”
“Enlightening dancers and others to the qualities dancers bring is my passion.”
» Dance Council Honors is Sunday at 2 p.m. In addition to Jary, they honor Nita Braun, Ann Briggs-Cutaia and Joe Cutaia, Buster Cooper, Dylis Croman and Beth Wortley, with performances by Ballet Ensemble of Texas, Bruce Wood Dance Project and 2014 Dance Council Scholarship Recipients.
Look for more stories about the Dallas DanceFest this week. Below are links to profiles of some of the dance companies we've published: