Mandy Stallings: A Life on the Stage
Mandy Stallings, a widely known and loved dance teacher at Packer, welcomed me into her office with a warm smile. She began to speak casually about her life, pausing for sips from an “Oh Pliés” water bottle.
Born and raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Ms. Stallings (or Mandy, as she is affectionately known around school) first came to Packer in 2009 as a maternity-leave replacement. After the previous dance teacher left in 2013, Dr. Dennis offered her a full-time position, which she accepted. Since then, Mandy has become a beloved member of the Packer community, inspiring many students—including myself—to study dance more thoroughly.
Mandy had begun dancing—a combination of ballet, tap, and jazz—before she was even five years old. She was originally determined to dedicate her life to musical theater, due to her love for the choreographer Bob Fosse, best known for the musical Chicago and for his distinctive style, but she later changed her mind.
“I loved jazz. I loved it. I thought for a long time that I might want to get into musical theater as my ‘profession,’” she said, fingers forming air quotes. “But I didn’t really have an interest in acting or singing, because, you know, you have to study everything. And that’s when I was like, maybe this isn’t for me.”
At the University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts, she studied ballet and modern dance almost exclusively.
“They sort of saw the other training as maybe not as important,” she explained. “They kind of turned their nose up to other forms of dance.”
The more she studied modern dance in depth, the more she realized how much she loved the form—and creating the dances themselves, a challenge she hadn’t previously attempted.
“I had never had an opportunity to really choreograph anything, or to know what it meant to have a voice as a dancer or a choreographer.”
Mandy’s distinctive choreographic style is reflected in her pieces as well as her students’ pieces in dance concert. Unlike the usual what is considered to be the norm in dance studios around the country, her dances often take a more metaphorical approach, dealing with larger issues than just the lyrics of a song. After taking her dance classes for several years, her students have come to truly appreciate and understand this style as it has inspired their own choreography.
Between her junior and senior years of college, Mandy took a 200-hour teacher training course in yoga, becoming a certified instructor. When she moved to New York City after graduating, she paid her rent by teaching at yoga studios and gyms. This experience would later inspire her to take the teaching position she currently holds in Packer’s Arts Department.
During her first few years in New York, Mandy went on several musical-theater auditions.
“I always made it through the dancer calls, like, no problem,” she said, smiling. “And then I would sing, and they would be like, ‘Thank you very much.’ And I never heard back.”
In addition to struggling with her singing, Mandy questioned whether she would ever really look the part.
“I would just show up in what I considered to be normal dance clothes—a leo or a tank top and some flowy pants. And then I would get to these auditions and girls would be in fishnets and I would be like, ‘This is just not my vibe; it’s not my people.’”
By 21, Mandy had figured out that the musical theater lifestyle was not for her, and she’d decided to become a more modern-focused dancer. She scored some jobs through auditions, but most were offered to her when she took classes, where she would often be noticed by a teacher.
She now dances with the Rock Dance Collective, previously known as the Cleo Mack Dance Project, based in Washington Rock, New Jersey. She’s been part of the company for 10 years, mostly focusing on modern dances. RDC likes to push the boundaries; the company’s most recent performance took place on a barge stage as it floated down the Raritan River.
It’s dance concert season, so Mandy admitted that the past couple of weeks have been particularly stressful.
“It’s all the little pieces coming together. From making sure the tickets are ready, making sure the posters are out, making sure the choreographers have their music and costumes and lighting.”
That’s in addition to the roomful of grumpy kids she still has to face each morning at 8:10.