Maestro of movement

A local dance teacher encourages students to communicate through creative movement.

Home » Arts & Entertainment
Posted November 3, 2023 |

Justine McDaniel poses for a photo in the dance studio classroom at the College of Central Florida in Ocala on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. McDaniel is an adjunct professor of dance at CF and is also a dance instructor at West Port High School. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

Dancer Justine McDaniel says her favorite role she has performed onstage is the Black Swan in “Swan Lake.” However, her most rewarding role is the one she now performs every day in the classroom: dance teacher.

For the past 10 years, McDaniel has been the director of dance for the Marion County Center for the Arts at West Port High School, training students in ballet, modern, jazz, hip hop and tap dance styles and directing the WPHS Studio Company and Howlers Dance Team. In August, she joined College of Central Florida (CF) as a dance instructor, teaching ballet, modern and Intro to Dance classes.

A native Ocalan, McDaniel is an alumna of both schools. She graduated from West Port High School and earned an Associate in Arts degree as a dual enrollment student at CF. Now she teaches students like her, who want to pursue a career in the performing arts, as well as students at all skill levels who simply find joy in dancing. She believes that creative movement is beneficial for all students.

Justine McDaniel dances in the dance studio classroom at the College of Central Florida in Ocala on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

“The arts are important for students because it gives students these certain soft skills that they’re not getting from regular academic classes,” McDaniel said. “I think the most important thing I can teach them is to become their authentic selves. [Dance class] helps with their physical movement and cardiovascular endurance, but also it’s that mentality and mental health. It builds determination and community in class. The students are always working together. We’re always encouraging each other.”

Earlier in her career, McDaniel was one of the community’s preeminent ballet dancers, performing with Marion Ballet Theatre, where she also worked as ballet mistress. She started ballet lessons at age 3 and performed many notable roles including Princess Aurora in “The Sleeping Beauty” and Odile in “Swan Lake.” She prepared young dancers for roles in local productions of famous ballets such as “The Nutcracker.” She even pursued advanced training with the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance in London. But instead of seeking the spotlight as a professional dancer, McDaniel chose to earn her master’s degree in dance at California State University Long Beach and return home to Ocala to teach.

Justine McDaniel dances in the dance studio classroom at the College of Central Florida in Ocala on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

“It was one of my goals, getting my master’s degree and continuing my education, to come back and give back to the community that I was from, especially in the K-12 and higher education sectors,” she said. “I really do believe in what it does for students in an educational setting and not just in a studio setting. So I do have a big appreciation for the education aspect of dance and the arts. I decided that I wanted to teach instead of pursue a career in performance because, for me personally, I felt like I was good at teaching and being able to describe and connect with students. I always loved performing, but I felt like I was going to have more success teaching. And I feel like that is valuable.”

At CF, McDaniel is excited about revitalizing the dance program after classes were dormant for the past few years. She’s hoping to add a jazz class and relaunch the dance ensemble to give students a chance to perform. She also invites any student to take her Intro to Dance class—no experience required.

“Intro to Dance is beneficial for any CF student, because it introduces you to a variety of movement disciplines and also how to take a dance class, how to use your instrument effectively,” she said. “This is an inclusive and welcoming space. I do truly believe we’re all movers. Every day we go about our lives moving, and in dance it’s no different. We just have a little more structure, a little more weirdness and creativity, but I help students find that within them. And dance is supposed to feel good for you, supposed to help communicate, bring people together, and no one should be looked at or feel like they can’t be a part of that, because movement belongs to everyone.”

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