Longtime OCC instructor teaches life lessons by way of dance

On weekdays Stacy Taylor has a full-time job as the external affairs manager for the Mesa Water District. But every Saturday she can be found on the dance floor as she attends a jazz class at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.

The lessons and passion for dance that instructor Dennon Rawles disperses have made Taylor a devoted student for 10 years.

Sure, there are plies, kick ball changes, beating steps and an intense one-hour full-body warmup. But Dennon's words of wisdom — what his students refer to as "Dennonisms" — set the class apart.

"Dennon is always adding humor, saying things during the warmup like, 'Doesn't that hurt so good? Remember, the pain you feel is your own,'" Taylor said with a laugh.

Rawles, along with his wife, Sayhber, had careers as professional dancers, choreographers and directors while also teaching.

"Unlike fellow dancers who got to go home for the night, it was back to the studio evenings and weekends to teach," Rawles said. "It was our bread and butter and also developed [our] talents as choreographers."

According to the couple's website, Rawles began studying ballroom and Latin dancing when he was 12. He soon developed a love for ballet and also started tapping.

After discovering jazz dancing, he joined the Steven Peck Jazz Company and continued his ballet training with Margaret Hills and Stanley Holden. He worked for and learned from prominent directors and choreographers such as Michael Kidd, Ron Field, Alan Johnson, Rob Iscove, Bob Sidney and Walter Painter.

Dennon and Sayhber's choreography credits include six feature films, including John Travolta's "Staying Alive" (1983) and Warren Beatty's "Bugsy" (1991), TV shows and commercials, productions of musicals including "Guys and Dolls," "Damn Yankees" and "West Side Story" and productions for universities and colleges, according to their website.

They have performed in more than 100 TV shows, including four Academy Awards ceremonies, and films including "New York, New York" (1977) and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" (1982).

Dennon Rawles is now a full-time instructor and has taught at Orange Coast College since 1992. He also teaches at Moorpark and Cerritos colleges and previously was on the dance faculties of Cal State Long Beach, UCLA, Loyola Marymount University, Santa Ana College and Allan Hancock College, according to the OCC website.

He described the makeup of his Saturday classes at Orange Coast as akin to the United Nations — ages ranging from college students to senior citizens, a variety of races and nationalities and a mix of experience from beginners to advanced.

Besides classic jazz, he teaches Latin dance, which combines refined versions of salsa, cha cha and rumba.

"It's a process, learning footwork and understanding movement," Rawles said. "You don't learn it in one semester."

The intense head-to-toe warmup is crucial to avoiding risk of injury, Rawles said. So he insists that anyone who shows up for class more than 15 minutes late has to sit out.

The warmup even includes getting blood to the brain with inversions. Rawles has the students take a wide stance, bend at the waist, and grab their ankles and hang their head upside down. "A bloody brain is a smart brain," he declares.

"Something he always tells newcomers, 'Do not look at yourselves in the mirror the whole time or you will get lost, because you're looking at the person who knows the least,'" Taylor said. "He works you hard and pushes every student to do their best, relying on one of his favorite quotes: 'How you are in dance is how you are in life.'"

According to Rawles, "My job is to communicate how to become a better person, better student, [achieve] a better personal life, working life, become the most excellent and best one can be."

Rawles authored an inspirational book a few years ago called "On the Floor," which grew out of his concern that basic life principles were absent not only on the dance floor but in the workplace.

Rawles dispatches his educational philosophy in the book the same way he does in the classroom — "using simple humor that won't be dry, won't be boring and doesn't sound like high-brow text."

His high expectations of his students, with clearly defined rules and regulations for which everyone is held accountable, helps them stretch their character muscles, he said.

Susan Hoffman is a contributor to Times Community News.

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