Inspire: Mary Pat Speno – Dance school director reflects on 40 years of teaching

By Alyssa Dearborn

After 40 years of owning the Syracuse School of Dance and acting as the artistic director of the Syracuse Contemporary Dance Company, Mary Pat Speno is retiring. Over the years, the school has expanded the different dance styles offered to students, but the school has remained dedicated to offering classes to all who want to learn how to dance. In her career, Mary Pat has helped thousands of students of all ages and levels of talent find artistic expression through dance, many of those students becoming life-long dancers themselves.

I was a principal teacher for a woman, Lorain, 40 years ago and she was going to retire,” she said when asked about the school’s beginnings, “So she approached me, and at the time I had three little babies, and I said ‘Oh, Lorain, I can’t take on all this.’ And she said, ‘Well, get a partner!’ So a good friend of mine, Patricia Brandage, who also was a principal teacher at Lorain’s school, I approached her and she said, ‘Yeah!’ So the two of us bought the school from Lorain. Then Patti retired and I continued on and now it’s my turn.”

On the school’s website, it says that the school’s philosophy is “…that one can train a dancer, mind and body and that people thrive in a positive and nurturing environment.” Mary Pat emphasized that this philosophy applies to people of all ages, taking pride in the fact that no other dance school in the Syracuse area offers dance classes for adults.

We cater to all ages and a really big part of our school is our adult division. There’s no other school in the city of Syracuse or surrounding areas that offers classes for adults,” she said. And yes, the emphasis for all those schools is the kids. And by the time they’re seniors in high school, they graduate and they’re gone, never to be seen again.”

Mary Pat said many of her students return during and after their college years and continue to progress in their dance, or come back later as a family with kids.

So the adult aspect I’m very proud of is that we give these adults a chance, for whatever reason they wanted to dance,” she said. “For exercise, for relaxing, for stress relief, for performing. We have adults that have started in adult division classes, they end up performing with us in the Syracuse Contemporary Dance Company. So they get performing opportunities.

Mary Pat plans to sell the school to a fellow dance school owner and friend, Kathy Falcone of Ballet and Dance Center. The two schools have shared teachers and other resources in the past, but most importantly, the two schools share similar philosophies. 

So Kathy wanted to expand and I wanted to retire,” she explained. “So this was the perfect opportunity to be able to have all the students continue on with this, because her philosophy’s the same as ours except they do not have an adult program. So she’s very excited about having an adult program.”

No matter the age group, she said, a good teacher displays concern and empathy for the challenges her students face, and watching the development of her students and how they overcome life’s difficulties has been one of the most rewarding aspects of her career.

I think the feelings you get through the years, that you are totally aware of how much you’re helping these students. The little ones that some of them are afraid to walk in the door of the studio and they’re afraid at that age to be away from their parents. Then slowly they build confidence and slowly mold their bodies into these awesome little dancers,” she said.

You have to be in tuned with all these different levels of live challenges, for all these different ages,” she continued. “But that in itself, the discipline of that, is what is totally helping them go through in a positive, nurturing way. And it’s helped me for sure as an adult having young kids and owning the studio and being in charge of the teachers that I hire…We’ve done it and we’re going to continue on.” 

Although her years running a dance studio and directing a dance company have brought her joy, Mary Pat is looking forward to a little downtime.

You know, owning a dance studio has been 24/7,” she explained. “Anyone who really owns a business, whether it’s a restaurant or whatever, you take it home with you. You’re always in front of your computer, or on the phone or if you’re not, you’re trying to relax and you’re thinking in the back of your head of such-and-such.”

Mary Pat said she and her husband plan to do a lot of camping and they also enjoy triathlons, which she will continue on in retirement. While she’ll miss the students and the classes, the less glamorous parts of the job – mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms – she’ll gladly leave behind.

I’m going to leave everything open and see where things fall,” she said. “But no big plans, which excites me the most.”