Mary Slater’s life as a dancer began at age four at the local fire department. She joined their majorette group and after two years began dancing at her teacher’s studio. Her path as a teacher wasn’t as clear cut. Though she started teaching in high school, she initially studied physical therapy at the University of Maryland. Mary says, “While I was in school, I was candy striping at Prince George’s Hospital. There I realized you couldn’t make everyone better and that was sad. At the same time, I was in the dance theater program at Maryland so I changed over to dance education.” Mary soon found herself creating her own places to teach. “I’m not the ‘traditional dancer’ so I had to be something unique,” she says gesturing to her 4’ 9” frame.
In the 70s, Mary’s dance journey took her to Columbia University in New York City where she studied modern dance and became immersed in the emerging tap scene. She studied under legendary Tony Award winning choreographer and dance instructor Henry LeTang. “I ended up the solo student in his tap classes because tap wasn’t popular at the time. As his Broadway career grew, the classes grew and I became one of his teachers,” Mary says.
When she wasn’t dancing with legends, she and her professional dance partner Wayne McCarthy got jobs by dancing on street corners along 5th Avenue. “Agents would put their cards in our hats and that’s how we got work. We performed in night clubs, on cruise ships and even did a show in Japan – I twirled Samoan swords in my baton days,” she says with a smile. Mary and Wayne made quite the duo; Chita Rivera herself attended their show in Japan.
Mary always had the intention to move back to Maryland with more education and experience. She discovered Maryland Hall in 1988. “I moved home to help my mom who had a knee transplant that went bad. There was an ad that Maryland Hall needed someone to do room bookings and I thought I could do that. Someone saw my resume and they offered me a teaching position,” she says. Mary never went back to New York except for visits. Before opening her own studio, Mary’s teaching circuit included MD Hall, University of Maryland and several performing arts schools in the region. “Maryland Hall has been the constant,” she says.
When LeTang’s movie Tap starring Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. came out in 1989, Mary created “An Evening with the Masters of Tap” at MD Hall. She brought down the major players in Tap including LeTang, Bubba Gaines, Buster Brown and George Hillman for workshops and a show. It was a huge splash with the local paper featuring the event. After the show, Mary treated the men to a crab feast at her house. That’s when she knew MD Hall was her home.
Over the years, Mary has taught all ages, even seeing students she taught as children come back as adults...or to sign up their own children for her class! Longtime student Tracy Inaldi says, “I met Mary 25 years ago when I was in high school. At that time, I was more of a ballet dancer. Before my first class with Mary, I warned her that other teachers told me that I’m just not a tapper. Mary laughed and lightheartedly said, ‘I’ll change that!’ Well, not only did Mary teach me to tap, she taught me not to let others’ thoughts change my beliefs about myself.” Tracy plans to enroll her toddler son in Mary’s tap class as soon as he’s old enough; he got his first taste of tap at last year’s ArtFest. “I honestly don’t know where I would be without Miss Mary. I am eternally grateful to her for the joy of dancing, the warm memories of performing, the encouragement to believe in myself, and for our friendship!”
“I try to create a family atmosphere for my dancers. I always encourage them to come back and visit after they go to college. It makes me feel good when they do because it lets me know they really enjoyed their time in the studio,” she says. A former boss once told Mary if you give to the community, they will give back to you. “I’ve always used that as my philosophy about everything and it’s been very true,” she says.
Mary’s favorite part of teaching dance is, “helping people find another means of expression and an outlet, creating a sense of joy in their life.” At MD Hall, this may apply most to her thriving Adult Jazz program. The classes offer exercise through learning and performing tap. Mary started a recent class inviting her students to join her for an upcoming anniversary screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club, another flick choreographed by LeTang. As the students started a combination, ease settled into their bodies, smiles spread across their faces and joy came through their feet. Some students have danced with Mary before and their feet haven’t forgotten the steps. For others, they’re trying it for the first time. The program has grown to three levels: beginning/introductory, intermediate level 2 and level 3.
“As long as you keep challenging them and they keep learning, they continue in the program. You have to keep it fresh,” she says. Her adult students are dipping their tap shoes into the performance world, putting on shows at ArtFest and in Mary’s annual recital. Mary easily recognizes the importance of dance in all ages and skill levels. “I’ve created a sense of community. I just enjoy seeing my dancers grow into well rounded people. Dance does so much for people besides making them dancers.”
Now surpassing three decades at MD Hall, Mary says, “I’ve continued here because I like the feeling the minute you walk in the door. You see the artwork, you hear the music, you see the young and old all enjoying the arts. I think it’s wonderful that we can make the arts possible for all, not just the ones who can afford it,” she says.