Professor dances into the spotlight with latest success

Pentz is also a Global Goodwill Ambassador and Human Peace Ambassador for the U.S., an honor she received after being nominated in 2019 by a K-State colleague. (Photo Courtesy of Julie Pentz)

From a 3-year-old tap-dancing penguin to a full-time professor of dance at Kansas State, Julie Pentz has had an eventful career, paving the way for her new dance textbook “DANCE Appreciation.”

The textbook — published last month — already received a recommendation from Dance Teacher magazine. It is just one in a long string of accomplishments for Pentz, who came to K-State 17 years ago after a successful professional career.

After receiving her B.F.A. in dance education from Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia, and doing some independent teaching gigs, Pentz began a professional dance career with the National Tap Ensemble. She later decided to return to school, despite her enjoyment of the work.

“I had always known that I wanted to be a university professor because of tap dance,” Pentz said. “There’s not a lot of tap dance in academia, or it’s just one class.”

Pentz set out to remedy the lack of tap in academia, attending graduate school at the University of Arizona. She selected the university because it was heavy in all dance areas — even jazz and tap.

K-State hired Pentz as the jazz professor directly out of graduate school. At the time, there was no tap program. She built up the program over the years as student need and demand increased. The program now includes tap classes, the Tap Dance Ensemble and the Tap-to-Togetherness program.

The Tap Ensemble performs throughout the year, both on-campus and in the community. They also deliver Tap-o-Grams on Valentine’s Day, which is how Elizabeth Kritikos got involved.

Kritikos, a recent theatre arts graduate, said she asked about joining after seeing them dance during one of her classes. She met with Pentz, and the rest is history. She joined the ensemble and tapped her way through college, forming a strong bond with Pentz and the other dancers.

“We feel like once you’re in, you come back for the people,” Kritikos said. “You come back because you love the people you’re dancing with, and you love that community feel that Julie provides for a lot of us.”

Her sentiments were echoed by other students who joined Tap Ensemble and found their home in the group, with Pentz as the matriarch.

“From day one, you can tell that Julie makes you feel like you are just as valuable to her as a student — as if you were her own child,” Katelyn Milleson, recent K-State accounting graduate, said.

Milleson and Zoe Abner, senior in graphic design and ceramics, both credit Pentz and the Tap Ensemble for their decision to attend K-State.

Abner said Pentz encouraged her to try out for Tap Ensemble when they met at a Dance Day event four years ago. Despite her lack of dance experience, she tried out and was accepted to the ensemble before even applying to the university.

“I borrowed a friend’s pair of tap shoes, I had one of my dance teachers choreograph a solo for me, and I had to learn some steps really quick, but [Pentz] saw the potential in me, and my life would be so different if I hadn’t gone to K-State,” Abner said.

Pentz said her students inspire her every day because they work hard and make her laugh. She works to meet their needs and meet them where they are, especially during difficult times like the pandemic.

“I know now, and the same was true in the fall; my students were really happy with my choice to do in-person class,” Pentz said. “I just decided fear wasn’t allowed in there and I was just gonna do it. And for most of my students, that was their only in-person class in the fall. That kind of gratefulness was intense.”

Student-centered is a defining word for her teaching philosophy. She said she makes sure to include her students in everything she does because the programs would be nothing without them. As a result, the Tap Ensemble is heavily involved with Tap-to-Togetherness.

Tap-to-Togetherness started in 2015 and is Pentz’s way of giving back to the local community. It provides families with young children a healthy way to bond and have fun. In 2019, they started working with Meadowlark Hills’ Parkinson’s and memory programs. However, because of the pandemic, the dancers haven’t performed live.

That is set to change this spring during the week of April 12, which is the Week of the Young Child — a celebration of early learning started by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Pentz said she and the dancers will hold two outdoor events each day at area parks.

Abner, who is helping Pentz plan the week’s activities, said planning is fun and she is excited to get back out there and perform during the week’s events. The goal is to reach audiences who will join them this summer for outdoor park events.

“Tap-to-Togetherness is just one of the things I do,” Pentz said. “Really, it’s Tap-to-Togetherness that led me to research and writing. My first tier-one journal was about the T-to-T program in ‘Dance Education and Practice.'”

The program is also featured in her new book.

Pentz said the writing process moved quickly. She and her co-author, Dawn Davis Loring, had 11 months to prepare the manuscript for review. After three months with outside reviewers, the manuscript was returned to them in April 2020 for revisions.

“COVID worked out because we were locked in any way,” Pentz said, laughing.

The revisions involved fixing and adding a PowerPoint, an exam and web resources to each chapter.

“We really engaged in social media. We wanted a book that was current, even though I have to say it’s already not current,” Pentz said. “Now, with COVID, so much has advanced, at least in the dance field. If we’re ever asked to do a second edition, there’s going to be a lot to include, like Zoom.”

Each chapter also includes a “spotlight” of a specific person or event. Tap-to-Togetherness is included as the spotlight for the tap chapter. Pentz said the spotlight feature is what makes this book unique from other dance appreciation textbooks on the market.

She will use the text this summer while teaching Dance as an Art Form to incoming K-State athletes. She will also require students in her technique classes to use the text since it will be relevant as they move through the program.

The book is just the latest marker of her success.

Pentz is also a Global Goodwill Ambassador and Human Peace Ambassador for the U.S., an honor she received after being nominated in 2019 by a K-State colleague.

The non-profit organization allows for numerous funding opportunities, helping them with worldwide goodwill projects like creating a relief fund for survivors of the Lebanon blast, purchasing toys for Valentine’s Day for children at the Mayo Clinic or sending Valentine e-cards to the children at St. Jude’s hospital.

She said the organization’s e-magazine “features Global Goodwill Ambassadors [from] all over the world doing goodwill and making a difference,” which is important to her.

Abner said Pentz is always there to talk about anything and even invites them into her home.

“She’s just more than a professor,” Abner said. “We feel on our end how much she cares about us. She brings us food all the time. We can tell that she really does care about us, and it’s really nice to have that.”