Jo McDonald

Jo McDonald

Jo McDonald is the founder and owner of Move Through Life Dance Studio.  A lifelong dancer, the decision to defer a full time dance course at age 18 resulted in a break from dance, and a conviction that adults should be able to dance at any age, no matter how long a break they’ve had, or even if they have never danced before.  Her passion is creating opportunities for adult dancers.

Find out more about Jo – whimsical, compassionate, and silly – by reading her answers to our Q&A below

Tell us about your early dance journey?  Where did you start and what did you do as a child?

I started doing calisthenics at age three. I hated it for a good number of years, but then somehow fell in love with movement. I started ballet at age 13 because one of the girls in my calisthenics team (Tiffany) did ballet. So I started with the 8 year olds. I can’t believe I did that, and think I must have been pretty tenacious, because it wasn’t easy being older and bigger than the 8 year olds, especially as I was going through puberty. But I worked hard, and managed to get to intermediate level in the RAD syllabus by the time I was 18.


What is your earliest memory of dance?

Being yelled at by my calisthenics teacher. My sister and I were in the same team, and she was always yelling out ‘big McDonald’ or ‘little McDonald’ and we never knew which one she was talking too, as we are quite close in age, and while I’m younger, I am taller than her as an adult, so I was always over taking, and she would catch up.

I also remember being on stage, and looking out to the audience and yelling out ‘Nanny, Nanny, where are you?’ The other early memory I have is being told I wasn’t allowed to perform in the concert because I was too naughty (which is surprising as I’ve always been a ‘good girl’). My mum doesn’t remember it, but it’s there in my memories.


Where have you trained and who were your teachers as a dancer?

Started calisthenics at Morphett Vale Calisthenics Club. When I was around 12 years old, we got a new teacher Jeanette Marshall, and I credit her with teaching me how to actually dance and igniting a life long passion.

I then started ballet and did a year of ballet at Ecole de Ballet in Morphett Vale, before changing to Susan Taylor’s ballet school in the city. I then went on to do the Bachelor of Dance at what was then called the South Australian College of Advanced Education (which later become the Adelaide University course) with David and Simi Roche. I deferred after six months – and then got a job and it was too hard to go back, and I thought I was too old.

I didn’t dance for a few years, then I went to Tenison College of Dance and trained with Jacqui Johnson and Ken Norman (International Examiners and head of the South East Asia region of the Imperial Society for Teachers of Dance – ISTD), and Effie Saloniklis, who was a massive influence on me and was an amazing teacher and choreographer. Dancing in a piece she choreographed to the music of Vanessa May made me want to start a performance company, which I eventually did.

While at Tenison I completed my Advanced II Modern exam (with Distinction) and my Intermediate Ballet exam. When Effie and Leigh Hodgkiss started their school Directions Dance Academy, I did classes there and taught for a number of years. I did teacher training with Tenison College in ballet and modern, but didn’t have the opportunity to take the Associate Exam.

I then went to the Queensland University of Technology to get my teacher qualification – a Graduate Diploma of Creative Industries (Dance Teaching). I graduated with a high distinction average and was on the Dean’s List of Merit – no-one really cares about that kind of thing when it comes to getting a teaching job, but I was proud of it.

Once I’d started Move Through Life, and we had a weekly company class, I engaged the independent dancers that I admired to teach the class, so I had the chance to learn technique, improvisation, and choreography from amazing teachers like Larissa McGowan, Carol Wellman Kelly, Billie Cook, Katrina Lazaroff, Carlie Angel, and ex-Australian Ballet Company dancers Simon Vaughan, Tim Rodgers, Matthew Plummer, and Shane Placentino, and in the last couple of years Stefaan Morrow (who is half my age but I learnt an incredible amount about ballet technique from him).


What have been some standout moments/achievements you’ve had with dance?

Standing on stage at the end of Move Through Life’s first season in 2004 for the curtain call and being amazed that we had made this happen. I couldn’t imagine topping it, but we did manage to do so over the next ten years.


Have you performed in a Fringe show before? If so, tell us about it

Yes, three times with Move Through Life. We did mOcean in 2007, Black Coffee in 2009, and Soul Night At The Cinnamon Lounge in 2014. The last two were with a live 8+ jazz band, and sold out before opening night, which was an amazing experience.


What is your favourite thing about dance?

I just love moving. Time flies and you are just in the moment. It’s actually quite hard to pinpoint what it is I love so much. I love it more and more the older I get, though my body is not quite so flexible or strong as it once was.


What is your favourite thing about performing?

The buzz backstage.


What dance styles are you most drawn to?

Contemporary, ballet and jazz hold a special place in my heart. I’ve been doing Flamenco for the last couple of years, and love that as well. And finally, while I did a little bit of tap when I was in my twenties, I’ve been teaching our mature tap class, and teaching myself as I go, and just love that as well.


What do you prefer – class, rehearsal, or performance, and why?

When I was younger it was performance. Nowadays, I prefer class and rehearsal, though I don’t get to do those much for myself anymore, except for Flamenco, and I prefer class for that.


What are your top three favourite dance movies?

The Turning Point. The Company. A Chorus Line.


Who are some of your favourite dancers or choreographers?

At the moment I think my favourite choreographer is Brian Enos, from Big Muddy Dance Company (based in St Louis). It’s been fantastic being able to watch their performances online since COVID came along. Some of the teachers who inspire me are Yeri Anarika and Dmitry Akimenko, who I’ve discovered through Youtube.

I’ve always loved Graeme Murphy’s choreography, and his successor at Sydney Dance Company Rafael Bonachela. As an Adelaide-ian who was a teenager during Leigh Warren’s tenure as Artistic Director of Australian Dance Theatre, he’s also been an big influence and I love his lyrical contemporary style. I saw Sylvie Guillem at the Adelaide Festival once and she blew me away – I remember her pointing her foot and the audience all gasping. She just had an amazing charisma. And Mikhael Baryshnikov is one of my all time favourites.


What for you is the most challenging and most rewarding aspect of dance?

Most challenging these days is my body, which seems to always have some pain and sore muscles everywhere. I used to be an excellent jumper and very flexible, but not really anymore. The most rewarding aspect of dance is the realisation I’ve had in recent years about just how much I actually know about dance and can pass on to my students. I love the way it brings them joy, and for me, as a teacher as well. No matter how flat I feel, after an hour of teaching, I’m re-energised and happy.


What training or practice do you do at home?

Mostly planning classes and choreography. I teach 18 hours a week, which leaves my body pretty tired and so doing any dance for myself doesn’t happen often, but I do like to do classes on Youtube with people like Kathryn Morgan and I’ve recently signed up to CLI Studios to get fresh inspiration, which gives me the chance to learn routines from amazing teachers from the US.


What are your dance goals, dreams, or aspirations?

My dream is to create a whole lot of resources to give adults the chance to start, return or continue to dance. This includes the in studio classes I currently teach. I’m also building a bank of online training for those who aren’t able to get to the studio. We are also planning to develop a Dance and Wellness Centre, which will have at least two studio spaces, and offices to house various professionals who offer services that can help adult dancers, such as a dance podiatrist, dance physio, life coach, naturopath, nutritionist etc.

I’d love to start an online magazine dedicated to dance for adults, a podcast, and to create dancewear for adults that is made for adults of all sizes, or at least, larger sizes, since most adult dancewear I’ve been able to find would only go up to a size 14 maximum.


How many times a week do you dance? And what are they (eg class, rehearsals, where, with who?)

Five days a week – I teach ballet, contemporary, jazz, and tap Tuesday to Saturday, for 3-4 hours a day, as well as choreographing and rehearsing our two companies (the regular and mature companies). I do an hour of Flamenco on Mondays which is purely for myself..


What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received (again, it doesn’t have to be dance-related)

Seek first to understand others, before you seek to be understood.


What keeps you motivated when you are tired, discouraged, or down?

Generally motivation is not an issue – I have so much I’d love to do. But when I do lack motivation, I tend to listen to my body and mind and take that as a sign that I need to back off and rest. I do get quite down, and depression is an issue for me. Having a good cry helps, and having the support of my beautiful partner John, and may incredible business partner Anne. And my family – my Mum and Dad and sister are always there for me when I need them.


What always makes you laugh?

Stand up comedy. My black pug Alfie. Cat videos. My own juvenile sense of humour. Some jokes – like everytime I think of certain jokes I can’t tell them without laughing.


What hobbies do you have outside of dance?

Not much. It is quite consuming. I am a musician, or should I say lapsed musician, as I don’t play much, but do occasionally. I play piano and guitar and sing. I love to read, enjoy photography, and gardening (although the latter doesn’t happen a great deal these days as my partner John is the main gardener around our house).


What is your ‘day job’? (could be working, studying, volunteering etc)

Running Move Through Life. I teach, choreograph, do the book keeping, marketing, strategy and planning.


Describe your personality in three (or so) words

Whimsical. Compassionate. Silly.