Passion for Dance and Yoga Takes State College Native All Around the World and Back Again
As a child growing up in State College, Denise McClellan didn’t know where she was going – she just knew she wanted to be moving.
“I’m a mover, I like to move,” she says. “When you’re growing up as a kid in your little hometown, all you can think about is how you want to get out of your hometown.”
McClellan’s passion for movement has taken her all over the world as a professional dancer and yoga instructor. She choreographed a 1986 music video for the Washington Redskins football team (she jokes that her lessons were one of the reasons the team won the Super Bowl a year later).
She’s started multiple dance projects and yoga retreats and has even hung out with actors Alec and Billy Baldwin after being honored by the Creative Coalition. Her work with yoga has taken her to Greece, France, Myanmar, Holland, India and Australia.
“When you get out in the world, you realize, ‘Wow, I am so fortunate to be able to do this,’” she says.
And although she’s returned to State College periodically between her travels, McClellan has recently been coming back to Happy Valley more frequently to spend time with her family.
“It’s beautiful,” she says about the area. “It’s a good community and a healthy place to grow up.”
After graduating from State College Area High School in the 1970s, McClellan continued her education at Penn State where, like most freshmen, she tried to pinpoint a major. Her love of dance led her to research movement majors, but a dance-specific degree didn’t exist at the university at the time. McClellan had to go before a board and present her case as to why she should be allowed to major in dance even when the school didn’t have a program for it.
“You have to go before a committee of people from the university and prove to them how you can have a major at Penn State that hasn’t been created yet,” McClellan says about the bachelor of philosophy process, which still exists today.
McClellan’s self-designed major, which included education, art, theatre and dance was accepted.
After she graduated from Penn State, McClellan got a job as the choreographer for the Nashville Academy Theatre and eventually went on to get her master’s degree in dance from George Washington University.
When she moved to New York City as a professional, but struggling dancer, she took up a new profession that would eventually gain her some recognition and almost get her killed – bike messenger.
“Not knowing that it was the third most dangerous job in the world, behind fighter pilot and New York City firefighter, I tried it,” she says. “Everyday you’re thrown off your bike because the bike lane is the most dangerous place to ride. It’s a really cutthroat job.”
McClellan was barely getting by in New York “living on a dollar a day and a piece of pizza” when she decided to use the messenger job as a networking opportunity to gain recognition around the city. A few days after shattering her collar bone in an accident, McClellan shot a poster for Nike and Express Courier Systems posing on her bike with a tagline that reads, “Express Yourself: Be Nice to Couriers.”
She then began to seek financial and entrepreneurial advice from 50 of the city’s top CEOs while delivering their packages. Several of those CEOs mentored McClellan and taught her some of the finer points of marketing and business.
With that help, she created New Moves Inc., a non-profit organization that gave inner-city school children a chance to learn about different movement arts, in the early 90s. “I believe arts are important in education. They teach you self awareness and self expression.”
Years of traveling and physically demanding routines and practices had taken its toll on McClellan’s body by the late 90s. That’s when she found a second calling – yoga. McClellan’s past dance experience made her a natural at the practice and a good candidate since yoga is a healing art form.
“I crawled into yoga with injuries in 1998,” she says. “Dance is a performing art – it happens on the outside and it’s visual and beautiful. Kung fu is a martial art – it teaches you how to defend yourself and it’s how the head relates to the body.”
“Yoga is a healing art – it happens on the inside. It’s not about flexibility and range of motion. It’s about freeing the mind of chatter, getting de-stressed and bringing the body into balance.”
McClellan has been teaching yoga ever since. When she’s not instructing in New York, McClellan teaches classes three days a week in State College at the University Club, the North Club and the Spa at Kenlee in Bellefonte, as well as private and office lessons.
In 2011, McClellan taught a free yoga class during the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, and last summer she hosted the all-1970s State College Area High School reunion. And even though she’s frequently on the move because her job requires it, McClellan says she plans to always have a place to stay in her hometown.
“I love to travel and I love to learn,” she says about what motivates her. “And I think some of that stems out of being from a university town. So many things were put in front of me when I was at State College High and Penn State.”
“There’s a reason they call this place Happy Valley. This is a great town and a fantastic place to grow up.”
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