*Appearing in WomenInc*
Her tall, slender frame creates a striking figure on the dance floor – but her personality fills the room. Bubbling over with enthusiasm, energy and a sense of humor Mary Hoedeman Coniaris shares her love of dance with her students – and it is obvious that her students have a great time.
In the world of country and western dance, Mary Hoedeman Coniaris is an internationally known instructor, competitor and innovator. Like the dances she teaches, her life has been filled with interesting turns and spins.
Mary was born and raised in Battle Creek, Michigan, and had no formal dance training as a child. An ambitious student, she began taking college classes as a freshman in high school. Graduating early from high school, she entered college in Michigan to study law and accounting with an eye on politics.
When her sister and a friend moved to Texas, Mary followed them. She was working for an oil company in Houston when she answered an ad saying “Dance Instructors Wanted, Will Train.” Within two months she quit her job at the oil company to teach dance full time. “I was a fish in water,” Mary says. “I was meant to dance.” Soon she was winning professional competitions.
While in Texas, Mary worked with colleagues to develop a style of country dance that blended traditional forms with ballroom technique. This style is the dominant competitive style in country and western dance today. “I was trained by a former world champion ballroom dancer,” Mary says. “Traditional ballroom instruction is much more structured and formal.” Country and Western Dance today includes two step, polka, waltz, east coast swing, west coast swing, hustle, cha cha, rhumba and nightclub dance forms.
After six years teaching and competing, Mary decided it was time to “grow up and get a real job.” She left her career as a dance instructor and became a leasing agent for an apartment complex, with the intent of going back to college. One evening two men approached her in a bar and said, “We’ve been watching you and we’d like you to make a video.” Mary promptly and vehemently declined – then discovered after further discussion that they were asking her to make instructional dance videos. Mary eventually filmed a total of 24 videos, which have sold over 300,000 copies internationally.
In 1989 Mary competed in a national competition in Las Vegas, and won the Masters Division with her novice student as a partner. Her growing recognition as a skilled competitor and her instructional videos led to invitations to tour and teach. For nine years Mary enjoyed a teaching and performing touring schedule throughout the United States and Canada that encompassed 340 days per year.
Over time, the aggressive touring schedule took its toll, and Mary found that she was burning out. She took three months off to recuperate and contemplate her future. Living in Nashville at the time, Mary spent some time touring area attractions. While visiting one of Nashville’s art museums, the Parthenon, she met her future husband. John was in town for a job interview, and being of Greek heritage, was drawn to visit this replica of the original Parthenon in Athens. Whether chance or fate, this encounter led to a long-distance courtship and eventual marriage.
How did she end up in Fairmont? Borrowing a line from dance terminology, Mary replies, “The man is the leader….and the woman follows.” John’s career took them first to Boston – then to Michigan – and now to Fairmont where Dr. John Coniaris is an obstetrician/gynecologist for Mayo Health Systems.
Mary spends less time traveling now so she can be at home with their two young sons, Alex, 6, and Lucas, 8. She teaches two days a week in Fairmont and Truman, tours occasionally and offers week-long dance camps where dancers can experience a concentrated learning opportunity.
Mary is passionate about dance. “I’ve watched dance transform people’s lives,” she says enthusiastically. “I’ve seen couples come to class with tension between them and leave like newlyweds. I’ve seen individuals who were insecure and socially inept become much more self confident and outgoing.”
Dance also has a spiritual perspective for Mary. “People get beat up by the world and close down,” Mary explains as she rounds her shoulders inward and drops her head. “But when you dance, your posture is upright and open – open to life, open to God.”
Now that both of their sons are in school full time, Mary is exploring new challenges. She recently began pilot school and explains, “If I can fly myself, I can get to wherever I need to go in a few hours – instead of wasting an entire day.” Mary has also added several new classes especially for women and teens to her teaching schedule, and is making plans to offer weekend dance camps.
Mary’s website states, “Careful – dance is addictive…” and Mary is excited to share this healthy addiction with her students. For more information, visit her website at www.maryhoedeman.com, or sign up for classes online through the Fairmont Community Education Web Store at www.fairmont.k12.mn.us.