Ani Udovicki and Olivier Heuts reflect on their teaching journeys
By Jessica Meditz
Ani Udovicki and Olivier Heuts first got acquainted in the early 2000s as they sat in the waiting room to be interviewed for the same teaching position at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts.
Little did they know they would retire at the same time and spend over two decades together, teaching high school students the art form so close to their hearts: dance.
Udovicki, known lovingly by her students as “Ms. U,” is the daughter of Yugoslavian and Bolivian parents.
She trained as a ballet dancer while she lived in Europe, and eventually moved to New York City in her early 20s to pursue her dance career.
“My husband is an artist, so he was interested in coming here for the arts. I discovered modern dance when I came to the U.S., but you needed modern dance training to do it,” Udovicki said.
“I questioned where I should go to study modern dance and many said Julliard. I went to Julliard because there you get the sequential training, and out of there I could then join companies in modern dance, which I did until I was pregnant.”
Udovicki has danced professionally for numerous companies, including Belgrade National Theater, The Royal Flemish Ballet, Ballet Hispanico and The New York Baroque Dance Company. She has also worked with modern dance choreographers Ohad Naharin and Neta Pulvermacher.
Heuts said his story is quite similar to Udovicki’s, as he also hails from Europe—the Netherlands, to be exact—but it wasn’t until later in life that he began to pursue dance.
“I actually have a degree in art history from before I switched over to dance. I went to a dance conservatory in Amsterdam, where I studied modern dance,” Heuts said.
“I came to New York and right away got different jobs with modern dance companies, most notably Battery Dance in Lower Manhattan,” he continued. “But those jobs don’t pay full fare, so I did different side gigs to make ends meet.”
Heuts has studied with modern dance pioneer Merce Cunningham, whom he described as his idol.
He also has years of experience as a Pilates instructor and fitness trainer, and is well known for his healthy lifestyle. Every single day he walks to his work in Long Island City from his home in Manhattan over the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.
Tommy Tibball, a 2009 graduate of Frank Sinatra and co-director of TKO Dance Academy in Ozone Park, said that Heuts hasn’t changed a bit since he attended school.
“I’m teaching the freshmen a dance right now for the Spring Dance Concert, and I was running late. I told Mr. Heuts that I was sorry and parking was impossible. And he said in the same dry sense of humor, ‘Well, you should walk. I do it every day, and perfect attendance to add to that,’” Tibball said. “I remember always saying that I wish I could be like him when I’m older, because he literally must be in perfect health. The man hasn’t been sick in like six years.”
Heuts said that even if students don’t remember his barre exercises or across the floor combinations, he’s grateful that they remember him for who he is as a teacher and person.
“As I got older and taught for more years, I realized that it’s more important what I say and do in terms of my personality, rather than the actual things that I taught,” Heuts said. “They probably remember my walking over the bridge, being a vegetarian or making stupid jokes and things like that.”
Udovicki said that the most rewarding part of being a high school dance teacher is not so much what happens day in and day out, but what comes later.
“It’s so endearing to hear from the graduates who write back and come to visit. The things they say reaffirm me and the values I teach,” she said.
“Their pliés and contractions don’t really matter anymore, but the fact that they say they’ve learned so much about life, does,” she said. “I give these speeches sometimes, and they thank me for all that they’ve learned and my role as a teacher.”
Olivia Kenny, a 2019 graduate, had Udovicki as a dance teacher for three of the four years she attended Frank Sinatra, and said her class’ experience was unique because of her motivational words.
“Ms. U was our actual mom at that point because we saw her so much, and it was so good to end it with her as a senior. She would always give her little speeches, talk about history and really educate us in a different way,” Kenny said. “I feel like people at the college level are learning exactly what we learned at 14 and 15-years-old, and it was so amazing to learn from someone so experienced.”
Both teachers said they will forever cherish the feeling of being in the wings during special performances, such as the Spring Dance Concert or the Senior Show.
Udovicki and Heuts have arranged for numerous guest choreographers to come and stage their work on Frank Sinatra students, as well as facilitated performances at the Metropolitan Opera House through American Ballet Theatre.
Although they’re unsure of who will replace them when the school year comes to an end, they believe the school’s administration will seek feedback from them, given their longtime roles.
As for after retirement plans, they will both be quite busy.
“I want to continue teaching, but in other venues,” Udovicki said. “I’d like to teach dance for people with Parkinson’s, and maybe for people in jails. I’d also like to go back and volunteer at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts like I used to do.”
She also plans to spend more time with her family in Serbia, which used to be Yugoslavia.
Heuts and his wife plan to move out of New York City to a nearby suburb.
“If it were just me, I could probably go a few more years teaching, but my wife and I are a team,” he said.
“I feel somewhat happy that at least this was a pretty normal year; it’s a much better ending than what last year would have been.”
Udovicki said she feels privileged to have been able to indulge in the journey of self-discovery that comes with teaching adolescents.
“What I always loved was the art, that it’s a different language and a way of expressing yourself. It is really another way of communicating and making this world better,” she said.
“Politics is all an illusion, and so is dance, but it’s a beautiful thing that can enrich lives… what comes out of it is real.”