July 19, 2018
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  • Noelle Tolbert, who chairs the dance department at the Chesapeake Arts Center, refers to the dance studio as her office.
    Photo by Maya Pottiger
    Noelle Tolbert, who chairs the dance department at the Chesapeake Arts Center, refers to the dance studio as her office.
  • Noelle Tolbert, who chairs the dance department at the Chesapeake Arts Center, refers to the dance studio as her office.
    Photo by Maya Pottiger
    Noelle Tolbert, who chairs the dance department at the Chesapeake Arts Center, refers to the dance studio as her office.
  • Dance students traditionally learn ballet, then modern, then hip-hop. Noelle Tolbert was self-taught as a child, learned the techniques backward and created her own technique called “Noelle.”
    Photo by Maya Pottiger
    Dance students traditionally learn ballet, then modern, then hip-hop. Noelle Tolbert was self-taught as a child, learned the techniques backward and created her own technique called “Noelle.”
  • Dance students traditionally learn ballet, then modern, then hip-hop. Noelle Tolbert was self-taught as a child, learned the techniques backward and created her own technique called “Noelle.”
    Photo by Maya Pottiger
    Dance students traditionally learn ballet, then modern, then hip-hop. Noelle Tolbert was self-taught as a child, learned the techniques backward and created her own technique called “Noelle.”

Local Dancer “Pushed Through” Disadvantages, Now Chairs CAC Dance Department

Maya Pottiger
Maya Pottiger's picture
View Bio
February 20, 2018

Noelle Tolbert used to make up dances in her driveway. Now she chairs the Chesapeake Art Center’s dance department.

As a child, Tolbert would make up dances with her sister and cousin everywhere they were, whether it was the kitchen, the backyard or the driveway. Their go-to song? “Trippin’” by Total.

“A lot of my explosive energy comes from being able to do that at a young children’s age rather than be quiet,” Tolbert said. “My parents allowed me to just express myself, and that’s what I was doing.”

However, Tolbert didn’t have formal dance training until she was in high school. Before college, she spent her time in extensive rehearsals learning from watching others.

“I pushed through. I learned. I watched like a hawk,” Tolbert said. “It really has helped me.”

When she got to her college classes at Temple University in Philadelphia, she realized for the first time that she was at a disadvantage. Where her peers had gone through the traditional training of learning ballet, modern dance and hip-hop, Tolbert had been self-taught.

“I didn’t know how to properly point my foot. I didn’t know all these positions in ballet,” Tolbert said. “I did feel like I was at a disadvantage because that’s when I finally realized that having formal training at a young age is a privilege. That’s when I realized these other students, they don’t come from the same background as I do.”

But Tolbert did have an advantage over the other students. She was a performer.

“My teachers saw something different in me,” Tolbert said. “It was like, ‘You’re just a mover. You don’t have any specific genre now.’”

In fact, Tolbert has created her own technique that she calls the “Noelle.”

“Hip-hop is definitely my heart, but I’ve taken my entire road up until now and created this language that I’m able to relate to, and it’s not simultaneous, it’s not predictable,” Tolbert said. “It involves the entire physical body.”

Tolbert teaches this technique in her Movers and Shakers class at the Chesapeake Arts Center. Her students, ages 7-12, learn about their bodies and awareness.

“I just teach them the journey that I have been able to go through,” Tolbert said. “Before you know it, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve actually done a little bit of hip-hop, I’ve done a little bit of modern, I’ve done a little bit of this.’ That class kind of brings it all together.”

Since joining the Chesapeake Arts Center in 2015, Tolbert has watched the dance program grow to more than 95 students and 13 different classes.

“Here I am in this beautiful world,” Tolbert said. “This [dance studio] is pretty much my office.”

A highlight in Tolbert’s dance career was performing in front of 13,000 people at Baltimore’s since-ended Starscape Festival.

“As a dancer, that is definitely a dream to be able to see a sea of people,” Tolbert said.

Where her dream used to be to dance onstage with Janet Jackson or Beyoncé, Tolbert said her new dream performance would be at a major theater dancing as herself.

“That would be a beautiful gig for me to work with 50 different dancers on a stage, create this masterpiece,” Tolbert said. “I think that that would be a crescendo of a dance career or a dance path.”


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