Gayle Lang stands almost half a foot shorter than most of her 16 dance workshop students. Positioned in front of two rows of students facing a room-length mirror, she yells out the dance steps, barely heard over the blaring hip-hop loops.
In the early ‘90s, Lang’s students were nearly two feet taller, and three times heavier. She was teaching ballet to the New York Jets. In her career she has danced alongside country music legends at the Grand Ole Opry, in front of thousands of people and on national television.
She won her first title as Dance Master of America Petite Miss Dance of NYC when she was 7 years old. She was a finalist in the Miss America Pageant as Miss Vermont, and also won a gold medal in the Dance Educators of America National Competition at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.
Of all the places she could be in the world of stardom, Lang teaches a handful of dance classes at Castleton State College, and more than four dozen other dance classes throughout the week at her dance studio in Rutland.
Miss Gayle, as her students affectionately call her, is the epitome of peppy and wholly devoted to her students, both as a friend and a professor.
“She’s not judgmental,” said freshman Jessica Potash. “She takes the time to teach you the steps.”
“She definitely goes above and beyond,” said senior Kenzie McCain. “She puts her students first. Once we were going to have class canceled due to weather, and instead of canceling she moved the class an hour later to meet with us anyway… She’s emotionally invested in her students.”
Harry McEnerny, chair of the theater department, heard about Lang from his neighbor, whose daughter studied at her dance studio in Rutland. McEnerny was looking for a dance instructor and after a quick interview hired her. That was 5 1/2 years ago. McEnerny said many CSC students have dance background, but Castleton has no dance program.
He said Lang has a potential dance program ready to implement, if student demand warrants it.
“She is interested in much more dance than we’re capable of at this school,” he observed.
Lang feels it’s important to leave personal troubles at the door and always tries to bring a positive attitude to her classes.
And she knows about personal troubles.
When she was born, her legs were turned in at the hips.
At 6 months her legs and hips were put in a cast in order to ensure her feet would rotate outward.
When she was 18 months old, her mom was playing the Nutcracker Ballet on the TV and Lang was mesmerized.
Ballet, as chance would have it, would be perfect for her and help rotate her feet properly, her doctor told her mother. There was a local dance studio, Dance Workshop in Lyndonville, Vt. Dancers had to be at least three to be enrolled and Lang was only two.
Her mom fudged her age and enrolled her anyway.
“I was hooked from there,” said Lang. “I wouldn’t even take my ballet slippers off when I went to bed.”
A dancer was born.
The rest is history. She danced for 18 years at Dance Workshop while performing and competing in national circuits and then studied at American Ballet Theater School in New York City.
Her greatest professional accomplishment, she says, was performing at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.
“Wow, I actually did it,” she recalls thinking once she was there. “I got that job myself.”
When Lang taught the New York Jets “grace, jumping and landing,” she sent them home unable to walk by the end of the second class. From then on they were much more appreciative of the “sissy-ness” they thought they had been learning.
In the mid ‘90s though, her life turned upside down. She was diagnosed with lymphoma and moved from New York City to Pawlet, Vt.
When the cancer began going into remission, she switched from conventional medicine and began taking natural treatments instead. But after an asthma attack, her health spiraled dangerously.
“It was awful,” Lang recalled. “For a while I was not conscious. They had to comatose me.”
She was intubated and a breathing tube was inserted into her esophagus. Doctors injected steroids into her system in order to keep her airway from constricting around the breathing tube.
When she became conscious again, Lang said she was so weak she couldn’t sit up. She couldn’t even talk.
The steroids that were injected into her system to save her life devastated her extraneous muscles and shrank them leading to a condition called steroid myopathy.
“I had the worst case,” Lang remembered. “Seven doctors said that they had never seen steroid myopathy so bad.”
Her rehabilitation lasted more than a year and during her confinement to a wheelchair Lang contemplated that there could be more to dancing than just being a performer. She could give her talent by teaching.
“If I can get on stage, it’s my home,” she said. “But when I sat in that wheelchair all day I realized I was going through that for a reason. I realized I had a gift to teach kids.”
Lang’s recovery was nothing short of miraculous. She would soon open her dance studio, All About Dance at Grand Performance, in Rutland. She began teaching everything from ballroom dancing to pointe technique for ballet, and at every age group.
Lang says colleges still ask her why she doesn’t go back to the city to teach, but she argues that there is as much talent in Vermont as in the cities.
Everyone who walks through her doors is taught, she added. Even children with autism, dyslexia, and spinal complications.
“That’s the way it should be if you’re gonna work with kids,” said Lang.
Lang knows full well how important it is for her students to accomplish their dreams. She also knows students who had been dancers before their college career simply need to dance. Otherwise, they’ve told Lang, they would be going insane. To her students, former and current, Miss Gayle is a friend, a therapist, and always leaves her door open for them.
“I want that,” Lang said. “To be a part of their lives.”