Sara Sturdevant, Performing Arts Department Chair

A dynamic and beloved member of the Upper School community for the last two decades, Sara Sturdevant is a teacher that has inspired hundreds of Ellis students with her passion for the arts, and in turn, sparked their creative careers and endeavors after commencement. A stalwart supporter of the performing arts, Ms. Sturdevant has directed, choreographed, staged, and produced hundreds of Ellis productions and performances over the last 23 years. Her commitment to her craft and can-do attitude energizes and ignites students’ independence and individuality on and off stage as they’re pushed to believe in themselves, their abilities, and their potential. Whether she’s teaching a cast how to perfect Fosse jazz hands or leading a discussion from the halls of Carnegie Museum of Art, Ms. Sturdevant’s gusto, charisma, and dedication to the School and her students is evident in everything she does.
Years at Ellis:23
Title:Performing Arts Department Chair, Upper School Visual Arts Teacher
Education:B.A. Anthropology, University of Cincinnati

How did you find yourself at Ellis?
I was teaching dance at Point Park University when one of my colleagues told me, “I’ve got a job that’s perfect for you!” And it happened to be the dance teacher position at Ellis. At first, I was unsure but as soon as I visited campus, taught a dance class, and saw that there was cake in all three division offices, I was sold. I was like “what is this place?!” Eventually, my position as a dance teacher and choreographer morphed into my role today. My time at Ellis has been the perfect model of not only what the school offers students, but teachers—a true blend of artistic and intellectual endeavor.  

Have you always loved dance and the performing arts?
My whole life I’ve loved the arts. I did my first choreography to “Leaving on a Jet Plane” for my parents which involved a long green scarf I had found in my closet. When I was nine, I got into dance and did mostly ballet. During college, I was in an experimental modern dance company which proved to be a watershed moment for me as a young choreographer. That’s when I realized I wanted to explore not only my creative side but my intellectual side. So I came to Pittsburgh and began working in children’s theater while taking some classes at the University of Pittsburgh and teaching dance in a variety of small studios.

You revamped the Art History curriculum at Ellis and it is one of the cornerstones of the Upper School experience. How do you bring together your dance background with art history?
The way I look at it, art history and dance aren’t that different. Every class has a purpose and every class is about giving students specific skills. The arts, in general, are about working through ideas, getting feedback, and forcing yourself to find creative solutions. This idea is a hallmark in my classroom and I'm constantly telling my students how critical it is to practice. The notion of rehearsal can seem specific to performing arts, but I think it’s a fundamental component of what we teach at Ellis. In order to learn, students need to practice so they can develop grit, resilience, and a creative mindset that they can then apply to everything they do.

Did you ever have a teacher who had a particularly strong influence on your life?
Yes, Rhoda Halperin who was a professor of mine at the University of Cincinnati. She embraced me as a research assistant and offered me different opportunities in research, writing, and authorship that had a huge influence on me. She was constantly speaking her mind and asking for feedback which was a gift for me. I spent time at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) with her while she was a visiting professor and that really showed me the broader side of academics—it was a life-changing experience.

If you could interview anyone living or dead, who would it be and why?
I’m going to have to say the artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp was a towering figure in early modern art who questioned just about everything. I think he was probably not that great of a fellow, but to me, he’s the most influential artist of the 21st century. There would be no Andy Warhol without Marcel Duchamp. His artwork has always eluded me in a lot of ways. I joke with my students about his painting called “The Large Glass,” I have many many books about it and yet no explanation for it. And I think that’s what I really like about it, I constantly think about that artwork.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Caring. Demanding of myself and others. Looking for fun. Sorry, that wasn’t exactly three words...

What do you believe are the advantages to an all-girls classroom?
When I think about our school community, I think about the fact that it is ALL girls. We have ALL kinds of girls here at Ellis. When a girl walks into this environment, she is struck immediately with the diversity of not just outward appearance, but approach, personality, temperament—every kind of variable you can think of. We have girls all over the spectrum that stretches across the continuum in every way. At Ellis, girls are challenged to be individuals, to appreciate their gifts, and to learn from each other as women.

What have you learned about leadership and mentoring from your time at Ellis?
I have learned that you have to meet people where they are and encourage them in their gifts. I always say at Ellis you can do anything you want as long as you do it. It’s up to you and you alone if you want to do something. You wanna do it? Go ahead! Put your ideas into action and see what happens. We’re here to support you 100%.

What woman inspires you and why?
Sara Frazer Ellis, the founder of the School. The fact that she thought that all-girls education was crucial 100 years ago and built Ellis because of it is really powerful. I’m here today because of her and her belief in this institution.

What is your favorite art museum in Pittsburgh?
The Mattress Factory. Pittsburgh is a great art town. Only in Pittsburgh can you open up the newspaper and see an article about sports and an article about art on the front page.

What do you love most about your job?
The people. The freedom Ellis gives me. And the challenge.

What is most important to you that girls learn at Ellis?
How to give voice to their ideas. I think girls are taught to be passive, and while I certainly don’t teach them to be aggressive, I teach them to respond and have confidence in the integrity of their own ideas. At Ellis, we work really hard to make sure our students are prepared to talk about complicated subjects and make important statements, and I really enjoy watching that happen.