They might not get judged by Howie Mandel any time soon (or maybe they will!), but UNLV has its share of professors as talented outside the classroom as they are in it. We checked in with four academics who are dicing, dancing, acting, and hip-throwing their way across the valley and the world in pursuit of excellence in a second sphere. So who’s going to get the million-dollar prize and the headlining gig on the Strip? We have no idea. But here’s who’s headlining on Maryland Parkway.
Law | Ballroom dance
They didn’t have anything in common except ballroom dancing. One of Nancy Rapoport’s former beaus took up the sport, and she fell in love with it more than him. Years later, that guy is gone, but the dancing lives on.
Rapoport has been a competitive ballroom dancer since the 1990s, placing in a slew of competitions over the years, including a first-place finish in her division of the United States Dance Championships Pro/Am Rising Star in 2014.
Judges score each couple on criteria such as artistic ability and technical competence. Rapoport competes in 9-dance, which means dancing the cha-cha, rumba, mambo, bolero, swing, waltz, tango, foxtrot, and Viennese waltz over two days of competition. And that takes spending a lot of time in the gym training and building up endurance.
It also helps out in the classroom.
“It keeps me remembering what it’s like to learn something new,” she said. “When I watch my students struggling with a concept, I remember what it feels like (with a move) to be almost there, but not quite and how frustrating that feels.”
Hospitality | Theater and voice acting
As a theater student, a professor told Finley Cotrone that her voice was so bad that she just might get some voice work. From humble beginnings, right? Once the sting wore off about 10 years later, she put her distinctive pipes to work, landing gigs in the Command & Conquor series of video games — including Red Alert 2, which sold more than 800,000 copies — and as the voice of the Las Vegas Monorail.
She also spent years doing theater and improv comedy with local group The Usual Suspects. Those performance chops helped lead her to training for the hospitality industry. She was spotted doing a show by a training manager for the then-to-open Aladdin resort. After being brought in to help develop and lead orientation, it was a logical path from that to working in a corporate environment as a trainer, to a master’s from UNLV and eventual doctorate, to now teaching here.
Now, she encourages her undergrads to take classes in acting to improve their ability to relate to people in a hospitality environment.
Improv, she said, keeps you in the moment. “It has to be very quick. You have to turn off the judgment; you have to stop wondering if that was perfect. I think it helps us get past all the walls we put up, and become very human.”
Communication studies | Gourmet cooking
Donovan Conley moved out of his house young and, like any other 18-year-old on their own for the first time, had to learn quickly how to navigate the kitchen — or else it was a whole lot of Hamburger Helper and canned soup.
By grad school, he started to dig deeper into the culinary world, learning the techniques of culinary heavyweights such as Thomas Keller, Jamie Oliver, and David Chang. After he became tenured at UNLV, Conley started to pursue the connections between his private passion and his academic interests. As a rhetorical critic, he studies how cultural influences — like food — shape our everyday habits, preferences, biases, and desires.
“These kinds of social, communal issues around food came from my private world of being fascinated with how to make the most delicious food using the best ingredients and techniques, which became the larger questions about where do these things come from, and who has access to them and why or why not?” he said.
Alongside his writing, Conley still pursues the work in the kitchen, including a team-up with fellow communication studies professor Jacob Thompson for the department’s annual welcome banquet. They cook for days in advance to get the feast — be it southern barbecue, Thai-Mexican, a burger bufftet, or a Roman spread — just so. If that’s not enough to recruit new professors to UNLV, we don’t know what is.
Philosophy | Judo
It was supposed to be a break from philosophy.
Paul Schollmeier, then a grad student at the University of Chicago, was looking for a break from studying; something to get him up and moving. Why not judo? It’s good exercise, and you learn a little self-defense.
It was supposed to be a break from philosophy, but some 30 years later, that’s not how it worked out.
“I soon discovered that judo is a very philosophical sport,” Schollmeier said. “At first I tried to ignore the philosophy of it because I was doing so much philosophy for my classes.”
After his doctorate, teaching those classes and launching his career took him away from the sport, but Schollmeier has come back to it in a big way, capturing third in his division at this year’s USA Judo Senior National Championships at the Westgate Resort & Casino in June.
He makes annual pilgrimages to Japan to study the sport, and he’s achieved the second level of black belt, nidan (judo has 10 student ranks and 10 distinct black belt ranks).
And of course, there’s that issue of philosophy seeping in.
“I’m starting to [incorporate Asian philosophy in my classes] probably because of judo,” Schollmeier said. “There’s a lot of Zen in judo. You have to be in the present moment in order to learn the techniques and compete. That’s a very important skill, to be able to be in the present.”