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New York and the Nobletts

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How summers in NYC transformed a dance family

By Darrah Carr

“Most people come to find their fortune in New York City at age 21. I did it in reverse. I came during middle age,” says Toni Noblett with a laugh. “It is amazing that you can do something completely different with your life at age 55.” Two years ago the dance teacher sold the studio that she had operated for 25 years in Roxboro, NC, and moved to New York City.

The Nobletts share a laugh together in New York in 2005. (Photo courtesy Casey Noblett)

Although Toni had a staff of six teachers by the time she sold her studio, in the beginning she taught every class herself. Over the years she had anywhere from 125 to 300 students to teach, in addition to collecting costume money, cleaning the bathrooms, and running the annual recital. “As a dance teacher, I’d have some of the same kids for 15 years. They became an extended family. The responsibilities extended to helping with college applications and dealing with family problems,” says Toni. “A dance studio in a small town can become a community center. I chose to be that involved and I don’t regret it, but it is an emotional cost.”

Toni’s studio family also included her own children, Casey and Cassidy, both of whom were at the studio from the time they could walk. Both have successful dance careers, and they credit their mom for exposing them to as much dance as possible, despite their rural location. Casey, 28, says, “Rather than sending her students to big conventions, my mom thought her budget would be better spent bringing in guest teachers. We had people like Chuck Davis and Barbara Duffy come to teach for a weekend at the studio. They’d stay at our house, and at the time we didn’t realize just how famous and talented they were.”

Toni developed a network of guest teachers to teach at her school during the summers, when she and her children were in New York City working with Jacques d’Amboise and the National Dance Institute, which he founded. “I met Jacques during a community class in North Carolina when I was 9,” Casey explains. “He invited me to come up to New York to take part in his five-week summer program. My mom taught tap for the National Dance Institute, made costumes, and worked as his assistant. Even after I aged out of the program at 15, my brother continued to study with him while I would take class at Steps and Broadway Dance Center. The experience allowed us to realize that you could make a career out of dance.”

Toni credits d’Amboise for having an incredible impact on their lives. “Jacques pulled us out of North Carolina and gave us a new perspective,” she says. “For five weeks each summer we’d get a sublet. We’d try a different neighborhood each year. We’d try different foods, go to museums and Broadway shows, and take dance classes. What an adventure!”

Those summers with d’Amboise were the roots of Toni’s eventual move to NYC. She joined the staff of Rosie’s Broadway Kids, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to bringing dance and music programs to public schools. Today, as faculty director and a teaching artist specializing in musical theater and tap, she doesn’t miss owning a studio. “I thought I would miss [it] terribly when I moved to New York,” Toni says. “But I don’t, because I’m teaching here and I realized that teaching is what I love. It doesn’t matter if the classes are held in Chinatown, or if the kids speak English as a second language, or if the kids I’m teaching are from rural Roxboro, NC.”

Toni also relishes the camaraderie of New York City’s tap community. “There are so many women here who are extraordinary, powerful dancers. And so many women who are not really young, but who are still dancing, performing, and passing on what they know. They are performing into their 70s and 80s. It is a constant reminder of where we get the tradition and richness of the craft,” she says. As part of her investment in the community, Toni is developing a tap syllabus for the American Tap Dance Foundation. “It’s a program for the little ones, ages 3 to 8. How do we make these kids become really good tap dancers? What do you do at that age? In thinking about how to train a really good musical tap dancer, you don’t start at age 8 or 9. You start from the first time they put their shoes on. Whereas an 8- or 9-year-old will be shy if asked to try something alone, a 3- or 4-year-old will run right over you!”

‘We’d try a different neighborhood [in New York City] each year. We’d try different foods, go to museums and Broadway shows, and take dance classes. What an adventure!’ —Toni Noblett

In Toni’s syllabus, musicality takes precedence over vocabulary. A secondary concern is making the students feel comfortable in the space by honoring their perceptions and contributions. “Every small child who comes into a studio has their own vision of what being a dancer is. They come in with the idea that they can already dance. They come in rattling their feet. Let them do that in a disciplined way and they’ll learn to improvise. Honor what they think tap is. That doesn’t mean that they run the class, but [it’s important to] craft a time in class where they can improvise,” Toni says. “Also, if you do the improv at the beginning of class, it gets the wiggles out and takes the edge off.”

Toni, who created a video called Creative Movement for 3- and 4-Year-Olds, hopes to make a tap DVD eventually. “Working on these projects has made me organize what I know,” she says. “As teachers, we often go in and teach off the top of our heads. But making the video and the syllabus encouraged me to think about how I do what I do and how I can do it better.” Compiling the syllabus also made Toni realize how much knowledge she has acquired over the years. “When coming from a small-town studio, we often second-guess ourselves. We’re not given credit for knowing what we’re doing. We’re too worried about making sure the parents are happy and the kids are happy,” she says. “But all of those years teaching regular kids in a small town—it was grad school for me.”

As for Casey, once she realized that dance was a career option, it was full steam ahead. Her business, N-House Productions (the name is a double entendre: “N” stands for “Noblett,” while “N-House” represents the idea that all of the work is done in-house), founded in 2002, is based on those experiences in NYC, plus her childhood exposure to guest teachers. By acting as the coordinator between studio owners and her own database of 40 industry professionals, Casey creates workshops and conventions that are tailor made for specific studios. She explains, “After college I was doing some guest teaching on my own, and studio owners would ask me if I knew a good tap teacher or a good jazz teacher. After my summers in New York, I knew 20 good tap teachers and 20 good jazz teachers! I want to bring guest teachers to cities all over the country. I’m finally able to do what my mom did for us, and it makes such a difference to the kids.”

Both Casey’s mom and brother are on staff as teachers and consultants at N-House Productions. Through his sister’s program, Cassidy, 23, frequently conducts workshops throughout the country. “Casey’s program is amazing! She brings New York and L.A. and Chicago to kids who don’t have the money to go away,” he says. “She creates a positive, rewarding atmosphere for kids, where they win ribbons based on workshopping rather than on competitions. She’ll give ribbons for the best smile or the best spirit. She took a great element that our mom gave to us and expanded upon it.”

When Cassidy is not traveling with N-House Productions he is in L.A., where he is pursuing a career in hip-hop. He has danced in videos and on tours and awards shows for artists such as Janet Jackson, Christina Aguilera, and the Black Eyed Peas. “Being from a small town, it was my passion to get out and see the cities where dance flourishes. That gave me an extra kick-start. Being from a small town makes you want it more, I think. Because I didn’t live where Broadway shows were happening, or where music was being released, or where award shows were being produced, I wanted to go find it.”

Watching her children flourish in the dance world pleases Toni, although she did not encourage them to be professional dancers. “I encouraged them to do what brought them joy. If it was dance, then great!” she says. “If, as a parent, you can help your child discover the thing in life that brings them joy, then you’ve done a good job. It is a happy accident that they happened to choose my profession.

“When I watch my kids dance, I feel it in my bones and in my body and it’s like I’m dancing with them,” Toni continues. “I think it’s a mother thing. I love to watch them dance. They dance like I see dance in my dreams.”

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