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Dancing Dadz Steal the Show

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Cutting the frou-frou gets students’ fathers onto the floor

By Lisa Traiger

Perhaps it’s the abundance of pink, the overpowering scent of hairspray, or the lingering rustle of tulle and flash of sequins that make fathers feel out of sorts in the dance studio environment. They hover, waiting for a daughter’s class to end, eyes not straying from their BlackBerries® or laptops, ears glued to their cell phones. The less secure among them circle the parking lot like blackbirds seeking a roost. It’s the mothers who take advantage of the lobby sofas to read a novel, peruse a magazine, catch up with friends, or trade supermarket coupons.

The Dancing Dadz added some “Greased Lightning” to the opening ceremonies for a 2002 Somerset Patriots baseball game.(Photo by Kathleen Cirioli)

Kathleen Cirioli knows plenty about the differences between dance moms and dance dads. She’s been teaching for more than 35 years and in 1971 founded her Hillsborough, NJ-based studio, Kathleen Academy of Dance. About an hour outside of New York City in central New Jersey, KAD serves about 750 families and offers between 90 and 100 classes a week. “We pretty much have three classrooms going all the time,” she says. Although tap is her strong suit, Cirioli and her staff teach ballet, jazz, lyrical, hip-hop, kickline, Tiny Tots, and a variety of adult classes.

Before Cirioli decided to tap into her school’s population of fathers, “periodically we would hear a dad say, ‘Oh, I would like to do that, but I don’t want to be the only guy dancing,’ ” she says. “A typical male mentality, I would say.” In 1996 she decided to offer a class for dads and see what happened. Since then, in some years up to 40 men have reported to rehearsal for the annual June recital. “They are the hit of the show,” Cirioli says proudly.

Parent Bill Mellott puts it more baldly: “We’re a bunch of injured, out-of-shape old guys. We know we’re not dancers. We’re there for the entertainment value. But we have a lot of fun.” The father of Allison, an 18-year-old senior who has been dancing with Miss Kathleen since she was 3 ½, Mellott père knows that the spotlight and greasepaint aren’t in his future. He teaches elementary school PE and coaches varsity high school football and track teams in Hillsborough. His days are long and hectic. But—and this is the key to why many dads decide to participate over the years—he says, “I did it because my daughter asked me to and I’ll do anything for my kids. So I figured I’d give it a shot.”

Mellott, father of two, was part of Cirioli’s very first class of Dancing Dadz. This year he’ll watch his daughter graduate and expects to hand over his spot in the lineup to someone else. (His son, Willy, now 16, danced briefly in elementary school before his interest turned to sports.)

Jim Ziemba, a Hillsborough registered nurse and father of two, also signed on because of his daughter’s urging. This is his third year with the Dancing Dadz and he loves both the challenge and the camaraderie of the six-week rehearsal period.

Cirioli and teacher Joanne Liscovitz figured out early how to cater to dance dads without overwhelming them. “We know how difficult [fathers’] schedules are,” Cirioli says. “They’re not like moms who come all year long to our adult classes.” The dads are recruited in the spring and attend 9:00 p.m. rehearsals over a six-week period starting in May. The final recital, with six performances, takes place in June. “It’s a short commitment,” Cirioli says, “and I think that’s what has made it very successful.”

‘We’re a bunch of injured, out-of-shape old guys. We know we’re not dancers. But we have a lot of fun.’ —Dancing Dad Bill Mellott

Most of the dads will agree. With their intense work schedules and family and community obligations, most of them could not imagine committing to a year of classes, dance or otherwise. But six weeks? That’s more like it.

Still, Cirioli reports with a smile, those weeks are intense. Outside of the one-night-a-week rehearsal, some of the men choose to get together on their own for a boys’ night out. Or they go out for a drink after the two-hour rehearsal and can’t stop themselves from practicing their steps and formations right there in the bar. Liscovitz supplies each of them with a CD of the music for their dance, and many say they play it repeatedly on their car stereos. She also gives them a cheat sheet with the steps written out in an effort to avoid too much re-teaching at the start of each rehearsal.

As the weeks go on a true sense of camaraderie develops. The men range in age from young fathers in their 20s to those in their 60s, and in their work lives they are business professionals, medical personnel, teachers, construction workers—you name it. But it’s dance and their daughters that bring them together. Each year when they return, before they start learning their new steps, the old-timers take a few minutes to catch up on what their daughters have accomplished in the past year.

The dance numbers that Liscovitz fashions for these once-a-year dancers are simple and take into account that some dads might be athletic while others have trouble knowing their right foot from their left. Sports and action-movie themes prove popular with both the fathers and their audiences. One year it was the Beach Boys, with boogie boards as props; another year, baseball with Yankees uniforms and a Macarena thrown in. They’ve also done two-stepping cowboys and, last year, a basketball number from High School Musical, which proved to be a huge hit with the 14-and-under daughters.

Mellott liked the year they did a Men in Black–inspired number, while Pete Rybaski, whose daughter, Joanne, 31, returned to KAD after she finished graduate school, favored the surf number. When Rybaski’s daughter was dancing as a teenager there was no Dancing Dadz group, but he promised her that if she returned to dancing he would give it a shot as well. Now 63, Rybaski, who lives in Manville and works at Johnson & Johnson, might be the oldest of the Dancing Dadz, but he has no plans to stop. “I’m in shape and I figure I’ll just keep doing it for as long as I can,” he says, noting that his daughter approves.

The six-week intensive rehearsal period is no walk in the park, but all the men emphasize how much they enjoy it. “At first it was really hard for me to remember everything,” Rybaski admits, “but I get it eventually, and truthfully we have a lot of fun. [Our teacher] doesn’t give us really hard steps because we have to learn them—and then we grow into it.”

Ziemba, the registered nurse, is going on his third year with the Dancing Dadz. His daughter, Mary, 12, started dancing at 4. And while he spends plenty of time coaching baseball and basketball for his son, James, 13, he didn’t focus much on Mary’s dance life—that is, until she urged him to join the Dancing Dadz. “I find it a unique way to share an experience with my daughter,” he says. “She plays softball and basketball and I coach her in those, but they tend to be my activities that she participates in. But this is hers. When I’m backstage with her, it’s hers and only hers. It gives me the opportunity to share something special with her.”

Allison Mellott, who takes the school’s weekly lyrical class, loves to watch her dad onstage. “It’s really neat to see him up there,” she says. A high school senior, she is in her last year at the studio. (Cirioli always honors her 30 to 40 graduating seniors and their dancing fathers at the end of the performance.) While Bill Mellott most likely won’t be back next year, he looks forward to encouraging fathers with younger daughters to join up.

The men have been impressed by how much effort, coordination, and intellect it takes to make a good dancer and a good dance number. Ziemba says, “Going through this process gives me a better appreciation of what the teachers are accomplishing with the dancers, meaning my daughter, and what the dancers are accomplishing by performing their dance. I find it a challenging activity, sometimes frustrating, but very rewarding.”

How to Start a Dads Group
Kathleen Academy of Dance owner Kathleen Cirioli recommends limiting expectations. Most men won’t make a yearlong commitment, but six weeks is manageable even for very busy dads.

Charge a reasonable amount for tuition. Remember, you’ll be spending hours burning CDs, looking for costumes, and simplifying steps. And the men will be more likely to attend all the rehearsals if they paid for them.

Pick a rehearsal time that doesn’t conflict with sports, their daughters’ dance classes, and homework time. The Dancing Dadz rehearse at 9:00 p.m. for two hours one evening a week, which gives them time to get home from work, eat dinner, and spend time with their families.

Keep it simple. Cirioli reports having had as many as 40 dads in a performance, so the easier the routine, the better. “We do a lot of basic jazz steps, lots of large movements, lots of arm movements, lots of things that look big from the audience, like lines changing and entrances and exits,” she says.

Pick a theme that men will like. Sports are the top choice, as are popular movies. Cirioli and her main Dancing Dadz teacher, Joanne Liscovitz, have done baseball, basketball, boxing, surfing, and cowboy themes and even Saturday Night Fever–style disco with vintage John Travolta moves.

Cirioli recommends using props, because they give the men something tangible to do in the choreography, and simple, comfortable costumes. She has put the men in sports uniforms, blue jeans, black suits, and Hawaiian shirts over the years.

Relish the spotlight. The KAD Dancing Dadz do. They’ve been invited to perform at the town’s annual Fourth of July festivities and have appeared on the local community cable channel. —LT

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