Founder’s daughter sticks to what’s worked for 65 years
By Neil Ellis Orts
After 65 years, Miss Jeanne’s School of Dance Arts must be doing something right. Last Memorial Day weekend saw more than 60 adult dancers, ranging in age from late teens to 60-something, performing a finale for the school’s 65th recital. Some of those dancers had to drive or fly to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to participate in this special alumni number, but that goes to show the dedication and loyalty Miss Jeanne’s commands among its students.
Founded in 1945 by Jeanne Meixell, the school has been in the same building for the last 45 years, teaching countless students all aspects of the dance arts from ballet to tap to jazz. About 400 students now take class in the school’s four studios. Meixell retired in the early 1990s. The school continues on with her daughter, Barbara Piotrowski, as director, assisted by an office manager and a secretary. Of her five teachers, four are Miss Jeanne’s alumni.
These days Piotrowski mostly teaches students 10 years old and younger. She still visits all the classes regularly and she substitutes for regular teachers if they are absent. “I’m teaching everybody at some time during the year,” she says.
This is the only life she ever wanted, Piotrowski says. She grew up in the dance studio environment and began teaching at 17, then left home and lived in New York briefly. But she never intended to stay. “I studied in New York on scholarship at June Taylor’s school,” she says, “but I knew I always wanted to be in Bethlehem and [be] part of the dance studio.”
Since her mother retired, Piotrowski says, the biggest change has been the erosion of the camaraderie that her mother had with other studio owners. “It’s not like it was years ago when my mother was very prominent in the business and the local dance teachers would get together perhaps one time a month to go out to lunch,” she says.
“People don’t do that today,” she continues. “I don’t know if it’s a busier world, but I remember my mother always going out to lunch with four dancing teachers. There are many more schools and when we see each other here and there, we say, ‘Hi, how are you,’ but it’s not sitting down and breaking bread together.”
She fondly remembers going to Steel Pier, an amusement park in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as a student. “Our studio was invited to dance on the Tony Grant [Stars of Tomorrow] show [there]. That was a big thing at that time,” she recalls. “And we always enjoyed the extracurricular activities that took place outside the studio—dancing in Christmas shows, dancing in parades.”
One thing that hasn’t changed too much for Piotrowski is running the school. “I think, because my mother and I worked so closely for so many years, it’s been running pretty much the same way, with the same ideas and the same rules and regulations,” she says.
“What has changed in the dance world is the music, the ’60s music versus what’s playing today. That changes the look of things and keeps it current. You try to go out of your box each year to make it different. That’s where your creativity has to step up. But as far as running the studio, I think pretty much of it is the same way my mother ran things. Tried and true.”
Over the decades, many of Miss Jeanne’s students have had dance careers—dancing on Broadway or cruise ships or running dance studios. Piotrowski, however, doesn’t see pursuing a dance career as the only reason to study dance. “It’s wonderful to watch children grow in the art of dance instead of sitting in front of the TV or computer as they do today,” she says. “They use their dance, all the poise they get, in their jobs as they grow up, in their interviews. I just wrote a letter of recommendation for one of my fellas; he’s up for the drama teacher [position] at one of our local high schools.”
As for the school’s namesake, Meixell “looks wonderful,” says her daughter, but suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. “My mother is now in a senior assisted-living program and walks with a walker,” Piotrowski says. “But if I say to her, ‘Mom, do step shuffle ball change,’ she’ll stand up with her walker and do step shuffle ball change.”
Piotrowski’s mother attended as much of the 65th-anniversary festivities as she could, such as the alumni luncheon. “I don’t think she stopped dancing at the luncheon,” Piotrowski says. After arranging for the DJ to play “One” from A Chorus Line on her cue, she fixed her mother’s hair and makeup, then led her back into the room. “When she heard that music, she even pushed the walker aside. She used the walker as a prop and danced around it!”
Dealing with Alzheimer’s is difficult, for both Piotrowski and her mother. “Here’s a woman who has this very sad disease,” Piotrowski says. “Sometimes I talk to her and she has no idea what I’m talking about. I have no idea what she’s talking about. But the common bond of dancing brings her right back. They tell me all the time that she’s trying to teach everybody how to dance at the assisted living [facility]. How wonderful!”
She remembers working with her mother on dance studio business, like selecting costumes, and notes how much of their relationship has been lost. “Now she doesn’t understand. We did that all our lives and we can’t share that anymore.”
Still, with sadness a real part of her life, Piotrowski remains upbeat about her life in dance. “Dance is a very happy career. I have wonderful customers. Maybe I have two or three who give me a little trouble, and maybe those two or three will keep me awake at night,” she says. “But I always have to go back and remember how many wonderful people are at the studio and with the 65th recital, how many people came back to respect and support the studio.”
As the new school year was about to begin, Piotrowski was looking forward. The alumni reunion was a lot of work, but then every recital is—and all that work is coupled with fun and excitement. “I’ll put the same amount of time and energy into the 66th as I did in the 65th,” she says. “It’s not like this isn’t as important. Oh, yes it is.”