How two studios share dancers—and success
By Nancy Wozny
Buffalo is a dance town. It boasts one of the most vibrant studio cultures in western New York. It’s also filled with hardy people who know how to drive in a blizzard and help each other out, so it makes perfect sense that it’s home to a pair of studio owners who work together to train students. Leonard Castilone of David DeMarie Dance Studios and Maris Battaglia of American Academy of Ballet share a large group of advanced-level dancers.
“It all started with a performance at Artpark,” says Battaglia. In 1979 she and Castilone organized a joint performance for their studios that got the cooperative ball rolling. They have been working with each other for so long that they have a seamless rhythm and enjoy finishing each other’s sentences. Both agree that an important aspect of their cooperative spirit is the fact that they offer different programs. Battaglia runs a ballet academy; Castilone a top jazz and tap competition studio. “Our big deal is The Nutcracker,” says Battaglia. “Lenny knows that during heavy rehearsal time some kids might miss a few classes. But I try to keep conflicts to a minimum.”
The arrangement has some practical advantages. Because their schools emphasize different dance genres, they need each other to create technically well-rounded dancers. Sharing resources makes it easier to stay focused on what they do best.
Although Castilone offers ballet twice a week for his competition team, he sends his top students to Battaglia for further training. For her part, Battaglia knows that pure ballet is not for everyone, so why should she offer jazz and tap classes when an excellent studio is just down the street? The success of this symbiotic relationship shows in the fact that Castilone and Battaglia have been sharing students for 28 years of their 32-year friendship. Both believe in diverse training and want their students to get the best possible dance education. Theirs is an exclusive relationship, though; they do not refer their students to other studios.
Castilone has been a part of the DeMarie studio since its doors opened in 1968. As a student there, he studied with the school’s owner, Buffalo dance legend David DeMarie, and became a locally well-known performer and teacher. When DeMarie died of brain cancer in 1989, Castilone took over the school, maintaining its name to honor his mentor. He says his background in musical theater and training as a classical pianist comes in handy for teaching dance, and he continues to broaden his horizons by attending dance seminars every year. Today the school’s two studios, in Buffalo and Clarence, share a total enrollment of 1,150 students. Castilone is in the process of building a new facility to replace the current Clarence studio.
Battaglia received her early training at Ginger Burke School of Dance and the Royal Academy of Ballet in Buffalo. At 16, much to the dismay of her overprotective father, she headed off to the School of American Ballet in New York, where she trained until she decided it was time to return to her Buffalo roots. She started teaching a few children in her aunt’s basement but quickly outgrew the space. She opened the American Academy of Dance in 1965, now considered the premier ballet academy in the Buffalo area, and has since expanded to two locations with an average enrollment of 610 students. More than 75 of her students have danced with companies in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Battaglia received a 1997 Artists Excellence Award from the Chautauqua Institute, where she has been on the summer dance program faculty (a position she cherishes) since 1989. And in 1999 she was honored with a Western New York Dance Teacher Hall of Fame Award.
Although the two teachers’ studios are different, they share a similar culture in terms of dress code, classroom behavior, and expectations for their pre-professional students. “We both have the same ideas on discipline,” says Castilone. That consistency prevents students from having to change their hair, outfits, or attitudes as they move between schools.
The big events at Castilone’s school—the recital and regional competitions—happen in the spring. He and his students travel to nationals only every other year in order to keep expenses manageable. Schedules do get a bit tricky when both schools do their June concerts, but the scale is different. “We do a small concert in June,” says Battaglia. “And we do a huge show,” Castilone adds. Several students dance in both productions, which makes for one hectic month. Though it works out well most of the time, it’s a give-and-take situation. Both teachers have to be willing to allow some of their key students to miss rehearsals during crunch times; they know that goes with the student-sharing territory.
The success of this symbiotic relationship shows in the fact that Castilone and Battaglia have been sharing students for 28 years of their 32-year friendship.
So what’s their secret? Communication is key. “We talk all the time,” says Castilone. “We have to, so we can get our schedules straight.” He makes it easy for his students to study with Battaglia; his competition program for serious students meets three days a week, which meshes perfectly with Battaglia’s ballet classes on alternate days.
They also share a particularly dedicated group of parents. Tuition at two studios can add up, but both schools offer generous scholarships to serious students. Generally, the parents are pleased to be part of two dance-studio communities. One double-dipping studio mom reportedly remarked that the parents all know each other and do their best to help each other out during busy times.
“Each respects the other,” says another parent, Janine Bookbinder, “which makes it easy to have my daughter training at both studios.” Several parents named carpooling as the key to sanity in a six-day-a-week training schedule. It’s obvious from the congeniality in the schools’ waiting rooms that this group of dance parents enjoys hanging out together.
As for the students, they seem to enjoy their double life. They understand that versatility is important in today’s dance world, and they feel that two studios can offer broader training. “It’s fun to take class from different teachers,” says Genna Frietas, 13, whose mother danced at David DeMarie Studios as well. “I love the variety. It’s never boring!”
Taner Vankuren, 16, says that the training he gets from Battaglia gives him an extra edge when it comes to competitions. Battaglia and Castilone’s shared students routinely win high scores at the regional American Dance Awards competition, and several of them have gone on to professional success. Neil Haskell landed a role Twyla Tharp’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ and, at press time, was competing on TV’s So You Think You Can Dance. And Tiger Martina choreographed Penn and Teller’s Sin City Spectacular.
Some students find that once they start serious ballet training, that’s all they want to do, and vice versa for some of the jazz and tap students. But Battaglia and Castilone have an unspoken agreement not to mourn lost students. “When they leave one of us, we wish them well,” says Castilone. “Sometimes [my students] find they really just love ballet, and that’s great.” Both know that losing a few students is a risk they take in working together and feel their collaborative effort is well worth the sacrifice.
Though this cooperative venture may sound unique, Castilone and Battaglia don’t think it is. They are full of examples of how Buffalo people work together, whether it’s to shovel snow or put on a show. It’s obvious that they love working together and exchanging stories and news in their daily chats. Sharing students is a way to maintain their friendship. They can’t imagine not getting along; if they stopped sharing students, they say, they would need to find another way to keep connected. With such a positive working relationship, they keep their distance from negative studio relationships elsewhere in the city. “Competition is good,” says Castilone. “It keeps our standards high, but it’s much more fun to work together.”
Sharing students doesn’t work for everyone, Castilone and Battaglia admit. “There’s a good way to do it,” Castilone says. “And that’s what we figured out.” A friendship forged through a mutual dedication to quality dance education keeps this Buffalo duo going strong.