Florida studio finds a niche for its high school grads
By Eliza Randolph
For most dance students, graduating from high school means leaving their studio behind. Studio teachers “raise” generations of dance students and, for the most part, say goodbye to them at 17 or 18 years of age. Some students go on to major or minor in dance in college, but for those who do not, dance may recede along with other beloved aspects of childhood. What about those dancers who don’t choose to major in dance but wish to continue taking class and performing while in college?
Throughout most of the country, they have few options other than adult classes, which often serve a much older population. But over the last three years in Tallahassee, Florida, Melinda Allen, owner of Tallahassee Dance Academy, has created a unique experience for eight of her students who fit into this particular niche.
“I originally started with just [offering them] a class,” she says. “Because they found that if they took a dance class somewhere, it really wasn’t an upper-level class, not at their level.” Although Florida State University, with its high-caliber dance program, sits just down the road, it does not offer a dance minor and classes for non-majors are limited.
In addition to the class, Allen began searching for competitions that could accommodate the older teens, who had enjoyed competing with her studio when they were younger. In addition to the class, says Allen, her group had enjoyed competitions when younger at her studio, so she began searching for competitions that could accommodate their age group. Not many do, but she was able to find enough opportunities for the girls to compete and perform. Thus, the Tallahassee Advanced Collegiate Team (TACT) was born.
“What I’m trying to do,” says Allen, “is not only allow them to continue their dance education and be able to still compete and do the things they love, but also show them other avenues of the art. A lot of times, growing up within the studio, you really don’t understand what it takes to find the music, come up with the idea and the costume and the choreography. How do you decide who does the piece, or doesn’t? So they have really had the opportunity to experience all that as part of the group, too.”
To expose the girls to diverse areas of the dance field, Allen tries to find a range of other activities for TACT in addition to performing, competing, and taking class. Last year the group took a trip to Los Angeles, where the girls took classes from several professionals and modeled for a dance costume company. Allen says, “We try to do some things outside of the box from what their experience was in their younger years.” TACT members also assist with teaching, develop some of their own choreography, and participate in community projects such as fund-raisers and parades.
TACT member Lindsey Allen (Melinda’s daughter) most appreciates the chance to continue performing. But she also loves, she says, “all the activities we do around town and getting the kids together, doing the Festival of Lights. We get the kids together and make up a little combination, decorate a float, and do the parade too.”
Stephanie Dick, another TACT member who graduated this year, agrees. “I love to perform. But as I’m getting older I’m really loving helping with the children and I’m hoping to pursue that, getting into teaching.” TACT has, she says, “really opened up some opportunities for us. We’ve been able to perform and then grow with our choreography, and see where that takes us.”
With such a love of dance, you might wonder why these girls chose not to pursue it in college. Lindsey Allen, who plans to take over her mother’s studio eventually, says, “I’ve always and still do want to be a teacher and take over the studio, but at the same time, I didn’t want to major in [dance] as well. I decided to take more classes geared toward business.”
Dick acknowledges the difficult choice she made. “In high school, I was extremely involved in dance and really interested in politics. So I went through a battle of deciding if I wanted to do dance or a career in politics.” Ultimately, she decided to major in political science and public policy rather than dance. But TACT kept her from feeling that she had to give up dancing altogether.
Both girls feel they have grown in their art as they’ve continued dancing past high school. “In high school, you kind of just go through the motions,” says Dick. “As you mature, you go through college and you change as a person. You’re able to change the way you look at dancing. It’s not just going to the studio and learning a routine. Now, it’s like more coming from you. Melinda allows us to put in our own two cents, and our own choreography, and mesh. And you’re able to build your passion through it.”
Her performance ability has grown as well, she says. “The stage is more like a home; it’s more natural, and you feel more connected with your audience as you mature.”
Lindsay Allen notes the change in her perspective just a few years out of high school, commenting on “how much different it is performing and dancing.”
For Melinda Allen and her staff, the chance to watch a group of students grow and deepen their love of dance beyond high school has proven deeply satisfying. “It’s nice having an older group; we feed off of each other,” she says. “They’ve put in a lot of input, even in their own choreography or ideas for their pieces. I have really enjoyed that aspect of it too.”
Studio partner and teacher Cricket Mannheimer says she’s delighted with the girls’ progress. “To watch them physically and emotionally grow and develop has just been overwhelming,” she says.
Such a unique offering must surely increase the visibility and appeal of Tallahassee Dance Academy. Allen does include TACT in her studio marketing, “letting people know it is something that we offer, because it’s something you don’t find at other studios,” she says. “And we try to market it at the college [FSU] too, so that the kids know that it’s available.”
Allen charges tuition for the class but no fees for membership in TACT, although the girls must cover the cost of their own travel. But, she says, “I try to do it the best I can for them, because you are dealing with college kids at this point. The money is coming straight from them. So it’s not like it’s some great business move for the studio; it’s more the passion of me wanting them to have the opportunity than anything else.”
Mannheimer agrees, saying, “It’s been so wonderful to see that dance is incorporated in such a big part of their life. This can be a part of your life like eating and breathing or going to school. It can continue; it has given a pathway for that to develop and keep going.”
Meanwhile, Dick is close to finishing her undergraduate degree. She still wants to go into politics and she still wants to keep dancing. “As I’m coming up to graduation, it’s getting a little scary,” she says. “I’m going to try to do both and see what happens in the next few years.”