Tales of largesse and kindness were DSL mainstays
by Heather Turbeville
Above a childlike drawing of a dancer onstage are the words “The stage is like a second home for me.” The author of this statement is Amy, a student in Dance Another World, which teaches English through dance to nonnative speakers. Her grasp of English is clear. So is her affection for her teacher, who also appears in the drawing. “I love Mis Milisa,” Amy wrote.
In one of the many photos of Caroline Poppell’s Haitian students, Mags stands in fifth position. Wearing a bathing suit the color of the beach beneath her, she curves her sand-covered arms above her head, and looks down at her feet, the right heel angled to meet the left big toe. She may live in one of the poorest countries in the world, but she is dancing on the beach.
Just as dance education is about more than teaching steps, Dance Studio Life (and before that, Goldrush) has been about more than the nuts and bolts of collecting tuition, selling recital tickets, and attracting new customers.
More than a decade before stories about Poppell’s Milk Carton on a String and Dawn Mann’s Dance Another World appeared in the December 2017 issue of DSL, former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Evelyn Cisneros shared her own inspirational story. Cisneros wrote in the September/October 2005 issue of Goldrush about giving a pair of shabby and deshanked pointe shoes that she used to warm up in to a young girl who requested them for her sister.
Two years later, the girl who had asked for the shoes again approached Cisneros. “You made her so happy” with those shoes, she said of her sister. “That night, after I gave her your shoes, she was killed in a car accident. I think about that all the time—how the last night of her life was so special—and I wanted to thank you.” According to Cisneros, “That moment was my confirmation that taking time for a child can be life changing, and is really all we have to give.”
DSL has always been about how those in the dance education field make a difference in others’ lives—drawing a cripplingly shy child out of her shell, giving a disadvantaged child a sense of self-worth, making a child with special needs feel like he belongs—and how students, families, and the community can make a difference in theirs. It’s about heart.
Colleagues, not competitors
Imagine posing for pictures in matching T-shirts with other studio owners at a competition. Imagine owning one studio and guest teaching at another, where the kids know you and are excited to see you. As reported in July 2016, these are just two of the things that four studio owners from Michigan do (“Sister Studios”).
Imagine trading emails, enjoying lunches, and collaborating with the directors of competing studios. Imagine being happy that kids from your school talk to kids from these other studios. In 2011 five studio directors in the North Florida and South Georgia area experienced all of these things as they worked together to put on a performance that raised more than $5,700 for Florida State University’s School of Dance (“Friends Through Dance,” August 2011).
Imagine that you are a 21-year-old dance teacher, and your 23-year-old friend is diagnosed with cancer (“Giving Back: Dancers for All,” March/April 2010). Ali Dietz was that teacher, and the fundraising event she organized in honor of her friend became Dancers Give Back. “I think this event has brought our dance community even closer together,” Dietz said. “It has not only made the dancers here more aware of all, it has also shown them that their dancing can be put to use for a larger purpose.” The first event in 2008 included 15 western New York studios; last year, it was up to 40-plus studios and affiliated businesses.
Imagine losing your husband in a car accident, and then losing your house and moving into your parents’ basement with your two children, Christmas approaching. Imagine going to the studio where you taught dance before your life was turned upside-down to find three boxes overflowing with toys, gift certificates, and food baskets. Imagine finding out that this was all the work of a different studio owner, whose students gave up their Christmas party and pitched in with their parents to donate items and get donations from community businesses. Tina Fosman of Carlene Nazarian Dance Center in Salem, New Hampshire, doesn’t have to imagine. This is what Teresa Lynn Desrosiers, who ran Salem Dance Network for 24 years, and her studio families did for Fosman in 2006 (“True Meaning of Christmas,” December 2007).
Special studios for special kids
Do you recall standing in tap shoes for the first time? Or the first time you remembered a combination? Probably not, but it’s not hard to think about how difficult it would be to do those things with a gross motor-skill disorder or a cognitive impairment. These are things that Sheila Dollas, profiled in May/June 2012, has seen at Moving Miracles, which caters exclusively to students with special needs.
On the other end of the spectrum is Dance Innovations. Susan McCutcheon Coutts’ Chatham, New Jersey, studio teaches special-needs kids alongside the other students in dance classes. And even if a special-needs student can’t pay, he or she isn’t turned away (“Smooth Sailing in the Mainstream,” August 2011).
Countless other studio owners and teachers have seen special-needs students run to their parents after class to show them what they learned, witnessed a special-needs student becoming the girl the other students watch when they can’t remember the steps, and noticed that a special-needs student with flat feet developed arches after taking dance classes.
Removing financial barriers
The mother of a prospective student has just been diagnosed with cancer and can no longer afford to register her daughter for classes. What would you do? In 2004, Deb Collier, owner of Debra Collier’s School of Dance in Warsaw, Indiana, not only gave this girl free dance classes but also provided her with everything she needed to take class and perform; studio families even gave the girl Christmas and birthday presents and provided meals for her family (“Making Dance Wishes Come True,” May/June 2009).
Eleanor Rubino, now retired after teaching for more than 60 years, let a mother and daughter clean the studio in exchange for classes (“The 60-Years-and-Up Club,” July 2007). At Alexander Academy of Performing Arts in Makawao, Hawaii, a pay-what-you-can system allows financially struggling families to clean the studio, maintain the landscaping, and fix the plumbing in exchange for lessons. DSL’s May/June 2014 story also explained that those who can afford it not only pay for their children’s tuition but pitch in a little extra to help the others. “Everyone helps out when things need to happen, everyone steps in and takes care of one another,” owner Danelle Watson said.
Imagine having students who give free performances at nursing homes and public schools, who create stocking stuffers for senior citizens, who participate in performances to raise money for a memorial to 9/11’s Flight 93.
Imagine one of your studio parents sewing 35 romantic pink tutus. Imagine a family that contributes scholarships to your studio in memory of their daughter, who used to dance there.
Imagine families wielding paint brushes and hammers to help renovate a new studio space. Imagine them carrying furniture and shelving and lockers inside.
Imagine being one of these teachers or studio owners. Now stop imagining. You don’t have to. These people are you.
DSL copy editor Heather Turbeville holds an MFA in creative writing and literature from Emerson College. She lives in San Francisco, where she writes fiction, studies belly dance, and performs with The Zakiyya Dancers.