January 2011

THE BLUFFTON SCHOOL OF DANCE - Dawn Rosa Helps Feed The Latest Wave Of Dance Fever In The LowCountry

Author: David Tobias | Photographer: Kristian Lonyai

In the beginning there was Fred Astaire.

And Ginger Rogers, of course. Gene Kelly was cool in Singin’ in the Rain, but Astaire was the real deal. Ginger was arm candy to Fred who could float. And everyone danced.

Decades later, John Travolta strolled down a city street to the sound of shrill voices and started a craze that lasted a while—not long, just a while—but spin moves. A similar shrill was coming from another corner—Motown and Detroit, where five Jacksons had been discovered. And boy, could they dance.

The pace has quickened since, with music videos, MC Hammer, Madonna, Britney, Justin, Michael and now Glee. You may not see it in your humdrum daily life, but there is a surge of dance activity going on in Bluffton, too, just off Highway 278 in Sheridan Park—one of those tucked-away places that are always surprising, because somehow they’re way bigger than they look from the outside.

This particular evening, dozens of cars and trucks empty their contents of kids and parents all at once onto the shiny dark of parking lot tarmac. If you look closely, they’re all ages, but mostly girls, wearing leotards and sweatpants, although some of the smallest resemble cute little ducklings with frilly tutus sticking out under bundled coats on this cold December day. They’re all in a hurry, it seems, excited, whirling, twirling and gliding their way to the door. They stream into the Bluffton School of Dance and quite simply disappear.

It’s like a clown car.

Inside, kids and parents are scattered everywhere in a small space for a very short time. It’s bedlam, the sound of dozens of dancers preparing, until three studio doors open, kids flood in and only a sudden eerie silence is left in the office space and small hallways. Parents seem stunned, holding empty overcoats, hats and shoes. But behind those doors the kids line up, the music starts and they dance.

Dawn Rosa has seen the latest wave of dance fever close-up. She’s what you’d expect of a dance instructor and dance studio owner, only younger. She’s pretty, petite, energetic and engaging. Around her, in the small office space, accented in walls of brilliant lime green, are newspaper articles profiling her students’ success stories: Katherine Stanus, a Bluffton graduate, who trains with the Joffrey in New York; members of the Bluffton “company” who met Paula Abdul before she was crazy and controversial; pictures of tiny dancers as young as two, and girls in dance poses all grown up.

This is clearly a passion for Rosa who seems to manage all of it effortlessly. She was 22 and just out of college when she moved to Bluffton eight years ago and took over the studio from its first owner Ashley Bozard. Bozard chose to sell the studio and take her bows during her pregnancy; but her daughter, Mary Clanton, is now a member of Rosa’s dance company, an indication that a dance community is tight and just one part of a circle of life.

For the school, that circle includes seven teachers and several part-time staff, including Rosa’s father Ric who is bookkeeper, invaluable handyman and set designer for recitals. The instructors are experienced and just as dedicated as Rosa and allow the school to offer jazz, tap, hip-hop, lyrical and contemporary dance classes in addition to adult classes in Zumba, Danze and even Yollet, a combination of yoga and ballet.

Rosa has been a dancer since she was two, growing up in New Jersey and training in programs and studios managed by Dan Karaty, who worked with NSync, Britney Spears, and The Backstreet Boys and starred in Broadway productions including Footloose. Karaty is now a choreographer with So You Think You Can Dance and is part of the whole exploding Hollywood dance scene.

“I learned a lot from the Karatys, a lot of wonderful steps and moves and routines, but I also learned what not to become,” said Rosa. “At times it was high drama, the stage moms, the whole bit.”

She says she learned to teach at the age of 15 but didn’t major in dance in college. Instead, she was a psychology major at Clemson University, dancing with the Clemson Rally Cats on the side, but focusing on her child psychology studies that she says come into play nearly every day as a dance teacher, allowing her to frame a philosophy, provide a sense of family, promote backstage etiquette, instill a love for the art of dance, and encourage discipline, balance and friendship.

“I always knew I wanted to teach,” she said, “and I see that a lot in the kids I teach today.”

She’s passionate about making the whole dance experience meaningful for kids on many levels, well beyond dance itself, although she’s concerned that sometimes dance delivers the wrong message.

“Several months ago in California, it was the perfect storm,” said Rosa. “Something appeared on YouTube that made for major drama—the wrong song, the wrong moves, the wrong costume and it doesn’t take much for it to go viral and give the whole genre a bad name. It’s like the difference between Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. Both are entertainment, but one instructs and inspires and the other is much more narrow—mostly ballroom—and sometimes tears down dance and makes it seem silly.”

There’s room for silly—behind those studio doors, kids are having lots of fun—but the Bluffton School of Dance, with Rosa’s guidance, puts special emphasis on providing opportunities for kids and families to learn life skills through dance. Lots of kids have “gifts” for dance, but they may lack discipline and the willingness to work hard, she said.

For others “dreams are becoming possibilities,” Rosa said. “Disappointment is built in, but reward is reachable. In dance, just as in theater, when you pursue it professionally, there’s the potential for 85 percent rejection. Learning that at an early age instills humility and modesty, and that builds strength of character.”

At all levels in the school, from the “Tiny Dancers” starting at two to the “Twinklers,” ages five and six to the “Munchkins” and “Minis,” six to eight and eight to 10; on up to “Juniors,” from 10 to 13 and “Seniors,” from 13 to 18, classes are constant but the “company” is always present as a goal within a goal.

Company members (31 total this year of the nearly 250 who take classes at the school) travel and compete and are comprised of students who take a certain number of classes, audition and are then recommended by outside teachers—this past year from Orlando, Los Angeles and New York. For those who make it, their year is nearly defined by dance: seven days a week for some, sometimes dancing seven hours a day and having a chance to travel to dance in places like Chicago, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

For Ruthie Trask, age 16 and a member of the senior company, dance provides “friends who understand me.” Alexys Hickey, 14, has taken advantage of opportunities to earn dance scholarships to perpetuate her love of dance and allow her to take more classes and travel. She considers her dance friends “her family.” Challenges, for Sierra Laster, also 14, include “having to juggle so much studio and rehearsal time with school and friends.”

But it’s worth it.

Even the really young ones like Micaelann Gies, all of seven years old, agree it’s worth it. What other pursuit at that age allows you to travel to competitions in Greenville, S.C. and Orlando and dance at tree lighting festivals and win the prize for a float in a Christmas parade without even being a float (must have been the Bluffton Christmas parade!).

Micaelann lights up when asked about dance and fires a fist pump in the air.

“I’m in the company,” she said.

Humility and modesty start early in dance, but so does pride.

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