Photos Courtesy of Carole and Chuck Alchermes
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By Julie Ross
One day this past June, Christine Kohler headed to the gazebo at Denville’s Gardner Field to attend what she had been told would be a graduation party for a family friend. But when she arrived there, she learned that the event was really a surprise party being held in her honor, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her Danceworks dance school.
Kohler’s family members, including her husband, Carl, and daughters Frannie and Cassidy—all of whom were in on the secret and were instrumental in organizing the event—were there. So were some Danceworks alumni, as well as some current students and their families. During the party, Kohler was presented with a scrapbook filled with reminiscences and messages from students. The last page of the scrapbook is emblazoned with one of Kohler’s favorite sayings: “You can take the girl out of Danceworks, but you can’t take the Danceworks out of the girl.”
But there was a time when Kohler, who trained at the New Jersey School of Ballet as well as at many studios in New York City, is certified to teach all core dance subjects through the Teacher Training School of professional dancers’ organization Dance Masters of America, and holds a certification from Associated Dance Teachers of New Jersey, was not entirely sure Danceworks would reach such a milestone. In 1993, she purchased what was then the Livingston School of Dance from Patricia Hirt Burns, who had operated it since the 1950s and whose photograph still hangs on one of the studio’s walls. While the business was quickly renamed to its current moniker, it remained for 14 years at its original location, on the second floor of 1 West Main Street in downtown Denville, above Denville Shoe Repair and across from the iconic clock tower Kohler and her team affectionately called “Big Den.” During that period, enrollment at the studio increased from around 75 students to more than 300 and quarters grew cramped, but neither Kohler nor her students and staff wanted to move.
“I was nervous; I thought I might have to close the school,” Kohler recalls. There was no need: Shortly after learning about the lease termination, Kohler found out by chance that a storefront at 469 East Main Street, which would allow the school to expand from one cramped studio space to two and offer a larger waiting area as well as eliminate the need rent space elsewhere to accommodate Danceworks’ roster of classes, was available.
“The ‘For Rent’ sign had just gone up when we drove by,” she notes. “It seemed meant to be, so we signed the lease right away.”
Kohler says she would not have done so had the potential space been located anywhere but in Denville.
“It was Denville, or nothing,” she observes. “This is such a unique, family-oriented town with a lot of spirit and people who are passionate about it. That’s a rarity.”
Kohler also could not bear the thought of not participating in the activities of the Denville business community, such as the Holiday Open House held in downtown Denville to kick off the holiday shopping season. Kohler had organized the event several times—“It was mine,” she says, and while the studio is no longer located downtown, she is still very much involved in business activities. In 2014, she was named Business Person of the Year by the Denville Chamber of Commerce.
Despite being able to remain in Denville, Kohler admits, she knew that moving Danceworks from its original quarters to the new space would be difficult for herself, as well as for her students. To make the transition easier, she organized a “closing ceremony” where students, teachers, and students’ families gathered at the old studio and formed a circle in the middle, with each person holding a flower. Burns’ daughter, Robin Bachman, was also in attendance, as was her granddaughter, Jennifer Burns.
One by one, attendees shared recollections of their experience in the old studio and placed their flower in a basket to create a “basket of memories” that would be taken to 469 East Main Street. Recollections and sentiments ranged from, “For every time I fell in this room” and “For being my second home for 11 years” to “For scratchy speakers” and, from a parent, “For watching the girls grow up here.”
The reminiscences complete, the group—along with the basket of flowers and with balloons and dance canes in hand—walked parade-style to the studio’s new home. More celebration followed there.
Like many other local dance schools, Danceworks continues to attract students with classes in a variety of genres, such as classical ballet, jazz and tap; students’ ages range from two years old to adult. The studio has a team of 10 instructors, including Kohler, and follows the syllabus designed by Dance Masters of America to ensure that all classes at the same level in each genre are the same, even if they are taught by different instructors.
“Consistency of instruction is very important,” emphasizes Kohler.
However, there are features and practices Kohler describes as differentiating Danceworks from the pack and contributing to its growth. An emphasis on the non-competitive side of dance tops the list; the studio’s tagline is, “Denville’s choice for high-quality, non-competitive dance instruction,” and its mantra, “Dream, believe. Imagine, achieve.” Although there is an annual recital, dance competitions are neither held nor participated in as a school.
“I think the dance industry as a whole does a disservice by emphasizing the way dancers look, and by supporting the competitive aspect,” asserts Kohler. “It should be about how they feel—not about costumes, who’s an ‘A’ dancer and who’s a ‘B’ dancer on the ‘A’ and ‘B’ team. Here, the focus in all classes is to instill in students an appreciation and enjoyment of the art of dance, while creating a positive experience for everyone and instilling a belief that if they want to dance, they can.
“We’ve had students leave here and go on to more professional dance training, and becoming professional dancers, but at Danceworks, students who are here simply because they appreciate dance can dance confidently beside those who may be pursuing higher education in dance and maybe, a career.”
Supporting this approach, Kohler discourages—if not outright forbids—“showiness” in student dress. Students wear traditional garb, such as leotards and tights, or, in the case of jazz or tap dance classes, jazz or tap pants Traditional and modest, rather than revealing, costumes- “no booty shorts,” according to Kohle, are the norm for recitals, and makeup is optional on recital day.
Additionally, set guidelines apply to the choice of music for classes and recitals; songs with profanity and reference to sex, drugs, and the like cannot be used.
“The standards are a little challenging for our hip-hop instructors, but they manage, and it works out for everyone,” says Kohler.
The list also includes innovative programs. For example, a new “Dance With Me” program focuses on creative movement for girls and boys ages two to three years. Available in eight-week sessions during the fall and spring seasons and in a four-week session during the summer, the non-recital class has a new theme each week; the children, along with their caregivers, enjoy songs, games, props, and stories.
A class for three-year-olds consists of pre-ballet and tumbling; children learn several basic ballet steps while improving their gross motor coordination by working on age-appropriate skills, like standing and hopping on one foot, skipping, galloping, and jumping. Creative movement and structured imaginative play—for example, moving like different animals, floating in magic boats, and trying out new butterfly wings—occupy a significant portion of class time.
Additionally, several years ago, a desire to give back to the community led Kohler to form “The Moving Company,” a troupe of Danceworks students age 10 and up who perform at various locations, facilities and events, starting in the fall with the Denville Farmers Market and closer to the winter holidays, the Denville Open House, then extending out to nursing homes and the like. Members have also performed at the Denville Historical Society’s holiday pageant.
The program is non-competitive, with no audition required in order to participate in it. Any Danceworks’ student who meets the age requirement, is willing to commit to a performance season that spans several months, and picks up choreography fast (or is amenable to learning quickly) is welcome.
“Older people, in particular, love seeing The Moving Company; we try to put together our repertoire to cater to them with our singing and dancing,” states Kohler. “At first, I had to reach out to different places and organizations to offer to have The Moving Company come and perform. Now, I get telephone calls about scheduling them. It’s very gratifying.”
Kohler adds that The Moving Company’s name has a double meaning. “The dancers are moving, but it’s also moving to watch them perform,” she says.
Kohler anticipates celebrating many more Danceworks anniversaries. She is especially excited when former students return to the studio to register their own children for classes. “That’s one of the best feelings of all.”
Dream believe imagine achieve