Stepping Up
So you think you can dance? For fleet-footed locals, the answer, increasingly, is yes
by Maria Martino Evans


“Dancing with the Stars” just finished its 13th season. “So You Think You Can Dance” is entering its ninth, and “Dance Moms” debuted last summer with diehard fans of its backstage bickering and caustic competitions. Every week, “Glee” showcases theater dance, and the 2011 Oscars honored Natalie Portman for portraying a ballerina (troubled as her character might have been) in “Black Swan.”


But do millions of viewers and critical acclaim mean that suburban dance studios are feeling the love? The answer, of course, is yes … and no.


“Students had gotten away from ballet for a few years but are coming back to that,” says Marlyn Abramson, who has taught for more than three decades and has studios in Lansdale, Springhouse, Harleysville and Jamison. “We always had a lot of children dancing, but maybe due to soccer or other sport commitments, they couldn’t come in as often as they should to get to a more advanced level.”


Yet she has seen that commitment grow in recent years, and perhaps those dance shows are “having an influence on making dance more desirable to some of these kids,” she says.


The economy has forced some families to make tough choices, so although interest in different styles of dance is up, attendance may not be keeping pace, according to Reina Faith, who opened Dance Arts Collaborative in Pipersville nine years ago. Perhaps due in part to the success of shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance,” hip-hop in particular has picked up, and she has also seen a spike in interest in contemporary dance.


“The lines of dance are blurring,” she says. “I had to change lyrical to lyrical/contemporary [to] include more modern moves.”


She also offers contemporary jazz dance, which incorporates more floor work, more fall-and-releases, and more complex turns and contractions than its Broadway counterpart. Another influence of the competitive TV shows, says Faith, whose teams have won many national titles, is that “a lot of choreographers are challenging themselves more at competitions. A lot of studios are trying new things, which is very exciting.”


But there may also be a downside.


“Because TV shows are a hard sell—so sexy—they could distance people because the dancing looks so slick think they can never do that,” says Lois Welk, director of Dance/USA Philadelphia (Dance/UP), an organization for professional dancers. “[This is true] especially among children, who have a very low threshold for failure. It’s just wrong that a child in her third class is near tears because she can’t do a double turn.”


Faith agrees that programs such as “Dance Moms” are doing “a horrible thing” for dance because they produce so-called “helicopter moms,” who hover over their children and generally interfere.


“I had to dismiss a girl from my competition team because of her mom,” Faith says. “She was all about feeling good instead of being good. My mom and grandmom were dancers, but I was very lucky I didn’t have a dance mother. You knew you had to work for it. It’s nothing your mom can do for you.”


‘A Renaissance of Interest’

Dance encompasses so many forms—solo, such as jazz/ballet/hip-hop or partner, such as ballroom/swing/salsa—that its popularity can be difficult to measure.


But the people who teach know that interest has spiked in response to these shows.


Take, for example, Diane Brown, who lives in Green Lane, works in Radnor and teaches, with her husband, Chris, throughout the suburbs.


“We’ve seen numbers double and are at capacity in certain locations,” she says. “The trend is toward Latin dances because people see celebrities do them on TV.”


Twelve years ago, the Browns took a community school class and “were hooked the first night.” When the instructor retired, they took over. She notes that TV dance is “more of an exhibition style, but we are teaching a more social style for weddings, cruise ships and social dances.” The Browns run a monthly social dance in Broomall.


Local social dancers also swear by the monthly dance, complete with big-band orchestra, at Havana in New Hope for the past 10 years—a "best-kept secret that shouldn't be,” says LisaBeth Weber of New Hope. She does Zydeco, Cajun, swing, salsa and Zumba, which combines aerobics with traditional Latino-style dancing and has been growing steadily since it began in the late 1990s. According to studies done at the national level, “there has been a renaissance of interest in the study of dance in the past five or six years,” says Dance/UP’s Welk. And that growth is only accelerating due to the growing diversity of the Philadelphia region.


In 2009, the $1.4 billion dance school industry constituted a very small portion of the overall U.S. recreation industry. According to Dun & Bradstreet, more than 14,850 establishments were in operation in the late 2000s. Most are small, independent schools run by sole proprietors, usually owner-operators.


The Philadelphia area, Welk says, has “a particularly robust dance community,” with the Pennsylvania Ballet turning 50, Philadanco 40 and hip-hop great Rennie Harris celebrating 20 years—and the generation of people spinning off of these.”


Welk believes that the reality dance shows stoke an interest in dance and are increasingly leading to lessons, which, in turn, increase people’s appreciation of dance: “If you ever leaned and shared weight with partner in tango or tried a lift or slid your leg to the side, you have some kind of physical sense of what body has to do to be successful.”


For her part, Abramson has worked for nearly four decades to “bring culture to the suburbs.”


“We brought the Donetsk Ballet from the Ukraine last year for our ‘Nutcracker’ performance,” she says. “Parents really appreciated seeing a company of that caliber and having their children perform side by side with world-famous dancers. I think that exposure instigates a lot of the growth in dance in the suburbs.”


The reality shows may be inviting people to the dance, but it is the suburban dance instructors and social dancers who are making them walk on air. 


Maria Martino Evans is a writer based in Pipersville.