Dance students rue teacher's departure

By Pat Waring - May 4, 2006

Danceworks students (clockwise from left rear) Chelsea Brennan, Melanie Lay, Brianna Davies, Jaime Billings, Hayley Pierce, Tessa Permar, Dani Cleary, Abbey Entner. Photos by Keri Mcleod

Students of Mia Alicea's Danceworks are rehearsing with heavy hearts and crossed fingers this spring. Although they are participating in classes as enthusiastically as ever, they are saddened by the prospect of their teacher leaving the Island in a few months. And although they do not know what the future will bring, both students and parents are hoping that other teachers will come along to fill the void.

A group of six dedicated advanced students visited The Times recently to explain their dismay at Ms. Alicea's upcoming departure. And they hope that their story may reach someone who will find a way to make a similar dance program available here.

The young women, all in grades 7 through 10, said they have studied together for years. Their frequent classes and intensive rehearsal schedules made the Edgartown studio feel like a second home.

All the girls expressed their love for dance and their determination to continue. Some of the older students said they had hoped to continue pursuing dance in college and that the changes at Danceworks will make it hard to keep up their skills.

Several said that they had chosen to devote their time and energy to dance, rather than athletics, and they fear it would be difficult to shift gears now. But even more importantly, they have come to enjoy and thrive on dance and it has become a big part of their lives and their identities.

For as long as seven years, these students have taken class regularly in a variety of dance forms, including jazz, tap, hip-hop, Latin jazz, lyrical, and theatre dance.

"We've all danced together forever," said seventh grader Dani Cleary. "We do it every day, it's always there."

"It's a passion," said Chelsea Brennan, adding, "It keeps us in shape."

"It's a family," chimed in another.

The girls happily recalled busy days at the studio, going there right after school, sharing snacks and doing homework in between classes. They said they cried together when Ms. Alicea told them she was leaving, and that many younger students did too.

Abbey Entner (left, rear) and Dani Cleary, soaring.

A way of life
"We're hoping the article will spur interest in somebody," said Lori Brennan, whose daughter Chelsea has been devoted to the program. "The opportunity is here; the girls are here."

"They have a way of life now," said Laura Entner, mother of eighth-grader Abbey. "That's their passion."

Ms. Entner said the classes provided the girls with dance skills, discipline, a social life, and fun, all combined. She said she believes there are other girls who would join in if a new program were established.

The mothers said the classes had offered a niche for their girls who are now members of a tight-knit group with an activity they can call their own. It is hard for young people to lose that, they said.

Karen Ambielli, whose daughters Melanie and Brittany Lay danced with Ms. Alicea for many years, said the Danceworks training was exceptionally high quality and it enabled Brittany to be accepted in a fine college-level dance program. She cited the off-Island trips that Ms. Alicea arranged so the students could study and compete in New York City and Boston.

"She gave them amazing experiences," said Ms. Ambielli. "We don't want these girls to lose this training."

Several of the girls have signed up for classes with other teachers or even traveled off-Island for occasional workshops. The parents say they will seek instruction off-Island if need be, but all concerned hope that classes can be continued on the Island. Although both Vineyard Dance and Sandy Stone offer modern and ballet training, the parents and students say they are looking for the same mix of techniques that are available at Danceworks.

Challenges to running studio
In a phone conversation between classes this week, Ms. Alicea said that although she is sorry to be leaving her students she is moving off-Island because of the challenges of running a dance studio here.

Ms. Alicea had been teaching in Brooklyn, N.Y. when she moved here in 1998 to establish her own studio. She currently has 90 students ages three to 17 and offers a package of disciplines which she terms "commercial dance."

"I need to relocate where there's a market," said Ms. Alicea who has been teaching for two decades. Danceworks enrollment has dropped from a high of 125 students, Ms. Alicea said. She cited projections that the Island population is shrinking and said the high cost of living makes it hard for young families to live here or to afford dance tuition.

Ms. Alicea added she would have liked to hire additional staff to share teaching responsibilities and to take part in professional development classes herself. But she said neither was possible on the Island. Ms. Alicea is working with her students toward the June performance, which has become well-known for its spectacular quality. She will move to California when it is over.

She said her students are very well-trained and she is hopeful and confident that they will find dance opportunities in the future.