In the beginning…

In honor of Danceworks’ 20th Anniversary, we are sharing 20 stories of individuals who have made an impact on—or who have been impacted by—Danceworks and our programs. This counts as the third and fourth in our series, “20 Years, 20 Stories.”

The call came two days after I had submitted a resignation. I was ready for a new challenge but had no idea what it would be. I showed up at a Danceworks board meeting for an interview, and as I recall, was hired that night. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Polly Morris and Mary Newton. None of us would be. Without them, there would be no Danceworks! Read on to discover our delightful history and remember…sometimes new doors don’t open until you close old ones. -Debbie

Some thoughts from Mary and Polly… When we got together recently to reminisce about Danceworks, our common thought was that we barely recognize Danceworks these days . . . but that’s a good thing!

The Danceworks crew, in the early days.
The Danceworks crew, in the early days.

Our original mission of providing performance, outreach and instruction is clearly alive and well, but the activities and personnel that populate those focus areas have shifted and multiplied exponentially. That’s a logical outgrowth of the agile flexibility that has characterized Danceworks since its inception. When an organization is not tied to the vision of a dominant personality or the expectations of a traditional audience, it is free to explore new partnerships and take advantage of a shifting community landscape. It has been exciting, but not surprising, to see Danceworks thrive in the midst of constant change.

Looking back 20 years to the beginnings of Danceworks, we were both in a similar phase of life, with young kids and bodies that moved a lot easier than they do these days. We were also both on a hiatus from our academic and professional lives, and we had the mental energy to take on the organizational challenge of creating and growing a new non-profit. Fortunately, our skill sets were complementary, and we usually agreed on where we needed to go. As an added bonus, our personalities meshed as easily as if we had grown up together, which may be why we were often mistaken for each other.

More people than we can count seemed to appear just when their skills or talents were needed. Some stayed with us for just a short time, and others—like Amy Brinkman-Sustache—are still with Danceworks. Regardless of their tenure, they were all critical to our success. We really feel that we had the best, be it teachers, performers, accountants, office workers or financial angels. And the students and audiences always showed up, too, as we moved the studio from Milwaukee Street to Bay View and back to Water Street, and performed in diverse venues from the tiny Walker’s Point Center for the Arts to the grand old Pabst Theater.

Along the way, we developed computer skills (starting on an old Apple IIE!) and became experienced at grant writing, both of which have paid long-term dividends. We also developed expertise in the more dubious specialties of bulk mail and VHS tape dubbing, for which we now find little demand. Achieving UPAF membership was a significant milestone, permitting the gradual turnover of the operational and artistic direction of Danceworks to paid staff. It’s been great to watch from the sidelines as Debbie Farris, Sarah Wilbur, Dani Kuepper and the others have moved Danceworks forward.

We’ve moved on now to other things. Polly first went to UW-Milwaukee as an arts administrator, and now is the Director and Curator of the Lynden Sculpture Gardens in River Hills. Mary teaches reading and spelling at the Children’s Dyslexia Center in Milwaukee, and advocates for improved reading instruction statewide through the Wisconsin Reading Coalition. Our seven kids, one of whom wasn’t even born when we started Danceworks, now range in age from 19 to 30. We all continue to treasure our many Danceworks memories and wish Danceworks the very best as you enter the next 20 years!


The “Madness” has begun!

In honor of Danceworks’ 20th Anniversary, we are sharing 20 stories of individuals who have made an impact on—or who have been impacted by—Danceworks and our programs. This is the second in our series, “20 Years, 20 Stories.”

It’s already been seven years since Mario (Costantini) and I met with funders around Milwaukee to find backing for Danceworks Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap (MHBT). Everyone pretty much said, “Don’t you want to take some time to get this organized?” We felt differently. The opportunity was there and with the help of many wonderful people, we went for it. For this post, it seems fitting to feature Rachel Payden, MHBT faculty, dancer, singer, administrator and as of this year, Danceworks Outreach Director who, among other things, is overseeing our 45 MHBT schools this year. -Debbie

Rachel Payden, Danceworks Outreach Director
Rachel Payden, Danceworks Outreach Director

I read the following quote on the side of a Starbucks cup in the year I worked there after college:

“It’s relationships, not programs, that change children. A great program simply creates the environment for healthy relationships to form between adults and children. Young people thrive when adults care about them on a one-to-one level, and when they also have a sense of belonging to a caring community.”

I immediately scratched it down on a little piece of receipt paper so I could carry it with me. I read it and remember thinking, “YES! That IS what it’s all about. Relationships. Community.” Then I found Danceworks.

It’s hard to believe that this week marks the official start of the seventh season of Danceworks Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap (MHBT). I feel very fortunate to have been a part of the program since its birth here in Milwaukee, when I volunteered at the competition that took place at Turner Hall in the fall of 2006. Three schools participated in the pilot program—three. Somehow over the course of the past seven years, three has grown to 45.

There are countless stories, songs and faces that come to mind when I think about my own involvement in MHBT, and I know that this sentiment is shared by fellow teachers and colleagues. Where do you begin talking about MHBT?! It’s funny to look back on my firsthand experience in one of the MHBT schools, which took place during my very first month working at Danceworks. Amy Brinkman-Sustache hung up the phone in the front office, looked and me and said, “Grab your shoes—we’re doing a show.”

A show?! Where were we going? How many people were going to be watching us? What am I supposed to do in this situation? Amy had just heard that a school with a gym full of students were expecting a dance performance from Danceworks teachers as an introduction to MHBT. She was determined to give them just that.

The Roosevelt Middle School MHBT class from 2012 holds a special place in Rachel’s heart.

The car ride to the school replays in my mind like a movie. Amy talked through where we were going and why it was important to do this, and she shared some ideas about what we could do when we got there. She was completely calm as I sat next to her, and I was thinking, “WHAT is going on?!” I was in a bit of a panic.

Luckily, that feeling diminished, as I came to find out that Amy was a pro at this kind of gig. I remember standing there, feeling like a deer in the headlights, watching Amy confidently do her thing in front of a gym full of students and teachers. She started demonstrating simple tap steps, and the room became absolutely silent—aside from comments like, “Cooooool!” and “Aww, look at those shoes!”

It was the chatter that came spilling out of the students’ mouths as they heard the rhythms from her feet.

It was so cool—an entire room full of kids that immediately tuned in to tap dancing, which I learned was something that most of them had never seen or heard in their lives before that day. Whatever Amy did, they loved it. They asked questions. They were involved. I remember listening to Amy exchange clapping rhythms with the students back and forth, and thinking that it really was like they were having a conversation without words. I remember understanding why it was so important that we raced over to the school that day. I remember admiring Amy so, my own tap teacher, and wanting to be able to do what she did some day.

Mad Hot alumni who now perform with Danceworks Youth Performance Company: 2009 Gabi Sustache, Agana Baertlein2010 Izzy Gallagher, Tatyanna Melendez; 2011 Kayla Weeks, Emily Koranda; 2012 Josh Newborn, Adrianna Doxtator, Lauren Moton, Jahari Clark, Jasmyne Carter.
Mad Hot alumni who now perform with Danceworks Youth Performance Company: 2009 Gabi Sustache, Agana Baertlein; 2010 Izzy Gallagher, Tatyanna Melendez; 2011 Kayla Weeks, Emily Koranda; 2012 Josh Newborn, Adrianna Doxtator, Lauren Moton, Jahari Clark, Jasmyne Carter.

What a difference the years have made! Being a part of the Danceworks team, and specifically being in the schools as an MHBT teacher for the past six years, has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Someone recently asked me if I like my job. I simply answered, “Yes, I do.”  Why? Because Danceworks makes Milwaukee a better place. Because I continue to learn from some of the most passionate, talented and caring people I’ve ever met. Because I know that Danceworks makes a positive difference in thousands of family’s lives. And because I truly believe that the heart of Danceworks’ work is in the pure joy of sharing and building community. — Rachel Payden