First Impression

Luke in my office

Luke Mitchelson is a  marketing  intern at Danceworks for the summer.  He will be entering his fourth year at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater this coming Fall. He plans to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration. In his free time he enjoys volunteering with several organizations including leading a weekly student-led event at a local nursing/retirement home with UW-Whitewater’s long running Nursing Home Program. 

I wondered what it was like to be thrown into Danceworks during one of our busiest times of year.  With all the assessing we do of our programs, I thought it might be fun to get a  “Pre” and “Post” assessment of what it’s like to work at Danceworks… So, here goes the “Pre Assessment”. –Deb Farris

A bright summer morning at the BMO Harris Bradley Center was where I began my exploration of the non-profit that is Danceworks. This May I began my internship at Danceworks, starting with volunteering at the Danceworks Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap (MHBT) Competition. Although I had heard of Danceworks prior to the event, I hoped to gain a framework of understanding of what Danceworks embodied. At the MHBT event I wasn’t prepared for the masses of youth who were filled to the brim with excitement and happiness to not only represent their schools and families, but most importantly, themselves.

As the day progressed I began interacting with parents, teachers and students, all who were eager for the competition to begin. The competition was the introduction of Danceworks for me. As I began my internship, I was unsure of what to expect. Since then, I have realized how important Danceworks’ mission is to the growth and development of youth.

At the MHBT Competition on May 18, I saw how much this event means for the student participants. It was just as rewarding from a volunteer newbie’s standpoint; their enthusiasm was in the air throughout the event! From just my experience at the Competition, I learned that the kids really see it as a way to not only express themselves but, moreover, to have fun. This annual Competition is a way for them to have a school related event where they can have fun with their friends and perform in an arena where they likely have seen their professional sports or music idols perform.

“Nobody cares if you can’t dance well. Just get up and dance. Great dancers are great because of their passion.”
Martha Graham

My first impressions of Danceworks:

Community: From the Competition alone, I have seen that Danceworks brings people together. People from various parts of the Milwaukee area come to cheer on their children, all the while getting to know other parents with a similar goal—to see their children have fun.

LukeIncreased Emphasis on the Arts: From just these past few weeks I have seen firsthand how hard @danceworksmke strives to create classes, events and activities to increase exposure to the arts—in particular, dance. In recent years we have seen a decrease in arts education within schools because of major budgetary cut-backs. After the MHBT Competition I have seen that these students have a source to use their creativity and release stress from their everyday lives with their participation in Danceworks.

Growth: Through events such as the MHBT Competition, many kids participating displayed obvious joy in their dancing. Dance is a key way for an individual to express him/herself. Like other forms of art, dance is a language of the soul. Dance allows an individual to interpret emotion into a physically seen expression. Through their dance classes these kids can discover more about who they are, and more importantly, who they want to become.  

–Luke Mitchelson


“Welcome to Danceworks!”

Hannah, Jolie and Jessie Mae say,  “Welcome to Danceworks!  Have you been here before?  How can we help you?”

The ladies at the front desk get asked a lot of questions every day, and before our summer classes for adults and youth begin on June 3rd, I thought I could take a few minutes to answer some of the most popular ones:

Hannah and Jolie
Hannah and Jolie
Jessie Mae
Jessie Mae

I’ve never danced before – can I come and try an adult beginner class?

Yay!  Yes!  Good for you!  Danceworks is known for offering classes to people of all ages and abilities.  We are here to help you get moving!  We have lots of beginning adult students who make the move through our doors for their first dance class and get hooked by the fun and new friends they make as much as the dancing.

What do I wear?

Well, the dress code is this: we want you to be comfortable.  You don’t need a new wardrobe — just wear something that is easy to move in for Tap, Hip Hop and Jazz.  The same goes for Ballet but be aware that the teacher needs to see your ankles and feet — leotards, tights and leg warmers are fine but so are leggings and sports tops.  Layers are good and can be removed as you warm up.  For Dance Fitness classes, wear anything you would work out in.

Speaking of Dance Fitness, do I need to bring a mat or weights with me for the workout?

Nope!  We provide the mats, weights, bands and balls.  It’s a very thorough workout, by the way –- a little cardio, arm work, abs, hips and legs. You can always count on some stretching.  (It’s my own once a week workout.)  Professional dancers teach the classes so you’ll never get bored with the routines.

What kind of shoes do I wear?

Ballet Slippers, Tap and Jazz Shoes
Ballet Slippers, Tap and Jazz Shoes

If you don’t have any ballet slippers, tap or jazz shoes, you’re in luck.  We sell them on site.  For Hip Hop, we ask that you wear clean tennis shoes.  For Barre Workouts you can wear ballet slippers, socks or go bare footed.

Do you have Pole Dancing?


I really want to try a class but I’m nervous about it.  Can I just come and observe?

Absolutely!  Just let Hannah, Jolie or Jessie Mae know and they will introduce you to the teacher and help you get situated.

I’m worried I will be older than everyone else.  What is the age range of the students in your adult classes?

Danceworks believes dance is for everyone.  Our oldest student is 87!  Even in our 50+ classes, we don’t card.  These classes are geared at the mature mover and flow at a gentler pace, providing more time for corrections and explanations — but people under 50 are welcome. Students in our general adult classes can range in age from mid-teens to mid-70s.

I’m going to be gone the first week of class and I’ll be in and out throughout the summer.  Can I still join in?

Yes!  We work with adults’ busy schedules and offer ongoing enrollment — you can start at any time.  We also offer flexible payment plans, so you can pay for a single class, purchase a class card of 6 or more classes or sign up for a full session.  The more classes you buy at one time, though, the cheaper it is.

Melissa Feldmeyer takes care of the money.  If you have questions about your payment  she will help.
Melissa Feldmeyer takes care of the money. If you have questions about your payment she can help you.

Where do I park?

We have a parking lot open to students after 5:00 p.m. and on Saturdays.  Weekdays before 5:00, there is plenty of free street parking available. There is also a bike rack available in the northwest corner by the river.

Do the adult classes have recitals?

No worries there.  If you are interested in performing though, we have some opportunities.  Check out the Summer DanceLAB!

So, those are a few of our most asked questions. Did I miss one?  Let me know and I will be in touch with you asap.  I really hope to see you this summer and would love to hear about your experience.  We’re rooting for you and hope you find a home at Danceworks!  –Deb Farris

Our lovely Ali is moving on to bright things.  We will all miss her but wish her the very best.
Our lovely Ali is moving on to bright things. We will all miss her but wish her the very best.


“It was the best day of my life!” –MHBT Student

There are two beautiful bouquets sitting on our conference table. Energy snacks and drinks are in the refrigerator. Family and friends know this is a crazy week at Danceworks as we’re days away from the 7th annual Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap Competition at BMO Harris Bradley Center.

Entering the BMO Harris Bradley Center Bowl Photo credit:   Mark Frohna
Entering the BMO Harris Bradley Center Bowl
Photo credit: Mark Frohna

They have sent these gifts to keep us smiling—and we are.

We have a lot of great memories… How about Debbie Payden volunteering to project manage the program our first year?! I honestly don’t know how we would have done it without her. Her church even sent along hams to feed the kids! Her daughter Rachel Payden is now our full-time Outreach Director.

We’re always looking for the perfect formula to give as many students as possible the opportunity to dance at BMO Harris Bradley Center every year. There was the time we let all those not chosen to compete dance in between the rounds of the competitors. These students were having so much fun that they would exit the bowl and run to find anyone they could grab to go out and dance with them again. It didn’t matter what school they were from—all that mattered was that they knew the dance.  When Liz Tesch, our project manager for many years, realized what was happening, she didn’t have the heart to stop them. “That’s what the program is all about,” she exclaimed.  Sheer chaos?  Possibly.  Sheer joy?  Absolutely!  Thank goodness for staff, faculty, volunteers and  community who understand this program is more about breaking down the barriers that divide people than learning perfect dance steps.  That was our longest competition in history.

Watching their team on the Jumbotron
Watching their team on the Jumbotron
Photo credit: Mark Frohna

We’ve made mistakes and learned from them, while many teachers, principals, families and friends who come to watch have supported us and cheered on the students. They understand that Mad Hot offers much more than dance instruction. It’s a beacon of hope for many students and for our community.

The health of urban youth is reaching a critical point. While we don’t claim to solve these challenges, we do offer young people a chance to find joy in movement. When the program ends, many are transformed and seek outlets to continue creative expression and physical activity.  Through our MPS Partnership funding, we are able to provide scholarships to our dance classes, creative arts camps and school day off workshops for students wanting to continue on. Danceworks Youth Performance Company provides an opportunity for serious students to perform.

If you need a little hope yourself, come experience this on May 18th. Let me know if you come. I’d love to say hi. Oops, gotta go—Debbie Payden just dropped off brownies!    —Deb Farris

trophy shot smaller (2)
Winning the trophy but really they are all winners!
Photo credit: Mark Frohna


A Great Teacher is a Great Gift

Whenever I talk Danceworks Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap Program (MHBT) I never get too far before I say the real treasure of it is our teachers. These are men and women who understand that the importance of the program, more than teaching the steps, is valuing the students. The ability to connect to and gain the respect of the kids we have the privilege of working with in our city schools is at the forefront of what we look for in our MHBT faculty. Jacqui Lefebvre is our lead Ballroom teacher and a leader in modeling how to give students a sense of their value and hope for their futures through the joy of dance. –Deb Farris

All About the Dance

by Jacqui Lefebvre

Head shot
Jacqui Lefebvre, Danceworks Faculty/Lead Ballroom Teacher

I have been a dance teacher for many years and a dance student for most of my life. I had always believed that it was “all about the dance.” As long as I could dance, everything would be OK.

My decision to turn pro and teach came solely from a financial standpoint. I knew I had to dance but simply could not afford the lessons! At that time, the only studios teaching Ballroom and Latin were Fred Astaire and Arthur Murray, and both were hugely expensive! I accepted a job at Arthur Murray in Appleton and have never looked back! Teaching was a revelation to me; I couldn’t believe that I could care so much more about someone else’s dancing than my own!


Students from Roosevelt Elementary
Students from Roosevelt Elementary

Moving to Milwaukee and finding Danceworks was like coming home. A family I never knew I had. Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap has changed my life. It is the missing piece of the puzzle. These children are awe inspiring. I love getting to know them, discovering their quirks and habits, watching them grow and develop skills far beyond learning the dance steps

There so many wonderful and heartfelt stories I could share–like the young man who on lesson 3 told me, “I hate dancing and I hate you!” He sat out of lesson 4, but before lesson 5 started, he apologized and asked me if he could have another chance. He promised that he would not misbehave anymore, and from that moment, he completely changed his attitude. I saw him making good choices at every lesson, like helping students that could not get the steps or encouraging the others to behave. This boy went on to be an all-star for his school!

Then there is the sad tale of a young lady who would not take her coat off because wearing it made her feel safe. I dread to think of the misfortune that perpetuated this action. Her classroom teacher explained, “She wears her coat all the time.”


Students practicing their entrance and exit!

Imagine my surprise and delight when about half way into the program, I noticed that this young lady was not wearing her coat! Our wonderful Mad Hot lessons had become a safe place for this beautiful girl.

Another young man–slightly pudgy, very smart but a little awkward! Of course, the girls didn’t want to dance with him because he wasn’t “cool.” Well, guess what? Turns out this kid was a fantastic dancer! WAY better than the supposed “cool” boys. A few weeks in, and the girls were fighting over him! He gained confidence, social skills and “street cred!” All thanks to MHBT.

About halfway through our lessons, I make a point of asking all my classes, “Who has found that this is way more fun than you thought it was going to be?” Always a resounding positive response! I also ask them to tell me some good and bad things about their lessons. Of course, the bad is always, “We have to dance with a boy/girl”!  Some of the positive answers are great like, “We get to learn cool dances,” or “We are learning to work with people we don’t usually work with,” and “I never knew I could dance before!” My personal favorite was, “When I dance the Samba I feel like I’m in Africa!!”


Goofy Golda kids!
Goofy Golda kid

I could go on and on. I am so passionate about Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap because it changes lives. As I said, I had always believed that it was “all about the dance,” but now I know better. I learn so much more from these kids than they do from me. They are strong, brave, smart and funny. These wonderful young people restore my faith in human nature! Teaching for Danceworks and Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap fills a void in my life and a place in my heart.

Jill Anna Ponasik on Collaboration

Jill Anna Ponasik, Artistic Director of Milwaukee Opera Theatre,  is a favorite at Danceworks. Her bright eyes and contagious laugh make  working together a sheer pleasure. Read on to see what she has to say about Façade, our latest project together.  –Deb Farris

Jill Anna Ponasik
Jill Anna Ponasik

On Collaboration

Some art-making is solitary. The hours in a practice room, or studio, or those spent sitting poised in front of a blank screen, awaiting the first key-stroke. The discoveries made alone are essential to our advancement as artists. This is where we hone our craft and gain mastery over our materials.

But for me, the real excitement, the pay-off for all of the hours alone, is in co-creating with another artist. Having had the privilege of developing two pieces with the extraordinary company at Danceworks (First, Maria de Buenos Aires and now, Façade), I can say with experience that the exhilaration of watching and working as an idea bounces back and forth between collaborators, changing and growing as it goes, is addicting. Scarcely is one project finished before we begin dreaming up the next.

My favorite definition of collaboration belongs to Michael Schrage: “Collaboration is the process of shared creation – two or more individuals with complementary skills interacting to create a shared understanding that none had previously possessed or could have come to on their own.”

Jill Anna doing her best DPC dancer impersonation.
Jill Anna doing her best DPC dancer impersonation.

That last part is key. The result of a successful collaboration is an event, product, discovery or process, that you couldn’t have developed alone. There are some things that we cannot accomplish in the practice room.

When I stand on the balcony and see the Danceworks Performance Company fill the Milwaukee Theatre Atrium with movement, while the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra plays William Walton’s score and our Milwaukee Opera Theatre artists recite Edith Sitwell’s kooky text, I know with certainty that Façade is a piece that none of us could produce single-handedly. We need each other to make this particular dream a reality. And needing each other is a beautiful thing.

When this particular project concludes on Saturday, we’ll all return to the studio, and the practice room, to continue our individual work, that we may be prepared for the collaboration waiting around the corner. I wonder what that will be.  —Jill Anna Ponasik

The Milwaukee Theatre pictured at night.
The Milwaukee Theatre, pictured at night.

Ticket reservations for Façade can be made by calling the Milwaukee Theatre:1-414-908-6035. Walk up tickets at the Milwaukee Theatre are also available.

Aging Gracefully

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 seventh in our series, “20 Years, 20 Stories.”

If you want to know the secret to aging gracefully, you don’t have to look too much further than Danceworks 50+ classes. There are shining examples everywhere you look. Along with healthy attitudes about life in general, you’ll discover contagious laughter and bold enthusiasm for life.

I noticed one of our regular 50+ students wasn’t around last week and found out she was dealing with some nagging pain that was keeping her from the four classes she takes each week. I gave her a call to check in and see if maybe since she wasn’t able to dance right now, she might like to talk about it.

I dialed her number, and Natalie Lloyd-Jones took my call.

“I really miss it!” she said right away. “I don’t like exercise! I dance and it’s so much fun. That, to me, is not exercise.”

Natalie, far left in the red shirt, during a 50+ Ballet class at Danceworks
Natalie, far left in the red shirt, during a 50+ Ballet class at Danceworks

Natalie was a kindergarten teacher at MPS Washington Irving on N. 35th Street for many, many years. She had always wanted to take Ballet but never had the chance.

“I just love Ballet for its beauty! I tried Jazz and other things but it wasn’t for me. The Ballet class I took years ago had mostly 20- and 30-year-olds in it. I didn’t feel like I fit in. I got into Tap by a fluke. You offered a 50+ Tap class and I signed up!”

Before I started at Danceworks, Polly Morris had received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to start a 50+ Initiative at Danceworks. This support made it possible for Danceworks to provide multi-arts programming in Milwaukee County senior sites and other older adult facilities. Amy Brinkman-Sustache jumped right on the idea and suggested the studio offer 50+ dance classes as well. The first of these classes was 50+ Tap.

Natalie at the Barre in her 50+ Ballet class.
Natalie at the Barre in her 50+ Ballet class.

“I liked it a lot but I kept asking for 50+ Ballet—and then finally I got my wish!”

Today, 10 years later, Natalie takes two Ballet and two Tap classes each week.

“It’s the teachers—you have the most incredible teachers. Oh, that Melissa and wow, that Amy! What makes them good is that they listen to you. If there’s a particular way that you learn, they incorporate it into their teaching style. I learn audibly and visually. You can’t just tell me to listen, you have to show me.”

“If I say—that hurts!—they’ll say, ‘then try it this way.’ They have alternatives and they remember. That means a lot to me, because as a teacher I know people learn differently. Everyone has their own style of teaching, but good teachers incorporate what helps different students. That’s the difference between a mediocre and a great teacher. Students won’t usually tell you what they need, but good teachers can figure it out.”

Brenna McGee is a Danceworks 50+ Student and Columbia St. Mary’s Urgent Care Nurse. She stops by Danceworks each week as she can fit it in. She is also a member of Milwaukee Set Dance Club
Brenna McGee is a Danceworks 50+ Student and Columbia St. Mary’s Urgent Care Nurse. She stops by Danceworks each week as she can fit it in. She is also a member of Milwaukee Set Dance Club

“We all like each other at Danceworks. These are my friends. If someone in class doesn’t get something, we encourage each other. In dance class, you just want to be friends with everyone–you all have something in common. These are active people–real doers. People with outside interests, professionals, people from all different walks of life. They travel, study….I love these people. If someone new comes in, you just know you’re going to like that person. I even know a handwriting analyst! I never knew one before! Veterinarians, doctors, nurses, lawyers, people who own their own studios. There are top people in their fields in these classes.”

“Dancers walk taller. It’s an inspiration to get up in the morning. I say–oh good, today I have Tap and Ballet! I can walk to Danceworks. I’m always so glad for Monday. As a teacher I would say, ‘Yippeee‘ for snow days, be so grateful for the weekend. But Danceworks! Why, you’re not allowed to close!”

So, if any of you have always wanted to take a class but thought you were too old, too out of shape or whatever excuse you might be using, I hope Natalie inspires you to change your mind. 

Thanks for sharing your contagious enthusiasm, Natalie, every time you step through our doors. And most of all, thank you for setting an example of what it means to age gracefully.

20th Anniversary Reflections from Sarah

sarah wilbur
Sarah Wilbur, DPC co-founder, artistic director (1997-2007)

Who makes a dance? Or, perhaps more appropriate to this Danceworks 20th Anniversary blog series, the question might be better phrased: Who makes a dance work?

In my experience, we do.

During my decade at Danceworks, I had the privilege of moving through some explosive successes and failures as a dancer and as a person. As a dancer-choreographer-teacher-administrator-collaborator, I gained a heightened sense of my self and others through the privilege of dancing. The hyphens in that previous sentence evidence the many personal and professional attachments that I continue to hold in my memory and in my body since I left the organization in 2007.

For me, Danceworks holds a very personal purpose. It is where the invisible work that dance does and is, became visible to me.

[Pause, while she does a big kick, and settles into a slow, not so dramatic, lunge…]

So…here we are. I wish this were less of a monologue. Bound to go nowhere unless you are still reading. Still dancing. Returning to dance. That’s something that Danceworks is and does, for a lot of people. For twenty years and counting.

For me, ten of those years meant dancing around my own type-os, lackluster press releases, audacious titles, and overblown ideas. So here I am, still struggling to find the right way to frame, to label, to “say” what Danceworks means to me.

So… for all that I won’t say, can’t begin to describe. For all that I see and I feel when I close my eyes and think of Danceworks, I offer the following list of one liners.

Incomplete. Still moving. No one person did any of these things. But, in my memory, we all had a pretty amazing time.

So, maybe, dance works, because…
No one can stay calm in a crisis better than Mary Newton.
No one can transform my breathless utterances into a lucid press release with the feminist glory of Polly Morris.
No one asked Amy Brinkman-Sustache to come strutting through the office door just weeks after Gabi was born, carrier-in-tow, ready to help with the next bulk mailing.
No one can stop Janet Lew Carr.
No one can spot optimism and “robust enthusiasm” like Terry Hueneke.

Or, if you prefer, dance works because…
No one can smile, “sell it” and then turn around and schlep all the gear back to the car than the original DPC misfits: Anina Bacon, Cynthia Collins, Joan Fernandez, Andrea Hill, Jen Moore, Laura Teska (Kariotis), Brinkman was there too, I’m quite sure (wasn’t it an Aretha Franklin medley?)…

No one, that is, except for maybe some of the later rebels: Becky Blong, Jeni Frazee, Dani Kuepper, Kelly Nellis, Megan Licht, Kim Johnson, Derek Rusch, Joe Pikalek, Kelly Anderson, Dorothy Kulke, Diana LeMense, Liz Tesch, Paula Koss, Catey Ott, Natasha Posey, Melissa Anderson, Korey Olivier, Dan Schuchart, Renee Griswold…and so many more beginnings and elliptical endings…

_MG_9790Or, quite probably, today, dance works because…
No one can remember how many times we’ve moved the ballet bars out of studio A for an evening performance.
No one can remember to get the lock on the second stall in the women’s restroom fixed.
No one can remember ALL of the UPAF gigs.
No one can spot the type-os on sweatshirts like Melissa Feldmeyer.
No one can laugh louder than Liz Tesch.
No one supports like Dani Kuepper.
No one is more poised and ready than Kim Johnson.
No one can set the sail in as many directions as Deb Farris.

Or from where you sit, reading, dance works because…
No one can…(close your eyes, think for a moment, and insert your memory here).

It’s getting really crowded in here. That’s my point.

No one can. No ONE can. Danceworks, to me, is a midpoint in human connection. A space to return to dance, for whatever reasons, and to experience new results.

I am so lucky to have joined Danceworks, a space to bumble and stumble, to sweat and to fight, and to learn to stomach the taste of my own words. I am so thankful for the people that I hold close today, due to my time with the organization. And I am still, so inspired by the promise of these elliptical endings.

Sarah Wilbur
DPC co-founder, artistic director (1997-2007)
UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance