Photo courtesy of Julia Davidson
[ID: The author Julia Davidson as a 3-year-old dancer looks directly at the camera, smiling with her mouth but not her eyes. She is wearing a shiny, light blue frilly tutu with a large pink bow tied around her waist. She has a similar frilly blue bow on her head. She is curtseying and her hands are flexed.]
Strip Mall Dance Studio. Strip. Mall. Dance. Studio. I just got home from my teaching job at a Strip Mall Dance Studio. I love teaching at the Strip Mall Dance Studio. Strip Mall Dance Studio occupies a special space in my inner landscape. Today, as I drove home from teaching, I got something not unlike a lump in my throat, but lower. Like the space behind my heart finally opened its little mouth and said, “ahhh…” or “aww…” I love the Strip Mall Dance Studio.
My first memories of learning dance were at the Strip Mall Dance Studio near my house in Lawrence, Kansas. The strip mall was creatively named “The Malls Shopping Center.” I don’t remember what the studio itself was called but I know exactly where it was—tucked in the corner of a row of single-story beige buildings that also housed Pet World (my favorite place on earth as a 4-year-old), an Ace Hardware (my second favorite place), and a Godfather’s Pizza.
The Strip Mall Dance Studio of my childhood was a tiny room within a room that had a window through which children’s grown-ups watched classes. If I go back through my spatial dance lineage, I can vaguely remember other studios’ internal spaces—the marley, the fluorescent lighting, the smell of rubber and magic—but I struggle to place them. But my Strip Mall Dance Studio? Firmly lodged in my memory. So too the dances I did there; I remember almost all of the steps to my first and only tap number, marching in lockstep with other children to “Spoonful of Sugar.”
Fast-forward through time and space to the Strip Mall Dance Studio where I teach today. It too stands among single-story beige buildings, occupying a former Hallmark store between an Arrow Hardware (the shadow of the word “Ace” visible on the storefront) and a Carbone’s Pizza. It used to be NEXT to the Hallmark building, in a space half the size of its current footprint. THAT space had a curtain dividing the studio. The battle every Thursday was to see if I could play my music louder than the other teacher, and also shout over the music, and also not have a kid chrysalis inside the curtain while trying to teach them that they are artists and their art matters, and, fuck it, let’s just play duck duck goose, I’m tired.
The people who come to this Strip Mall Dance Studio are from an upper Midwest town of roughly 20,000. When the studio moved to its larger strip mall space, one of the studio parents created the new floor plan on AutoCAD. The sprung floor was another parent’s doing; after lots of research, they discovered you could install pool noodles to create the spring. There is a bin of mismatched ballet shoes, tap shoes, and jazz shoes held together in pairs with stretched out rubber bands for dancers who forgot their footwear. There is a miniature altar with a picture and pair of slippers for one of the parents who passed away early last year. Small performances are held for the hospital and nursing homes every spring. This place has love in its bones.
But I didn’t always know I was allowed to love the Strip Mall Dance Studio.
Strip Mall Dance Studios have long stood at the periphery of my mental schema of Successful Dance Education, where Those Who Can’t Do go to Teach because they can’t Hack It at Real Dancing.
Real Dancing is always happening elsewhere—at sleek Big Name Company Dance Studio or edgy Movement Complexes (gawd knows I have some movement complexes). Even raw, unpretentious spaces such as the local Community Center or Church Basement contain Real Dancing.
Strip Mall Dance Studios don’t contain Real Dancing. They are single-story shopping centers, where Buying Things and Doing Capitalism happens.
Real Dancing privileges process. And processing. And not knowing. And inventing new languages for all the processing. Modes. Practices. Embodiments. Phases of self. Real Dancing relishes the goo stage between caterpillar and butterfly. And Real Dancing bemoans the need for money to help ensure the goo stage is able to pay rent and buy groceries this week.
The Strip Mall Dance Studio I’ve danced in and the Strip Mall Dance Studio where I teach know themselves as businesses that rely heavily on costumed end-of-year performances to make ends meet. There is clarity in what goes on (performance) and why (our bottom line and financial survival) that needs little explanation or re-language-ing. Instead of modes, practices, and embodiments, we have The Death of Dance as an Art; Product Over Process; Over-involved Parents and Dead-Eyed Children soul-lessly performing their millionth tap piece to “Good Ship Lollipop.” The Strip Mall Dance Studio doesn’t gel with my sense of what dance education and dance community should look like.
But that’s not all the Strip Mall Dance Studio is. Turns out, the shit I judge is also the shit I love.
I love the parents who run the front desk, create schedules, costume the performances, dance, and teach classes. I love their group text, a web of outdated Winnie-the-Pooh memes and “you make it home alright?” messages.
I love that the kids get so hyped about learning their end-of-the-year dance that they beg to share it with the other classes before the damn thing is even done. I love that they love learning choreography and repeating it. Again. And again. And Again.
I love seeing how much the students crave being in the space together, becoming inseparable like a pair of necklaces in a pocket.
I love that my Strip Mall Dance Studio is bringing forward dance forms from Black lineages and movement traditions that I don’t have a strong history with, like tap and jazz, and along with them, through slow but steady conversation, awareness around HOW these forms are taught and BY whom and in WHAT relation to other forms, thus slowly shifting the needle on how dance is understood by this community of young people. I love that we are transposing new conversations about studio culture and racial equity onto gatherings replete with unironic wine-mom humor. And wine. I love our clunky unlearning and growth.
And I love that I’m welcomed in, allowed to have my creative movement, roll on the floor, expand-contract, feely-feely improvisation happening right next to dance-along songs that, frankly, the kids seem to like better.
We (y’all/us who treat dance as more than just a hobby) know Real Dancing happens everywhere. We know it with the fervor that accompanies everyone and their dog making dance videos, adding dance as the special sauce to their art because, “hey, I can move so I can dance.” We know it because of how discoverable dance STILL seems to be (did you see this kid? Did you see this vid? Did you know that obscure people in obscure places ALSO move their bodies?) We also know that Real Dancing, or at least the definitions of it that have set up shop in my head, often require and hide a lot of work, money, and credentials — prerequisites to belonging that still persistently go unaddressed in many of my circles despite the ways in which other barriers such as gender, ability, race, class, size, age, and neurodivergence are more actively addressed.
Strip Mall Dance Studios remind me that Real Dancing continues to happen in places where a part of me still thinks Real Dancing doesn’t happen.
Dancing happens in repetition. It happens in dance-along songs (#teamLaurieBerkner). It happens in places with inspirational quotes on the walls. It happens in places that emphasize performance over process and places where people get excited about costumes.
I was talking with the studio owner—a friend, a chosen mom to many, and a teacher in the dance department at one of the two colleges in town—about her dance lineage. She did a modern dance head swirl shoulder roll arm extension thing and said that that is how she always starts her modern warm-up. A coworker did the same gesture, and said, “Yep, we know that’s how modern starts.” The studio owner said that this gesture-phrase had come from her mentor. I wonder, How many bodies have walked into the Strip Mall Dance Studio, learned that same phrase and felt comfort, not just in the phrase’s mechanical yumminess but in its ubiquity, in how known it is, not in how original or virtuosic?
The Strip Mall Dance Studio is a home and the dancing that happens there, like the strip mall itself, might feel unremarkable in a sea of other strip malls. But when it comes to movement lineage, throughlines are like collective heartstrings, felt by the group and passed between bodies. The Strip Mall Dance Studio is a base, roots, and a culture inclusive of showstopper finales and bedazzled tutus. It is a beloved place for a community of kids to return to again and again, learning the same warm-ups and hello songs that the older students know, that the teachers taught them, that their teachers taught them. It is a place tucked between a hardware store and a pizza place, where I teach Real Dancing every week. And it is one of my favorite places on earth.
This article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of In Dance.