The Hiawatha Park Dance Company…

The Hiawatha Park Dance Company Logo

The Hiawatha Park Dance Company Logo

In recent days I’ve been spending time trying to organize this blog. I’ve been blogging for a couple of years now, and part of the challenge I face is that I don’t blog about one specific subject. That can be confusing to potential visitors who, I think, look to blogs for very specific information. Within the past year, the greater part of my blog had dealt with a growing passion of mine, cooking and baking, and writing about the recipes I’ve tried, my opinions of them, and lessons learned while making them. I am not a natural cook learning much of my technique from the school of hard knocks and some strategic cooking classes and my thought was that my journey may help others like me who did not have anyone to mentor them in the culinary arts when they were growing up.

Ok, so what does all of this have to do with the Hiawatha Park Dance Company? Well there are two trains of thought that brought me about to the dance company. The first being that, early on, I was so career obsessed and my job became my total focus – one of the reasons I never really learned how to cook and that is something I’ve been thinking about recently. And second, as I was organizing the blog it occurred to me that I have written several blogs about my general memories about Hiawatha Park but none specifically about the dance company. So it’s time for that special group of ladies to get their due.

Me and some of the members...

Me and some of the members…

I taught in after school programs at Hiawatha Park for 14 years. My title was drama instructor and my job was to teach drama and to produce children’s plays (along with directing and working at Theatre On The Lake, but that’s an entirely different blog in itself). It became apparent early on in my days at Hiawatha Park that both the students and the audience liked musicals so I decided to add a few dance numbers to some of the early shows I produced. That soon became the glue that made many of the students return. They loved to dance (and so did I) and dancing as a part of the program grew by leaps and bounds until it got to the point the productions were more about dancing and less about acting. Although we continued to do plays (it was a must every December) we branched off and started to do dance recitals every Spring. And those took off like wild fire. Soon I was mostly teaching dance classes, with one play production class and the numbers of students in my program got larger and larger.

Being the type-A personality that I am, I wanted to make sure my students had quality instruction. I had taken dance classes in college and had some good basic knowledge but I wanted to provide classes that could challenge the abilities of the students as they began to excel. So off to dance studios I went. At one point in time I was taking classes 3-4 times a week with various choreographers I had worked with as well as instructors from the Hubbard Street Dance company, a renowned Chicago dance company.

The dancers, and me with their mom's...

The dancers, and me with their mom’s…

Now, I am not your typical dancer – I am way too tall and had never been super lean, but I had innate ability that got me pretty adept in the principles of jazz dancing. From there, what I learned they learned – sometimes even down to the routines that I learned in my classes. I saw students struggle, I saw students fail, I saw students excel but I made sure that each and every one of them always knew that they were positively challenging their abilities, and that to me is the true meaning of success.

After some time it became apparent that, as in many cases, some students were simply much better than others. In my mind that did not make them better it just made them more adept at learning certain principles of dance. So as I began to notice varying levels of expertise it became a challenge to figure out how to keep all of my students motivated and interested. Then one day during a dance class it came to me. I was being instructed by a dancer from the Hubbard Street Dance Company and I thought dance company… dance company. What a great idea – form a dance company. Create a venue for the dancers that excel and provide a tangible goal for the aspiring up-and-coming dancers. The idea took off.

Membership was basically up to me, we did not have a formal audition process and I did not stay at Hiawatha Park long enough to develop one. Basically I think I based it on whether a dancer could do a double turn – some could do triples. They also had to be able to perform every element of the more complex routines. I will never forget their first official number, and their simple introduction: Ladies and Gentleman, The Hiawatha Park Dance Company  — the black jackets with the company’s name on the back –  their backs to the audience, the lights go up, the surrealistic intro to Prince’s song “You’ve Got the Look” and then BAM, they turn and begin their bump and grinds. All I could think of was how fortuitous it was for them to be dancing to that song as the words “Sho nuff do be cookin’ in my book” certainly applied to them at that moment. It was all I could do to not reduce myself to a blubbering idiot as I watched them. They were proud, confident young women who found an identity that separated them from the pack. They knew it and I knew it. They were the ones all the other dancers in the program aspired to be. It was so fabulous to see them shine. And shine they did. They learned everything I learned. They were dedicated, competitive. They wanted to be the best they could be. What life lessons they learned through that program, life lessons they didn’t even realize they were learning at the time and I didn’t realize I was teaching.

They developed a great reputation so much so that they were asked to perform at Chicago Park District city-wide events. They were the main event at the city’a annual Arbor Day Celebration for a couple of years, an event that brought the mayor and a host of other city dignitaries to Daley Bicentennial Plaza on Chicago’s Lakefront.

Woodsmoke Ranch Program

Woodsmoke Ranch Program

They performed at Woodsmoke Ranch, a private RV park, for a couple of years (one of the parent’s owned some property there) and of course they performed at Hiawatha Park dance recitals and Christmas parties. I even had to institute a number in all of our shows where all the other dancers would have one number with the dance company which, at it’s highpoint, included sixty kids on stage all-together weaving in and out of each other and performing different but coordinated routines. I always dreaded staging that one – it took one complete rehearsal just to get that down as they would all rehearse separately until production week. Sometimes I wonder how we ever even did it. But in the end it was worth it just to see the looks on their faces and the faces of their families and friends.

At the city-wide Arbor Day event

At the city-wide Arbor Day event

If there is one thing that I can point to as my shining accomplishment at Hiawatha Park it has to be the dance company. Not that the other parts of the program were less important, but once I established it I knew I had hit the programmatic jackpot.

I stayed at Hiawatha Park for 14 years. In my third year three young women came into the drama program, Michelle Steffen (Rouland) , Janine Herman (George), and Camille DeAngelis. A few years later their friend Denise Chyrsty (Redmond) joined and then all four of them stayed with the program, becoming the initial core of the company, through their senior year in high school. That last year they became affectionately knows as “The Seniors”. Talk about growing up together, boy did we ever. It was so important to me that they have their last year in the dance company that I turned down a promotion the year before so that I could stay at Hiawatha Park for them. I never told them that at the time and was offered another promotion immediately following their final performance. I took that one and the dance company became history.

The Seniors

“The Seniors” with their moms and me.

But if “The Seniors” were the elder statesmen, you can’t discount the other members of the group, Jenny Jarosz (Holcomb) – the heart and soul of all of us , Nicole Burns (Shamo) the dedicated professional, Heather Wronowski – “finger love” (and the members all know what that means), Michelle Kyrstek – our angel who died at the age of 13 from an unsuccessful organ transplant, Lydia Hlibchuck – who taught us all a thing or two about jazz turns, and April Balitewicz – the most flexible dancer of the entire bunch. Together they were a joy to work with and a joy to be with. To this day most of them are still in my life.

It has taken me this long to honor in writing this wonderful group of young girls who have all gone on to become inspiring women. And although the miles may separate us, the love binds us together. I love them all and will until the day I die. And so, with all the love in my heart it is my honor to introduce to you, ladies and gentleman, The Hiawatha Park Dance Company!

Dance Company

Hiawatha Means Holidays…

One of my most precious memories, or years of memories, I have of the Christmas holiday season was producing the annual holiday shows at Hiawatha Park. The shows started out as small plays and evolved into Christmas musical extravaganzas. For me, the fall and winter seasons are still defined in my mind by the rigid schedule we kept to get a show up the second week in December. It was always the second week in December for several reasons, mostly so it would not conflict with the myriad of other holiday activities planned by schools and families. But I also arranged my schedule so that once the show was done I was on vacation until the first of the year. Ah, those were the days…

We did many full scale musicals including Babes in Toyland, Cinderella and Peter Pan and we also did shows consisting of holiday skits and dancing. But, regardless of what we chose to do, it was always a magical way to ring in the holiday season. Auditions started early in September and the competition was always fierce for the lead roles. Once the show was cast rehearsals began and the tried and true schedule we was put into motion. Rehearsals were two to five days a week, depending on the size of your role. At least once, if not twice, during the course of the rehearsal period I would tell the students the show was canceled, not because I intended to do it but it was a weapon to get them to behave. It worked for a while and then became just another element of patterns of the rehearsal schedule. The first complete run through was always the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I would always dreaded that day but more often than not was surprised that the kids could actually pull it all together.

After that, I would spend rehearsal times focusing on weak areas and ensuring that we did a few more complete run throughs before we moved into the gym. The Hiawatha Park gymnasium was the venue where we staged all of our shows. We could never get into the space until the Monday before the show so we literally had only two days to rehearse in the performance space before the show opened, and one of those days was dress rehearsal with no stopping and starting. So technically we had only one rehearsal to get it all down.

The Monday of show week was perhaps the day I dreaded the most. Moving from the small room where we rehearsed for two months and trying to get sixty kids to adjust their blocking to the much bigger space was always interesting. The more seasoned students learned quickly and adapted very well. The newer students had difficulty but always seemed to find their way by show time. Monday was also the day that we staged the major dance number of the show that involved every single student in the program. It was the first time all of them danced the dance together and it was a technical nightmare – sixty kids doing different things at different times weaving in and out of each other while watching in awe the dancing of the Dance Company. How we all got through it I will never know, but the result was spectacular. The Monday rehearsal  always seemed like it would never end. Having to restage the entire show, adapt the choreography and do a complete run through with lights and sound for the first time was a daunting task. But we all pulled through.

Then came Tuesday, dress rehearsal night, and you could feel the tension in the air. This was it – regardless of what happened, the show would be done in its entirety without stopping. I had strict back stage rules for the cast but trying to keep a slew of excited grammar school children behaving was perhaps the biggest task of all. I spent as much time keeping them seated, preventing them from peaking out from behind the bookfolds, and not talking as I did stage managing. Quite often I would snap my fingers and point at someone misbehaving with a glare that I hoped would stop them in their tracks. Some times it work and some times it didn’t. There were even a few surprise rump taps to keep them in check. If I were teaching today, that definitely would not have occurred. And eventually we made it through dress rehearsal and on to three nights of performances.

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday – performance days. The first night you could cut the tension with a knife, the second night the kids were old pros and the third night they were just plain having fun. And then there were the flowers. Every closing night they gave me flowers. For fourteen years I got flowers and for fourteen years each group that gave them went through elaborate measures to make sure that I didn’t know I was getting flowers – or so they thought. And although I knew, I cherished each gift because I knew it reflected the love they had for me, which I also had for them.

And then came Saturday. This holiday play producing tradition was capped off by the annual Christmas Party at Hiawatha Park which always occurred the day after our show closed. And every year the dancers would perform at least two of dances they performed in the holiday show. And that was it, the auditions, the rehearsals, the canceling of the show, the pre-Thanksgiving run through, the first day in the gym, the dress rehearsal, the three nights of shows, the flowers, the Christmas Party – all culminating in the second week of December.

Today is Saturday in the second week of December, the day of the annual Christmas party. And in my mind today, the show is over, the holiday songs are being sung (accompanied by Rita Utz on the piano) and the dancers for one last time are performing some dances from the holiday show. The flowers they gave me the night before are in a vase in a prominent place in my house, serving as a beautiful reminder of what we all accomplished together. Those beautiful flowers, those precious flowers. They are so vivid in my mind even though you don’t bring me flowers anymore…