Sure, it makes us all go warm and fuzzy when we see a papa dancing with his daughter. Yet, when we looked into the ways fathers are part of everyday life at bustling dance studios, we found that dads are doing a lot more than that. From schlepping their children across town to class or figuring out a complicated stage-set problem for an upcoming show, dads are making a difference and having a blast doing it. DT spoke to three studio owners who truly believe that dance is a family affair. Here, they share their experiences on ways to keep studio dads happy and involved with showing off their special skills.
In Motion Dance Project
It’s not unusual to see a gaggle of dads wearing matching “Prop Dudes” T-shirts while hard at work designing and building the many set pieces that distinguish the theatrical nature of In Motion Dance Project’s competition numbers. Studio director Amanda Plesa and her husband and partner Api Photnetrakhom both come from the entertainment industry, and she says they’ve used large sets for recitals from the very beginning, when they had only 20 students.
“Our set pieces just keep getting bigger,” she says, and that’s where the dads come in. In particular, they built a giant hand-painted 12-foot storybook set piece for a Mother Goose number for their tween group, which cleaned up at Nationals in 2013.
Located in a business complex, the studio boasts a large parking lot that clears out for weekend building projects. “Dads bring their tools, but we have accumulated quite a few now, too,” says Plesa. “They socialize and have gotten to know each other. Dads like having something to do other than waiting around for the kids.”
As the years have gone by, the set pieces have become more complex and sophisticated in design and construction: Dancers emerging out of a six-foot disco ball made an impact. An eye-grabbing Tarzan number included custom-designed trees and an eight-foot elephant.
“We worked at Disney, so we are used to spectacle,” says Plesa. “Sometimes, rumors circulate at competitions that Disney builds our sets.” The pièce de résistance this season has been a Star Wars set, complete with a spaceship and an X-wing fighter. “I have never seen the dads so excited, and they are so knowledgeable about Star Wars trivia.” Other feats of workmanship include a giant moving bed with a 10-foot Pegasus for a slumber number, and two rock-climbing walls.
But every now and then, the dads get ahead of themselves. Once, they built a complex carousel that was very time-consuming to set up. Trouble occurred when there was no way to know which dancer was going to end up where. “I have never been so stressed watching a dance,” says Plesa. “The dads always bring their tools to the venues just for any contingency that might occur.”
Of course, the men are building not only sets but lifelong friendships, and Plesa understands that can only be good for the studio. Recently, they all did a “warrior run” together, complete with obstacles. “My husband is CEO of the Prop Dudes, but he enlists help from other unsuspecting dads for leadership positions along the way,” she says.
Spezio’s Dance Dynamics
Amherst, New York
While Michelle Spezio Ferm will be the first to admit that a dad has helped shovel snow, mostly she has her dancers’ fathers busy doing higher-level work, like helping with fundraising, computer issues, studio upgrades and set construction.
“Our dads are an integral part of our studio life,” she says. “We like to use our parents’ talents to be part of their children’s lives.” Fathers have negotiated leasing agreements, pitched in with marketing ideas, made cubbies for storage, painted the studio and even solved lobby wi-fi problems. At recitals they have been known to dress up in tuxedos to usher.
The helping-dad philosophy starts at home with Ferm’s husband, Mark, an accountant who does the studio’s taxes and more. “Our dads take a lot of pride in what they do for the studio,” she says. “And I really enjoy finding out how they want to get involved.”
An incentive program called Dance Dollars, a studio-based currency that can be applied to their children’s tuition, has helped. Fathers can earn Dance Dollars by helping out in various activities.
One of Ferm’s favorite events is an annual fundraising cookout that takes place during picture weekend. The fathers take over the sprawling parking lot, put up a tent, crank up the grills and turn what might have been a long, boring day into a bustling party that the whole studio community can enjoy. Over the course of one weekend, 1,500 photos are taken and many hotdogs and burgers sold. The dads don their “SDD Dad” shirts and have a blast grilling and chatting up the families.
Of course, Spezio dads are ace set-builders and over the years have turned out many distinctive pieces for competitions and recitals. On occasion, however, they forget the sets will likely be handled by women. “Some pieces are made so sturdy, they are difficult for us teachers to quickly place,” says Ferm. She’s learned it’s best to agree on specifications up front. “We always review the size and weight of the prop so it is sturdy yet easy to maneuver.”
Boni’s Dance & Performing Arts Studio Inc.
The Woodlands, Texas
When the 2- and 3-year-olds of Boni’s Dance finish their recital numbers, they are greeted onstage by their fathers bearing flowers. The dads then carry the tiny dancers off the stage, which always draws a collective “aww” from the audience. “Once, a dad came onstage with a baby in a Snugly,” says owner Bonnie Schuetz. It gets even more moving when these babies grow into seniors, and their fathers once again come to fetch their daughters from the stage during senior recital tributes. “Some jump on the backs of their dads,” she says. “It’s always fun to watch.”
Schuetz has witnessed a huge shift in the dad-involvement department from when she started 30 years ago. “We have dads who are the sole caretakers of their children, so we see them not only taking their kids to and from class but making ponytails and buns, coming to costume fittings and sewing costumes.” The guys perform an array of activities, and the only area where they cannot help out is the dressing rooms backstage.
Like Ferm and Plesa, Schuetz has dads on set-building duties. And they not only build the sets but cart them off to competition events, as well. You will find them tirelessly working backstage and then ready to load up and drive home—not an easy task considering the studio’s busy competition schedule.
Because being a dance dad is by its nature a temporary gig, Schuetz always makes sure there’s a new crop of leaders coming up the pike so that the tradition can continue. The dads learn the ropes from other dads, so there’s already a system in place to welcome the new dads into studio life. DT
Nancy Wozny’s dad took her to her first dance concert. She writes about the arts from Houston, Texas
Photos (from top) courtesy of In Motion Dance Project; courtesy of Boni’s Dance; courtesy of Spezio’s Dance Dynamics; courtesy of In Motion Dance Project