Ask Michele Larkin-Wagner and Molly Larkin-Symanietz what sets them and Maplewood, Minnesota–based Larkin Dance Studio apart, and they immediately give the credit to their mom. Shirley Larkin founded the school in 1950 and continued to oversee the growing business until she passed away in 2011. "She put Minnesota on the map for dance training and made other local studios step up to the plate to become as strong as we are," Michele says. "A lot of people's lives are better because of Shirley Larkin."
For Michele and Molly, following in their mom's footsteps was a no-brainer. "I knew I was going to be a choreographer and take over the studio," Michele says. To Molly, seven years Michele's junior and the baby out of six siblings, the studio was always a second home. The two sisters trained across genres but had distinct specialties: Michele found her niche in jazz, musical theater and lyrical, while Molly excelled in tap. In the summers, they'd travel for workshops in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. While Michele was in class with jazz legends like Gus Giordano, JoJo Smith, Luigi and Frank Hatchett, Molly was taking tap classes with the likes of Brenda Bufalino and Phil Black.
After assisting at LDS throughout their childhoods, both began teaching in earnest as teens. Michele also got an early start guest-teaching and choreographing at various conferences and workshops, including Dance Educators of America, Professional Dance Teachers Association and Dance Caravan USA. The sisters inherited their mother's love of the artform and her passion for helping kids, as well as her tireless work ethic. When Shirley died, Molly says, "everybody knew Michele and I were going to keep things going. We were already there seven days a week. It was a natural transition."
Michele and Molly now head up an organization that is known not only for winning competition titles, but also for producing dancers who are ready to work. LDS was named Studio of the Year at The Dance Awards in Las Vegas in 2016. Students and alumni have competed on "So You Think You Can Dance" and NBC's "World of Dance," and have performed with Cirque du Soleil, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, L.A. Dance Project, Travis Wall's Shaping Sound and on Broadway. "Our dancers are well-rounded," Molly says. "They take ballet for strength and technique, tap for timing and rhythm, stretch and strengthening classes to avoid injury—it all works together."
LDS has grown significantly since its early years, and in 2014 moved to its current location, a state-of-the-art facility with eight studios. But while the space has changed, the signature Larkin energy has not. Shirley Larkin's portrait hangs by the studio's entrance, and Michele and Molly strive to maintain the family-friendly environment she fostered. "Our first slogan was 'Praise His name with dance,' from the Psalms," Michele explains. "We pass that on by teaching our students to be driven, persistent and dedicated. Mom said students were to be nice people first, and good dancers second."
Many Larkin alumni return to teach; Michele estimates that the faculty is 75 percent former students. Molly's daughter, Mackenzie Symanietz, is being groomed to carry the torch when her mother and aunt step down. "Everyone at Larkin is family," says Jenny Johnson, who trained at LDS for 13 years, was on faculty for 20 and sent two children to classes there; her mom also trained with Shirley. "It's a place where parents can see their children learning and growing not only as dancers but also as individuals. Michele and Molly are an integral part of their students' lives, sharing in disappointments as well as successes and teaching so much more than dance."
They call it the "Larkin legacy," this potent blend of multigenerational history, top-notch dance training and important life lessons, and it all traces back to the matriarch. "Everything we have now is because of how Mom raised us and taught us," Michele says. "I know she's looking down on us, and I know she's proud."
Mark Your Calendar
Join us in Long Beach, CA, July 26–28, or in NYC, August 1–3, for our 2019 Dance Teacher Summit.