Heather Raue prepares her small-town students for success in the larger world.HEATHER RAUE

Crooked Tree Arts Center Dance Department

Petoskey, Michigan

When little Heather Raue saw Suzanne Farrell dance on television after an episode of “Sesame Street,” the toddler decided she too would be a ballerina. After just one class, 3-year-old Heather decided on a different goal: She wanted to be a teacher.

Fast-forward 28 years; Raue, 31, is co-founder and director of the dance department for the Crooked Tree Arts Center in Petoskey, Michigan. In seven years, she has built a ballet-based program from two beginners to 180 students. The pre-professional division now sends dancers to some of the most prestigious summer dance programs in the country, including The School of American Ballet, the American Dance Festival, The Ailey School and Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy.

Petoskey is a long way from Dallas, Texas, where Raue grew up and trained at the Etgen-Atkinson Ballet School and the affiliated Dallas Metropolitan Ballet. (She also studied at the Ben Stevenson Academy and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.) “I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but if you had told me growing up that I’d be doing it in a little town in Northern Michigan, I would have said, ‘No way!’” Raue and her husband, Erik, happened upon the little (6,000 residents) town of Petoskey on their honeymoon and instantly fell in love.

At the time, Petoskey had a vibrant arts scene, including a newly renovated arts center that included a dance studio, but no one in town was teaching dance. It wasn’t long before Erik persuaded his wife to fill the void. Today, Raue teaches ballet, pointe and partnering six days a week as part of a three-member dance faculty. She also teaches one day a week each at two other locations near the Crooked Tree Arts Center.

But it’s the 18 students in Crooked Tree’s pre-professional dance program who have garnered attention from others in the dance world. The dancers take classes six days a week in ballet and modern.

Their parents rave about Raue’s dedication. “This woman is unbelievable with these kids. Her commitment to them and the way she communicates and works with them is just amazing,” says Ann Massey, whose 12-year-old son, Michael Menghini, has been studying with Raue for three years. Massey drives 90 miles roundtrip, six days a week, to get her son to class. “There are other places closer to us where we could go, but I wouldn’t want him to go anywhere else,” Massey says. “The level of training and the care and commitment to the kids is just amazing. Even if he doesn’t become a dancer, he’ll always remember Miss Heather and what she’s done for him.”

Raue provides her students with training that reflects her own experience in the dance world—a rock-solid foundation. For her pre-professional students, that foundation is heightened by exposure to an eclectic range of styles and influences. Only students planning to study after high school are allowed on pointe, and Raue says she often opts to start pointe training at age 12, when her students are “past being ready.”

Because she recognizes that her serious students need exposure to other teachers and the world outside Petoskey, Raue goes above and beyond to help them get into outside summer study programs. She personally prepares individualized packets for each student with information on auditions and helps them select a program that is well-suited for the their needs and abilities. Despite the area’s harsh winters, her students regularly carpool for the seven-hour drive to Chicago, the nearest location for auditions. “I’m vehement about making them into well-rounded dancers who can handle just about anything,” she says.

Diane Reynolds, whose daughter Kirsten, 15, has been with Raue for eight years, says, “Miss Heather gives so much more to our dancers than just dance lessons. With her encouragement they discover what their deepest desires and passions are. She helps them achieve their dreams.”

“The number one thing I want my dancers to have is passion about whatever they pursue in life,” Raue says. “I always want them to push the envelope—to explore past where they think their boundaries are.”

Photo courtesy of Heather Raue

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