Instilling A work ethic in Ontario

Elite Danceworx students have a strong ballet foundation.

Three years ago, Dawn Rappitt was giving birth on August 29. Two weeks later, she was back in the studio teaching a full schedule of classes. The owner of Elite Danceworx in Markham, Ontario, is so fiercely devoted to her students she couldn’t bear the thought of employing a long-term substitute teacher, even while she was on maternity leave. “I am so personally invested in all of the kids,” she says. “I have a hand in everything that’s going on. To take time off and not be visible would be unthinkable.”

Rappitt, who founded Elite Danceworx right out of high school, describes herself as old-school in her approach to training, but she works hard to keep her choreography current. For instance, dancers are required to train in popular styles like contemporary, hip hop and jazz, but must rigorously maintain their classical foundation: Advanced students take 7–10 hours of ballet each week. Rappitt hosts a summer intensive to fine-tune students’ technique and requires convention attendance for a sampling of different teaching styles. Guest artists, including in-demand commercial stars like Nick Lazzarini and Stacey Tookey, keep Rappitt and her students up to speed on the industry’s hottest routines.

This winning balance of classical training and up-to-the-minute choreography has helped Rappitt’s program grow from 40 students in rented school space to 325 students, 10 faculty members and a nationally recognized competition team. Four of her dancers have made it to the Top 20 on “So You Think You Can Dance Canada,” including Melanie Mah, who was one of the final six contestants for her season. “Dawn is vigilant about providing her dancers with all of the tools they need to be successful, employable and valuable contributors to the industry when they graduate,” says Mah, who has appeared on TV shows and in works by Dana Foglia.

Rappitt is crystal clear when it comes to her expectations for dancers—students learn right away that they can’t walk in the door of her studio and expect immediate success. “It doesn’t serve me to just hand them things and then have them go out in the real world and find out they’re not going to get the job or the promotion or the boyfriend just because they asked for it,” she says. “It won’t be a walk in the park when they leave­ the studio—they’ll have to dig their heels in and carry that work ethic with them in life.”

Photo by Brian Gellar, courtesy of Dawn Rappitt

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