Empowering young women in Chicago

Robin Fisher started The Dance Foundation to help young women in Chicago’s underserved communities.

In the second-floor office of Fisher Dance Center is a desk that sees a lot of activity. It’s

covered with paperwork and mail, and spanning its edge, facing the room, is a sign bearing these words: “The man who said it couldn’t be done should never interrupt the woman doing it.” This particular woman, Robin Fisher, not only built her successful studio in Wilmette, Illinois, from the ground up, she created an outreach program that has changed the lives of more than 250 children from Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods.

Fisher opened her center in 1987 as a modest operation, offering ballet, jazz and tap lessons in the basement of a post office building in nearby Northfield and, later, a converted warehouse. As her advanced students grew into needing master classes and auditions, Fisher reconnected with former mentors in Chicago, such as Frank Chaves and tapper Jimmy Payne, at Broadway Dance Center in New York with Frank Hatchett and around the country with Joe Tremaine. Directing and choreographing lavish end-of-year performances with original story lines and alumni guesting in lead roles scratched her itch to create. Her business thrived, and she soon earned enough to buy the old laundry in downtown Wilmette that is FDC’s current location.

In 1993, 10 young women, most of them residents of Chicago’s Cabrini–Green housing

project, became the first beneficiaries of FDC’s new scholarship and advocacy program, The Dance Foundation. Wanting to help children, Fisher had considered traditional forms of short-term outreach. But she was wary of just “showing up every once in a while,” she says. “It’s great for that day, but it doesn’t really change anything.”

In Fisher’s program, students—18 this year—train on full scholarship and are paired with “sisters” at Fisher Dance Center for a decade or more. The Dance Foundation “serves the needs of the entire student,” Fisher explains. They share their report cards and, if necessary, get help with their academic studies. Ranging in age from 3 to 18, some receive assistance with college applications or expensive health care like braces. From Chicago’s neighborhoods, they commute an hour or more three times a week to Wilmette.

In rehearsal with foundation students, Fisher is patient and warm. Her 10-year-old cocker spaniel Bella keeps the mood in the studio light. “It’s about me loving these kids and seeing what they need to be strong women,” she says.

“She’s not just a dance teacher,” says one of Fisher Dance Center’s first students, Shannon Lea Smith, now back home in New York after the national tour of Mamma Mia! “She’s a second mother. She’s always been that.”

Among colleagues and close friends, no one can say what drives Fisher’s tireless advocacy and generosity. “I’ve always taken it as part of her nature,” says Gena Romagnoli, a former FDC student, now an attorney. “She’s a strong woman and I think it’s important to her to ensure that the next generation of women is strong as well.”

Photo by Daniel Kullman, courtesy of Robin Fisher

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