Studio shows it's never too late to take up the joy of dancing

Kari James has students from age 20 to those in their 70s, including people who are rekindling a love of the art and people who are new at it.

It's a cold, blustery Thursday morning, but at the Kari James Dance Network in Kirkwood, the advanced beginning jazz class already has managed to steam up the floor-to-ceiling windows in the front of the studio.

Now the advanced beginning tap class is trying to nail down an intricately choreographed sequence, accompanied by the Brazilian beat of "Got to Get On This Train" from the motion picture "Woman on Top."

"Scuff, step, scuff, step, heel, flap, double heel, toe, heel," calls out Kari James, as the class, paired off by twos, moves gamely across the wooden floor.

"Good!" she says encouragingly. "Now, faster, and with bigger, brighter smiles!"

Big smiles never are a problem at the studio at 10030 Manchester Road, but sometimes speed can be a challenge.

"This definitely isn't granny tap," says Charles Collins, 40, who started tap a few months ago after studying jazz with James for a year. "It's physically challenging, and it involves a lot of brainwork. I do fine with patterns, but the sequences? I need to slow down if I'm ever going to learn them."

That's fine with James, who makes it a point to adjust her teaching to fit the skill levels of her students, who range in age from their 20s to their 70s. Adult dance classes, a huge phenomenon on both coasts at places such as New York's Broadway Dance Center, are beginning to agin popularity here. And though several area studios and community colleges, as well as the Center of Contemporary Arts, offer occasional classes in, say, adult ballet, the Kari James Dance Network is one of the few that cater completely to adults, long past the pink tights-and-tutu stage.

Which is not to say students are spared from performing in annual recitals. Indeed, a recital in June at St. Louis University High School attracted close to a standing-room-only crowd that was treated to everything from a Bob Fosse "Steam Heat" number to a can-can scene a la "Moulin Rouge" — all with age-appropriate costumes, of course.

It's all part of James' philosophy that you're never too old to dance.

"Dance is great exercise, but it's more than aerobics; dance does something for your soul," she says. "There's no reason to quit just because you can't kick or jump as high as you used to; you can use attitude and style to compensate for physical limitations."

Indeed, it was James' own longing to rediscover a childhood passion that ultimately led to the creation of her studio. James, who grew up in Pond, studied tap and ballet seriously from age 5 through age 18.

"I was absolutely hooked on dance; it built up my self-confidence and actually allowed me to speak," says James, 45, who now lives in Kirkwood.

A dream ends

In high school, James took part in Miss Tap St. Louis and the Junior Miss Pageant and says dancing enabled her to withstand interviews and face audiences. Still, she says she gave up her dream of being a professional dancer becasue she couldn't handle the prospect of endless auditions. Instead, she went to college, graduated in 1978 from St. Louis University with a degree in accounting. After that, she began a corporate career at Southwestern Bell.

A few years later, James says, she remembers walking past a dance studio on her way to a hair appointment. "I stopped, watched and was absolutely mesmerized," she recalls. "I realized how unfulfilled I felt, how much I missed dancing."

Before long, she was dancing again, both taking lessons and occasionally teaching. By 1987, she had made the decision to start her own adult-oriented dance studio, called Steps Unlimited, in Olivette.

"There were so few opportunities for audlts to experience any kind of movement classes back then. If you wanted to dance, you could usually count on being next to a 13-year-old in class," says James. "I was convinced there was a market for this, but starting the business was the most frightening thing I've ever done."

After seven years and "a huge learning curve," James shuttered her studio, even though enrollment had tripled, to teach at the Center of Contemporary Arts. Within four years, she had expanded the program there to nine offerings a week, including three levels of jazz and two tap classes.

Back in business

Two years ago, feeling the need for more independence, she opened the Kari James Dance Network with partner Becky Gasbarre, 53, of Kirkwood. Gasbarre, who grew up in south St. Louis County, is another child dancer who rediscovered her love for tap, ballet and jazz and managed to integrate it into her adult life along with a 16-year counseling career with the St. Louis County Juvenile Court, marriage and motherhood.

"By the time I met Kari, I had danced with the Fox Tellerettes and started a program for children at St. Michael Parish in Shrewsbury," says Gasbarre. "We clicked, both artistically and as friends, and I agreed to teach with one provision: that I never be required to put on a leotard again!"

In fact, there are very few, if any, leotards seen at this studio; most students here wear sweats and T-shirts. But if their dress is casual and loose, their attitude is anything but. Kari James' classes, which also include hip hop and West African dance, attract people who are seriously committed to dance.

Take Mary Bearman, 77, of Ladue, who has been James' student off and on for at least 20 years.

"Dancing with Kari is pretty cerebral," says Bearman. "She's just so inspiring. She pushes hard and expects a lot, and nine times out of 10, she gets it."

Besides James' regular classes, Bearman says she loves the master classes offered with lumiinaries such as tap dancers Lane Alexander, director of Chicago's Human Rhythm Program, Mark Goodman of Los Angeles and Germaine Goodson of New York.

"As a little girl, I always wanted to perform, but when my ballet teacher suggested I try out for the Muny chorus, my father refused to let me, saying no daughter of his was going to be on the stage," says Bearman. "So it's really exciting to be able to dance now with someone who is famous on Broadway. That's where we all want to be, at least the next time around."

Unlike Bearman, Collins, who is the organist and choir director at Second Presbyterian Church in the Central West End, is a relative newcomer to the world of dance. He began by taking ballet class at his gym, St. Louis Workout, and before long, found himself migrating to Kari James.

"As a musician, I was curious about how others involved in the arts, like dancers, think," he says. "I've found that getting your body to do what your mind says can be quite a challenge. Kari's classes are demanding, but there is something very freeing about them, too."

Healing movement

Freedom from physical pain is what brought Janis Murray of Ladue in the studio. Two years ago, she ruptured two discs in her neck. After six weeks in bed, she began physical therapy, and was advised that the best exercise program she could follow was one that involved complicated but nonrepetitive movements.

"I realized that meant dancing," says Murray, who studied ballet, tap and jazz all the way from preschool through college. "I grew up in the 60s, when there was no Title IX and no sports programs for girls. My mother wanted me to be graceful, so I danced."

After "a 20-year hole," which included graduate school, a journalism career, marriage and motherhood, Murray started dancing again with James. Not only did it relieve her neck pain but it also proved to be a great way to relieve stress.

"Dancing is as strenuous as any aerobics class I've taken," says Murray, a partner in MediaMasters. "But because you have to focus intensely on what you're doing — you just can't think about other things — you come away from it with complete peace of mind, like yoga."

There's one other bonus to dance classes, adds Murray: camaraderie. "Dancers are gregarious, but they also have to take chances and share vulnerabilities. There's a real sense of 'We're all in this together' at the studio," says Murray. "The atmosphere is very inclusive; you get to stay fit in an artistic way, wiht great music and a happy environment."

Glenda Seldin, 41, of Ladue, goes a step further when she describes her experience there.

"It makes me feel like a kid again," says Seldin, who started dancing at age 3 and recently returned to tap and jazz after a 15-year hiatus. "Having the opportunity to do something as an adult that gave me such pleasure as a child — it's pure joy."

— Renee Stovsky; St. Louis Post Dispatch

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