Gotta dance! Studio for adults puts dreams on stage

They put aside their pedestrian pursuits for showcase.


Dancers perform "Hey Big Spender" in the Kari James Dance Network's annual recital, held at St. Louis University High School. photo by Stephanie S. Cordle

At one hour until curtain time, Maggie Chi, 54, is watching her reflection in a full-length mirror backstage and counting aloud as she practices a particularly intricate part of her routine.

"I'm so nervous — and so excited!" she exclaims, adjusting the bright red fright wig atop her head.

Clad in a black leotard, her skin sparkleing with rhinestone body jewels and her eyes heavily made up with thick, fake lashes, Chi, who lives in south St. Louis County, looks anythiing but the Washington University research biochemist she is.

"This is my dream: to be a performer," says the diminutive Chi. She adds that 36 of her friends and family, including her husband, teenage daughter and fellow church members, are there to applaud her debut in the Heart and Sole showcase, presented recently at St. Louis University High School by Kari James Dance Network, a Kirkwood studio specializing in dance classes for adults.

Growing up in Hong Kong, Chi explains, the only fine arts that were accessible to most children were piano, violin or ballet. Chi dabbled in modern dance in her 30s, but when she met James at a Senior Olympics tap competition last year, she became enamored with the pastime.

"Kari's philosophy is that dance is not about age; it is about passion," says Chi. "We connected."

Unlike Chi, Laura McReynolds, 40, of Kirkwood, is an old hand at James' annual extravaganza. McReynolds, a monther of two who owns an insurance agency with her husband, has been dancing with James for 18 years and even performed through her pregnancies.

"Being on stage is like one big exhale," says McReynolds, who takes jazz, tap and hip hop at the studio, 10030 Manchester Road. "Adult life is usually so serious — car payments, mortgage payments, jobs. This gives me a chance to completely be someone else."

Her boys, she adds, are very supportive of what she dubs her "therapy," though they tease her about having to go to "mom's dance recital."

But if "dance recital" conjures up distant memories of pink tutus and tights, the Kari James production is anything but that. A collaboration of James, 45, and her business partner, Becky Gasbarre, 53, both of Kirkwood, the showcase mixes students and guest artists who perform anything from Irish and West African dances to ballet and tai chi duets, with jazz numbers such as "Razzle Dazzle" from the movie soundtrack of "Chicago" thrown into the mixture.

And if part of the talent is amateur, the costumes certainly are not. They're created on a shoestring budget by dance student Tim Kent, 42, of the Central West End, a professional costume designer who says he cut his teeth "hooking G-strings for the 'Hollywood Jubilee' show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas."

Moreover, the most recent showcase, based loosely on a Cirque du Soleil-type theme, featured a carnival atmosphere before the recital and during intermission, as the sold-out crowd of 600 milled about a balloon-filled lobby and were entertained by jugglers and martial artists.

"We try to put on the most polished performance we can, even though this is a volunteer effort of diverse talent," says James, who estimates it takes more than two month's work to choreograph, rehearse and costume dancers and musicians for the two-hour production.

Why go to such gargantuan lenghts to showcase grown-up dance students?

"Ultimately, dancing is about performing," says James. "There are so few opportunities for adults to experience that."

"Ultimately, dancing is about performing," says James. "There are so few opportunities for adults to experience that."

Indeed, although adults' dance classes are a huge phenomenon with baby boomers on both coasts, at places such as New York's Broadway Dance Center, they are just beginning to gain popularity in this area. A few years back, it was nearly impossible for adults to take lessons here without finding themselves sandwiched between 13-year-olds in class. Now, several area studios and community colleges as well as the Center of Contemporary Arts offer a smattering of classes, but James' Dance Network is one of the few that cater solely to an older crowd.

Indeed, it was James' own longing to rediscover a childhood passion that led to the creation of her studio. She studied tap and ballet seriously from age 5 to 18, then — unwilling to face endless auditions — opted for a degree in accounting in college and embarked on a corporate career at Southwestern Bell.

A few years later, she happened to walk past a dance studio and was "absolutely mesmerized."

"I realized how unfulfilled I felt, and how much I missed dancing," she recalls.

By 1987, she had opened her first studio, Steps Unlimited, in Olivette. From there, she began teaching at COCA, then hooked up with Gasbarre, another childhood dancer who had opted for marriage, motherhood and a counseling career at the St. Louis Juvenile Court, and started Kari James Dance Network.

Though most students, such as Janis Murrray of Ladue, say they are attracted to dance classes for "both the physical and mental challenges involved," they often find an added bonus: camaraderie.

Nancy Randall, 42, of South County, editor of a Monsanto e-mail publication by day and a dance aficionado by night, says that becasue dancing involves risks, "dancers are very supportive of one another; a kinship develops."

"The show rehearsals have been pretty terrifying; there's a real void from studio to stage," says Randall, a serious dancer from kindergarten through college. "What I did at 22 is a lot more difficult at 42; it's humbling. We all cheer each other on."

By intermission, Mark Pousson, 44, of St. Louis, a mental-health therapist at St. Louis University and dancing on stage for the first time since his college graduation, is sweaty but grinning broadly.

"I don't think I'm ready to give up my day job yet," he says, "but this is just pure fun."

— Renee Stovsky; St. Louis Post Dispatch

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