More than just movement, dance is self expression at Montclair Academy
At Sharron Miller’s Academy for the Performing Arts, dance is for everyone. But for Miller, who started the academy nearly 27 years ago, dance is more than just moving your body to music — it’s a form of self expression that builds self-confidence, according to the academy’s website.
On a recent Friday morning at Toddler Fitness Fun class, taught by Montclair State University student Sophia Solecki and Montclair High School student Amalia Brevard, the children used hula hoops and scarves to learn about the importance of personal space.
The academy offers art classes and drama classes where children can pretend to be different objects or animals while being expressive, Kristen Weaver, an instructor at the academy for 27 years, said.
Though women like Weaver and Miller come from a dance background, they understand the importance of providing their students with a comprehensive learning experience.
“We're complex beings right?” Weaver said. “The children are learning on all these different levels all the time. They don't go, ‘Well, today I'm just gonna learn with my body. And today I'm just gonna learn with my head.’ No, you're a complex being at all times. And for little people who are constantly taking in information and figuring out the world, you have to deal with it in the moment.”
The academy is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to provide comprehensive, inclusive developmental training in dance and related theater arts.
Not only are summer classes available for the full range of levels in dance, art and music, from beginner to advanced, but the academy also accommodates very young children and seniors.
Teens and adults can partake in yoga classes on Saturday mornings, while seniors are invited to join a Wednesday morning class to strengthen their mobility.
The idea to include dance classes for adults and seniors started when Miller saw the impact that her dance academy was having within her own family.
“We started out with a preschool program, because my daughter was 2½ years old. Now she's 34. And I have my granddaughter in this program,” she said.
On Friday mornings, children ages 3 to 5 start music class at 8 a.m. The class, which runs till 11 a.m., is taught by Weaver.
The children sit in a circle while Weaver passes out such items as egg shakers and wooden sticks that encourage the kids to make noises that follow a rhythmic beat.
Though class packages can range between $200 and $970, the academy offers financial and merit-based scholarships.
“Sharron believes that dance should be accessible to everybody,” Sonja Cole, director of operations, said. “And yes, training is expensive, but we don't want people to be limited in their options based on what they can afford.”
This is the second summer session since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and the staffers at the academy are grateful that they are back to near-normalcy.
“It was a nightmare,” Cole said. “It was just like in one day, we closed. Everybody left. All the staff were laid off, all the kids left. And we didn't have a plan in place to do virtual classes.”
Despite being thrown into the uncertainty of what the pandemic would hold for the dance studio, they found ways to adapt. They held Zoom sessions for children, and Weaver even used her own backyard to teach classes.
“We were so isolated,” Cole said. “Kids weren't seeing each other, they had been home for a while. It was so important that they had something to focus on. They just learned so much about themselves, about people, about the world through dance. So I just thought it was vital that we give something to these children.”
Weaver’s backyard classes were initially supposed to take place twice a week, but between the high demands from both parents and children she ended up teaching class seven days a week.
Now back in its facility on South Park Street, the academy is not only able to provide for its students, but also the greater community. It is doing outreach in Paterson by holding dance classes for children in that community.
As the academy approaches its 27th year in September, Miller hopes that it can continue providing for its students.
“I think it's important that we expose children to the opportunities that abound in the arts. Because if we don't expose them, how will they ever know?” she said. “Unfortunately, the arts are the first thing to go in schools. So as a performing arts academy, when I developed this program, it was important to have all of the elements because they are integrated into each other.”
For nearly 27 years, Sharron Miller’s Academy for the Performing Arts has provided recreational enjoyment for residents of all ages, and instructors like Weaver have seen the fruits of their labor.
“I'm so honored to be part of this school and see its growth and see that there are adults who come back with their children,” Weaver said. “And I'm teaching the children of the children that I taught. ... And that's why I do this. It's such a fulfilling feeling.”