Pictured are Lee Anne Stewart and the dance school’s most advanced dancers. Photo provided.
Pictured are Lee Anne Stewart and the dance school’s most advanced dancers. Photo provided.
SYRACUSE - When Lee Anne Stewart founded her dance school in 1973, it was for a very simple reason.

She had taken dance for about 10 years. While she was working at a clothing store, someone came in asking about leotards and tights.

“I thought, ‘I don’t even know if there’s a dance school around here.’ And I had taken (dance) as a child, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just do it,’” she said. “I made posters out of posterboard and stuck them around town. It was very low key!”

Her classes began at the North Webster Methodist Church, where Tangibles is now. After a year, they moved into her house in Enchanted Hills where they remained for a few years.

Stewart started with 17 students and she originally was the only teacher.

“I started at the church with ballet because I thought that might be more acceptable in a church at that time. ... We taught tap in my mother-in-law’s garage,” she recalled.

After several years of teaching on her own, Lee Anne said she realized she needed to learn more so she began taking classes from a teacher in South Bend. Simultaneously, she began going to dance conventions and learning from other teachers. She’s a member of Chicago National Association of Dance Masters, which requires a person to take physical and written tests to become a member.

“I’ve continued my education all through these 50 years,” she said.

After a few years living in Enchanted Hills, they built the house they still live in now on Defreese Road and Lee Anne taught classes in the basement for quite a few years.

In 2001, the Lee Anne Stewart Dance School opened at its current location at 15 EMS D23 Lane, Syracuse.

Classes also are offered on the third floor of the old elementary school in Nappanee at 451 N. Main St.

When she was offering classes in her basement on Defreese Road, another woman taught in a second room in the basement occasionally. Other teachers came and went and taught in the basement. Since moving the school to D23 Lane, which has three dance rooms, and offering the classes in Nappanee, they now have eight teachers, including Lee Anne and her daughters. Two teachers only teach at Nappanee, Stewart teaches at both locations as do the other teachers.

When she started teaching dance 50 years ago, Lee Anne said she never thought they’d grow to where they’re at now.

“Just something I thought, ‘I like to dance, I like to teach kids so I’ll give it a try.’ I never thought it would be a career, I guess,” Lee Anne said.

Her daughter Janae Bergsma, who also teaches, said Lee Anne still doesn’t think of teaching dance as a career.

“I think you like what you do a lot. It doesn’t feel like a job to you. It’s definitely a family,” Janae said to Lee Anne.

Lee Anne said one of her teachers is also her granddaughter. She just started teaching this past year full time.

“It’s a blessing. I love it!” Lee Anne said of having her daughters - Janae Bergsma and Meghann Wood - and granddaughter teaching with her. Two of her other granddaughters have grown up at the dance school. “It’s pretty cool to be around your kids and grandkids all the time.”

Besides ballet, the school offers classes in tap, jazz, hip hop, contemporary and point.

“We go to conventions two or three times a year to take classes from other teachers all over - New York, California. It’s quite a business, these competitions and conventions, and they bring in teachers to teach classes. We take classes during the day and then they compete in the evening and take classes the next day,” Lee Anne said.

The Lee Anne Stewart Dance School has  a competition/performance team.

“We don’t really strive too much on the competition as we do the performance aspect of it,” Lee Anne said.

She said the team always place somewhere. They have received “quite a few” judges’ choices awards.

“We really like to do musical theater pieces where a lot of times they will ‘dance out’ a character in a show and that sort of thing,” Lee Anne said.

This year they’re doing a piece from “Tangled,” the Disney movie about Rapunzel, called “I’ve Got a Dream.” The dancers will mouth the words while they’re dancing so it almost looks like a piece from a Broadway show, she said.

Janae said they have set pieces that go with the performances.

Currently, the dance school has around 400 students at both locations. Janae said Lee Anne does a really good job of remembering the students’ names and tries her hardest to remember even the littlest ones who just started this year and only come for 30 minutes once a week.

“All the instructors that we talked about started as little ones with me and grew up. Some have gone to college, come back. And besides the instructors, I do also have students who now their children take (classes),” Lee Anne said.

Her students are mostly girls, but they do have some boys taking the classes. Lee Anne said they don’t have as many boys as she would like at this point, but classes are offered to them.

This being Lee Anne Stewart Dance School’s 50th year, Lee Anne said they’re redoing some of the songs they’ve done in the past. One of those is “When You’re an Addams” from “The Addams Family.”

“We have all the different characters and we have the ancestors that look like ghosts. Several years ago, we did it at a competition and one of the instructors from New York, when she was giving the awards - I think we scored pretty high with that anyway - she said, ‘I would pay money to see this again,’ and that was quite a compliment coming from a New York judge. I think that’s probably where we excel the most is in musical theater,” she recalled.

To celebrate the 50th year, there will be two weeks of performances at the Warsaw Community High School Performing Arts Center.

The Nappanee school will perform June 10-11. The Syracuse students will perform June 16-18.

“We’re calling it ‘Fabulous Favorites,’ so we’re pulling different songs and such. Some choreography is the same, but a lot of it is the same songs we’ve done through the 50 years to celebrate that,” Lee Anne said.

The shows are very professional, she said, using Ken Strong Productions to do lighting and special effects.

They’re also asking that anyone who has taken dance at the school to send in photos and memories for a slide show at the performances. They’re hoping to recognize some of the dancers from previous years by having them stand up in the audience at the shows.

“I think it’s going to be fun to see how many people have danced with you,” Wood said.

Lee Anne said they have had some students take classes in more than one style of dance and they are only counted as one student.

She has had students performed at Disney World, and a couple students go to New York to try to make it on Broadway. Former student Todd Niles was in the traveling show of “Cats” and was a choreographer for a cruise line. Niles also was in Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.”

Nancy Dain Cooper danced professionally at Walt Disney World Florida, while Lindsay Schwartz Beasley danced at Walt Disney World Tokyo.

People have asked Lee Anne when she was going to retire. Her husband says probably not until she dies.

“I just feel so lucky and blessed to have a job that I enjoy coming to and I don’t consider it a job. It’s just really rewarding to see the kids’ progress, every year but even after years and years and years,” she said.

Tickets for the June performances can be purchased through the Lee Anne Stewart Dance School website at https://stewartdanceschool.com/.

“We’re just trying to get the word out and get more students to come to see the shows,” she said.