Studio marks 65 years of dancing

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New Haven Parks Superintendent Mike Clendenen presents Janice Dyson with a plaque designating June 8 as Janice Dyson Appreciation Day. Mayor Terry McDonald signed the plaque, which was presented as a surprise the evening Dyson’s studio’s dancers performed during the 2017 Canal Days.

Janice Dyson has loved dance all her life, and has been teaching other dancers for more than six decades. She started dancing at age 2 and when she was 12 she put her tap board on the driveway of her parents’ home in south Fort Wayne to practice. The neighborhood kids watched and wanted to learn so she started her own studio in their living room, charging 50 cents for a half-hour lesson. By the end of that summer she was teaching 40 young dancers.

When she reached a cash flow of $20 a week, her father decided it was time for her to pay for her own lessons and the bus fare to get there. There was never time at South Side High School to go to her locker and get books, coat and incidentals after the last class so she took everything with her because she had to hustle to catch a bus home for her first dance student of the day. She graduated from South Side with the Class of 1958.

Janice and her sister, Bernice, took pop lessons from Charles Allen at his Broadway studio. “He was a real taskmaster,” Janice said. “Bernice was intimidated by him and quit after about a year. I wasn’t afraid of him, but I learned pretty quickly that when he said practice or else, he meant it. Our mom scrimped grocery money to help pay for our lessons.”

After graduating, Dyson went to Philadelphia to study ballroom dancing so she could offer it to her students, too. When she returned home she focused on the studio, taught classes and instructed competition teams while raising five children. Dyson continued to take lessons until she was 26. When her husband, Dave, was transferred to Milwaukee, she taught dance in a community center there for 10 years. She admits that during that period she spent a good deal of time in New Haven assisting her daughter, Christina Dambra, in operating the studio.

When Dave and Janice moved back to New Haven in 2005, she continued teaching adult classes in tap and started a group at New Haven United Methodist Church called Faith Steppers. They tap to Christian music in what she refers to as “liturgical dance.”

June 8 this year at New Haven Canal Days was celebrated as Janice Dyson Appreciation Day. Mayor Terry McDonald signed a plaque and Parks Superintendent Mike Clendenen presented it to Dyson at the band shell in Schnelker Park, commemorating 65 years as a dance instructor. “Some of my former students came back,” she said. “It was overwhelming.” Just four days before that, 40 of them returned to present an adult recital with only three rehearsals. That week was the highlight of my life.”

Over the years, Janice Dyson Dance Studio operated in several locations. After a number of years in her parents’ living room on Maple Grove Avenue, it moved to a friend’s basement. When she and Dave married it was in their garage on Robinwood Drive for a while, then the lobby of the old Wells Theatre in Fort Wayne. The building still stands, and has been home to Koehlinger Kruse Security Systems since 1985.

She later operated the studio from the Meadowbrook Elementary School music room while their house on Fritcha Avenue in New Haven was under construction. Half the garage was made into a studio with a wood floor to flex just a little with the dance lessons. Ten years later they moved it to the basement, but a sump pump failure resulted in a flood and a ruined floor. The studio was moved back into the garage, but because she then had 350 students it required the entire garage.

Janice taught tumbling, tap, jazz and some ballroom dancing, while her oldest daughter, Melody King, taught disco. Now, under Christina, the studio offers ballet, hip-hop, lyrical and contemporary dance in addition to tap and tumbling. Janice taught Girl Scouts for their Dancer Badge and at day camps, schools, churches and the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department. She even made house calls when she learned a woman was bringing her granddaughter to New Haven in a taxi from Fort Wayne.

Over the years, Janice’s husband, Dave, was her “roadie” and is still involved in helping set up tumbling mats, building props and running the music for recitals. “If it hadn’t been for Christina when we moved to Milwaukee, we would have had to close. She has the passion for it and loves working with the kids,” Janice said.

The studio has performed in regional dance competitions in Indiana, Ohio and Illinois and returned with its fair share of trophies and plaques. The first trophy, and perhaps the most treasured one in the showcase, is the one they earned in their initial Canal Days parade appearance in the late 1970s. “We borrowed a convertible and Dave made a big glitter ball with streamers, the girls danced beside it the entire parade route and we won first place. We’ve participated in every Canal Days parade since,” Dyson said.

“To me,” she said, “the best award we’ve ever gotten was at Midwest Starz competition in St. Charles, Ill.,against 20 studios. It was the Starzmanship Award that went to our kids and teachers for showing respect, kindness and patience. I was really proud of them.”

Dyson isn’t planning on hanging up her dancing shoes any time soon. As she puts it, “I’ll keep dancing until the Lord says it’s over.” She said a couple women come for tap lessons because “it’s just plain good exercise.”

Dyson and her sister, Bernice, have another interest in common. Bernice Sherman, formerly of Fremont, now lives at Angola. “She’s a seamstress and does alterations,” Dyson said. “We both love to sew.”