In honor of Danceworks’ 20th Anniversary, we are sharing 20 stories of individuals who have made an impact on—or who have been impacted by—Danceworks and our programs. This is the second in our series, “20 Years, 20 Stories.”
It’s already been seven years since Mario (Costantini) and I met with funders around Milwaukee to find backing for Danceworks Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap (MHBT). Everyone pretty much said, “Don’t you want to take some time to get this organized?” We felt differently. The opportunity was there and with the help of many wonderful people, we went for it. For this post, it seems fitting to feature Rachel Payden, MHBT faculty, dancer, singer, administrator and as of this year, Danceworks Outreach Director who, among other things, is overseeing our 45 MHBT schools this year. -Debbie
I read the following quote on the side of a Starbucks cup in the year I worked there after college:
“It’s relationships, not programs, that change children. A great program simply creates the environment for healthy relationships to form between adults and children. Young people thrive when adults care about them on a one-to-one level, and when they also have a sense of belonging to a caring community.”
I immediately scratched it down on a little piece of receipt paper so I could carry it with me. I read it and remember thinking, “YES! That IS what it’s all about. Relationships. Community.” Then I found Danceworks.
It’s hard to believe that this week marks the official start of the seventh season of Danceworks Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap (MHBT). I feel very fortunate to have been a part of the program since its birth here in Milwaukee, when I volunteered at the competition that took place at Turner Hall in the fall of 2006. Three schools participated in the pilot program—three. Somehow over the course of the past seven years, three has grown to 45.
There are countless stories, songs and faces that come to mind when I think about my own involvement in MHBT, and I know that this sentiment is shared by fellow teachers and colleagues. Where do you begin talking about MHBT?! It’s funny to look back on my firsthand experience in one of the MHBT schools, which took place during my very first month working at Danceworks. Amy Brinkman-Sustache hung up the phone in the front office, looked and me and said, “Grab your shoes—we’re doing a show.”
A show?! Where were we going? How many people were going to be watching us? What am I supposed to do in this situation? Amy had just heard that a school with a gym full of students were expecting a dance performance from Danceworks teachers as an introduction to MHBT. She was determined to give them just that.
The car ride to the school replays in my mind like a movie. Amy talked through where we were going and why it was important to do this, and she shared some ideas about what we could do when we got there. She was completely calm as I sat next to her, and I was thinking, “WHAT is going on?!” I was in a bit of a panic.
Luckily, that feeling diminished, as I came to find out that Amy was a pro at this kind of gig. I remember standing there, feeling like a deer in the headlights, watching Amy confidently do her thing in front of a gym full of students and teachers. She started demonstrating simple tap steps, and the room became absolutely silent—aside from comments like, “Cooooool!” and “Aww, look at those shoes!”
It was the chatter that came spilling out of the students’ mouths as they heard the rhythms from her feet.
It was so cool—an entire room full of kids that immediately tuned in to tap dancing, which I learned was something that most of them had never seen or heard in their lives before that day. Whatever Amy did, they loved it. They asked questions. They were involved. I remember listening to Amy exchange clapping rhythms with the students back and forth, and thinking that it really was like they were having a conversation without words. I remember understanding why it was so important that we raced over to the school that day. I remember admiring Amy so, my own tap teacher, and wanting to be able to do what she did some day.
What a difference the years have made! Being a part of the Danceworks team, and specifically being in the schools as an MHBT teacher for the past six years, has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Someone recently asked me if I like my job. I simply answered, “Yes, I do.” Why? Because Danceworks makes Milwaukee a better place. Because I continue to learn from some of the most passionate, talented and caring people I’ve ever met. Because I know that Danceworks makes a positive difference in thousands of family’s lives. And because I truly believe that the heart of Danceworks’ work is in the pure joy of sharing and building community. — Rachel Payden