A mirrored wall reflects a studio full of dancers twirling across a shiny wooden floor at Dance Theatre Northwest, as Artistic Director Melanie Kirk-Stauffer watches her students rehearse. Even as they concentrate, the students also watch her, knowing their teacher sees everything. They dance to music from the classical ballet “Paquita” – portions of which will be featured at a recital, along with much more, at Mount Tahoma High School on June 23, with performances at 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.
“Good,” Kirk-Stauffer says, as she shuts off the recording and then turns back to smile at the dancers. “Nice timing.” She carries herself with perfect posture, grace and authority – thanks to a lifetime in ballet – and demonstrates what she wants to see, emphasizing details to refine and perfect. Specific comments for each person come with plenty of praise and encouragement, using ballet terminology that sounds like a foreign language to the outsider. But everyone in the room understands. They give her their complete attention and respect.
Dance Theatre Northwest, a non-profit organization, includes an award-winning regional performing dance company featuring principals Vadne Domeika, Chhay Mam and Katie Neumann, as well as Alana Liteanu and Allison Zakharov, apprentice company members. DTN also has a Junior Dance Ensemble. Up to 28 students, ages 11-42, will dance in “Paquita” and at least 90 students, ages 3-66, will dance in the recital overall. Kirk-Stauffer believes in giving all those who wish to participate the opportunity to perform.
Not all of Kirk-Stauffer’s students will make ballet a lifelong career, but all of them will benefit from their training. “It brings them along and brings them up,” Kirk-Stauffer said. “It increases their capabilities and enhances their growth.” Creative problem solving, better math skills, better verbal skills and team building are a few of the proven benefits of an education in music and the performing arts. Kirk-Stauffer teaches students to think on their feet, literally. “I want to teach them how to be whole people, to be healthy, fit, conscientious and disciplined, along with the joy of that kind of lifestyle.”
The greater community also benefits from Dance Theatre Northwest. Kirk-Stauffer, a lifelong member of the Tacoma community, believes in living a life of service and giving back. DTN’s outreach includes a total of up to 18 performances yearly at assisted living and retirement homes, and schools, always free and open to the public. DTN’s low ticket prices – $22 to $26 for the June 23 recital – become an even better value with discounts for students, seniors and the military.
Kirk-Stauffer began ballet at age 3. Her passion only increased throughout childhood and adolescence. At age 17 she danced the starring role in “Paquita” for the Tacoma Civic Ballet, wearing her father’s opening-night gift: a pair of ruby earrings. That gift inspired the “Rubies and Roses” theme of this year’s recital. But that is only one reason why she loves “Paquita,” with its story about a gypsy girl in Spain during Napoleon’s occupation.
“I’m attracted to the ballets that were restaged by Marius Petipa,” Kirk-Stauffer said. She thinks part of the reason is her own genealogy in ballet. Beginning with her first teacher, she traced the educational backgrounds of those most influential to her own education – including Patricia Cairns, Harold Christensen, Robert Joffrey and Richard Englund – and discovered a lineage that goes back to the Russian Imperial Ballet and Michael Fokine.
Kirk-Stauffer hopes to inspire all young people, whether or not they dance, hoping they will realize that a rich and fulfilling life awaits them if they believe in themselves. Her experience of being drawn from the corps de ballet to be given the starring role in “Paquita” three weeks before the performance – as a result of exceptional self-motivation and dedication – came during her crucial teen years. “It was a real life experience for me at a young age,” she said. “It showed me that my hard work would be rewarded.”
Back in the studio, rehearsal ends for the day and Kirk-Stauffer thanks everyone for their hard work. Now that class is over, the building comes alive with a flurry of dancers chattering and gathering their things to head home. Their reward will come on June 23 at Mount Tahoma High School, when “Rubies and Roses” demonstrates Dance Theatre Northwest’s tradition of excellence, and one woman’s passion to preserve and perpetuate classical ballet. Kirk-Stauffer can hardly wait to present “Paquita.”
“It’s the music, the style of the piece, the memory of the choreography,” she says. “It’s so uplifting.”