Erie Dance Theater: Stepping in the Right Direction

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012 at 8:00 AM
Erie Dance Theater: Stepping in the Right Direction by Ben Speggen

Nate Johnson isn’t afraid to brag about his new dance studio. “To get instructors of this caliber, you have to go to various studios, and you’re possibly standing somewhere like Chicago, New York, or LA, to get this type of instruction. But here in Erie, we’re fortunate to have it all under one roof. And it’s a healthy environment.”

Through Erie Dance Theater, Artistic Director Nate Johnson, a talented dancer who chose to come to Erie instead of Los Angeles, is investing in a community, promoting diversity, and fashioning a love and appreciation for the performing arts.

We can either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same. – Carlos Castaneda

“Welcome to my frozen paradise,” says Nate Johnson, one crisp January afternoon as we slide through the door and into Erie Dance Theater, the last hints of daylight giving way to night. Cars line the parking lot and children burst through the door in file, some running, some shuffling, all laughing and smiling.

The slight smell of oil and rubber hangs in the air as he turns up the thermostat. “This used to be the old Johnson and Flick,” Nate says, flicking on the light switch. Yes, that Johnson and Flick—Johnson and Flick, for tires and wheels—the tire and automotive center located in Erie with the infectiously memorable jingle.

So now instead of Johnson and Flick patching flats and rotating tires, children eager to learn dance from Nate Johnson fill the building as they trade snow boots for ballet slippers.

Erie Dance Theater, an organization that endeavors to offer myriad styles of dance, from jazz to tap, from contemporary to hip-hop, from swing to ballroom and more, opened its doors in October of last year when Nate’s vision became a realization. Offering the eclectic mix comes by design, because as Nate puts it, “You never know who’s going to walk through the door. And realistically speaking, if a restaurant only served hamburgers and French fries, their business would be little to none. McDonald’s is great—the Big Mac’s been around—but they offer Chicken Nuggets and all the different other things because otherwise they’d lose business to someone else.”

Nate, after careful consideration, decided to leave his work with the Martin Luther King Center and Erie Bayfront Dance to begin his work at Erie Dance Theater in hopes of bringing a smorgasbord of dance to a neighborhood in need of something.

“I’m just taking baby steps right now because I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew,” Nate humbly admits. “We only roughly anticipated about 50 students at the beginning and right now we’re sitting at 83.” His eyes widen. “So I’m like, ‘Okay, this is, uh, this is good, this is good.’” And with each “good,” his pitch goes higher, unveiling an unbridled combination of excitement and joy for his new endeavor.

So after donning a blue collar for years, serving as the business center for Tires and Wheels, the building needed some new threads when Johnson and Flick moved to Peach Street—leaving the old building naked and unadorned. In trying on new looks, the building went through a brief period as a boxing gym, Nate says. And the building hasn’t totally shaken the satin robe and trunks from its bones, as a punching bag still hangs in one room and some leftover equipment lays tucked away in storage.

But the boxing gym didn’t fit quite right. Maybe it was too loose in the shoulders, maybe too tight under the arms. Regardless, Bethesda, the lessor of the building, realized they needed the perfect fit, something tailor-made for a community in need of something refreshing, something that welcomed people in, something that could help them appreciate the finer things that may have been missing while building on the notion that diversity can be welcomed.

Plans changed and the design was sent off to the tailor—this time, the pattern called for a focus on performing arts. “A good friend had been asked to head up a campaign they were about to start,” Nate explains. “So she said, ‘I got a guy who directs a dance program with Martin Luther King Center, and he’s looking to do his own thing, and I think you would be a good fit.’”

After that came the shaking of hands, exchanging of ideas, and the beginning of something different. “They liked what I had to say, I liked where they were going, and here we have it. They said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Nate says, beaming a bright grin. “So after we ironed out all the wrinkles and I got over the fear that ‘I’m actually going to be doing this and there’s going to be nobody else but me—oh, my God—what are you doing?’ I said, ‘Okay, it’s time to do it.’”

With the ideas in place to bring something into a community to weave it together, Nate received the necessary support from friends. His solid stature—the sturdy build of a wide receiver or maybe a tight end—belies a tenderness conveyed through his genuine caring, which he measures by his impact on the community.

Nate’s friend—the one who started the change—told him it was time to put up or shut up—a swift kick to get things moving. “Now that I’ve done it,” he sighs, cracking that smile again. “No regrets. I’m so glad.”

As actions often speak louder than words, supporters followed him.

“I had been encouraging him,” says Nancy Renzi, EDT’s office manager who had worked with Nate for 10 years before and decided to follow him. “I told him, ‘If you go, I’ll go.’ And I said to him, ‘You need to do this. You’re being pretty stagnant, and you know if you have everybody, the force field behind you, go!’”

Even though we check the mirror and slick our hair back, we sometimes need others to tell us that we look alright, to tell us that everything’s straight and to tell us that we won’t embarrass ourselves when we open the door, cross the threshold, and take that first step that’s all too often the hardest to take. Nancy dusted off his shoulders, and took that step with him. But the two weren’t alone, as Nate welcomed newcomers to his venture, because often we need to refurbish and restring the loom from which we spin our creative cloaks, lest they become threadbare. 

In October, just as things were taking shape, Nate welcomed Lesley Bories-Scalise. Lesley, a renowned dancer who performed with Chicago City Ballet for 10 years, Pittsburgh City Ballet Theater for seven years, and then retired after four knee surgeries, started teaching throughout Pennsylvania before moving to Erie with her husband. After working with Lake Erie Ballet, Lesley resigned after the birth of son and began guest teaching, which led to her joining EDT.

“I have a lot of respect for Nate,” she says. “So much passion, so much energy. He’s a gem to this area, his background, ability, talent, care for the kids. He knows how to bring out the best in each child, independently for their own strengths and weaknesses.” 

After mixing and matching both classic cuts and contemporary designs, Erie Dance Theater moved in. It unfurled its sleeves, moved its arms, and realized the fit felt good, natural, right. So with a look in the mirror to pat out any creases, almost everything felt smooth. But something still looked out of place.

“The biggest shock is that when people come in, they’re thinking in their mind’s eye that this is like the O.K. Corral, some bad neighborhood,” Nate explains, as his voice tightens, growing firm and resolute. “The neighborhood is not what it was 25 years ago; it is much, much better, and once the students are here, they’re about as safe as they can be when they get home. The doors are locked; we don’t let just anybody walk through the door unless they’re in the business of dance.”

But changing an image that took decades to wear down at the heels takes time, takes perseverance, takes action speaking louder than any words, takes some growing into, takes some stepping up.

“I still don’t think it’s that great of a neighborhood,” Lotoya Wallace says, chuckling a bit.  Lotoya’s two daughters study dance at EDT. Her youngest, a 5-year-old who’s playfully trying to capture our attention in the lobby as we wait for her 10-year-old sister to finish her lesson, started studying under Nate when she was just 2. She and her older sister, who started when she was 4, took up dancing as an extra activity. But the girls love working with him now and wouldn’t consider going anywhere else. “Nate’s a good guy,” she says, smiling. “He’s just a good guy.”

“He’ll stand and make sure we’re in the car okay,” says Brenda Lane, chiming in to testify to the goodness Nate brings to a neighborhood with a troubled past. “If this can be an outreach to a neighborhood to give them something to do, that’s fantastic.”

Brenda’s daughter, a 13-year-old who’s been dancing since she was 8 and wants to be a professional dancer, came to EDT because it offers a variety of dance. “And that’s important,” she adds. “If you don’t have the variety of styles of dance, you can’t make it in the dance world. You have the best of the best here teaching the kids the skills they need.”

Among those classes is hip-hop. “Nate is a great hip-hop teacher too,” Brenda says. And her daughter would be taking the class, but her father, well, he doesn’t want her to because, well…

Okay, sure, times have changed and nobody’s backing anybody into corners when it comes to dance, but turn on MTV—when it’s actually playing music videos, or, well, maybe all the other times too—and you’ll see things any self-respecting parent wouldn’t want their 13-year old learning.

Both women laugh over the thought of it, and Lotoya echoes Brenda’s husband’s concern. However, both return to praising Nate. Lotoya explains that Nate teaches hip-hop in ways that wouldn’t compromise the image of a young girl because that’s not his style at all. And Brenda mentions a time earlier in the year when the weather was warm and girls were pouring out the door, still in tank tops, and Nate ushered them back inside, telling them, “‘You can’t go outside looking like that.’” Brenda recalls, “He’s just very concerned about their well-being.”

“He will push them when they need it,” adds Lotoya. “When he sees talent, he won’t let them slack.”

The dancers themselves attest to that. Hannah, who’s been studying with Nate for 10 years, elected to follow him here when he moved. “I danced with someone else for a year,” says the 13-year -old who wants to be a professional dancer. “It was fun, but it’s not like dancing with Nate. He treats all his kids like family and lets us have fun. Dancing with Nate is so fun—he’s like a parent to all of us.”

Twelve-year old Taylor agrees: “I’ve learned to trust him; he’s like another Dad to me.”

Corinne, a 13-year-old who dreams of studying at Julliard one day, appreciates Nate’s style, a style that she feels she couldn’t find elsewhere—a style that she feels will prepare her for her future.

And if Nate’s past success is any indication, these students should have no problem succeeding under his guidance and his method of creating a family atmosphere that promotes success through learning and appreciation.

“[EDT] is a close-knit family,” Nate says. “I remember my mother saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Well, welcome to our village. We want to raise productive citizens who happen to have a joy for dance, and if they choose to take it to the next level, we’re going to give you the tools to make that happen. I’m very happy to say that 90 percent of my graduates have either gone on to higher education or are working in the business as dancers or choreographers, and that’s a rare find.”

Nate’s had the luxury of turning on a lot of students to the joys of dance theater. Where they used to watch it on TV and only dream they could actually do it, Nate says, “We gave them the right tools, and now they’ve got to work with Disney, some of the major companies throughout the country, as well as some of the colleges and universities, which they receive scholarships for. We’re on the right track and we just want to continue doing that.”

I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself. – Mikhail Baryshnikov

“I was the kind of child that wasn’t supposed to happen,” Nate confesses. “My mom had me when she was 14. I watched her, pompoms and miniskirt on the high school gym floor, a cheerleader.” He pauses, and then a smile breaks. “But my mom,” he says so delicately as if to place the words on a cloud, “was a dancer.”

With no professional training, she felt the movement deep in her heart’s core and needed to share that passion with her son. “She taught me herself,” Nate says, “and started a little dance group in the city out of the Boys and Girls Club in Louisville, Ky.”

But there was more: she was on “American Bandstand.” So in the height of disco—platform shoes, bell-bottoms, afros—“The whole nine yards,” as Nate puts it, he continued to love dance.

But then came “The day.”

If you have a passion, know what it is, and do it every day for a living, you know the day—the day you realized exactly what it was you wanted to do every waking moment for the rest of your life. Few are lucky enough to have such a day, but for Nate, that day showed itself on a trip to the Kentucky Center for the Arts. There he saw Alvin Ailey and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and after seeing those performances, Nate heard his life’s calling singing clearly and directly to him.

The ever-jovial Nate breaks the tension of the serious moment with laughter. “I was so amazed at watching the men on stage,” he leans in with furrowed brows. “They were like Roman gods; they had muscles in places I didn’t know muscles existed!”

For a self-described 11-year-old who looked like “a toothpick with an olive on top,” those muscles became a thing of inspiration. “They’re lifting these girls up like a deck of cards,” he tosses a loose tablet on his desk. And it didn’t look like it bothered them in the slightest bit, and I said, ‘I want to look like that.’”

Nate went home and told his Mom that he wanted muscles, wanted to toss women like decks of cards, er, wanted to be a dancer. He secured an audition at a performing arts school in Louisville, despite never having taken any dance classes. But that didn’t stop a scrawny little 11-year old. Nate showed up—in baggy sweatpants and a T-shirt—and danced in front of the woman who first instructed him to move in what seemed like a foreign language, but then told him just to follow along.

So he followed along. And he danced. And danced.

Four weeks later, Nate received the letter congratulating him on his acceptance.

“My world was really about to begin,” he says. “I stopped playing football, basketball—you know things that kids did—and it was all about dance. From that point on, I was hooked.”

That’s right. Drop all the sports for dance. But don’t some of the best sports stories start with a wide receiver taking ballet so he could leap higher? Don’t we just use dance to get better at contact sports where men collide into other men, trying to prove physical prowess? But straight-up trade football pads and cleats to don only a leotard and slippers?

Nate sighs—just like anyone else would who’s passion is questioned because those around them just don’t get it. “Let’s just say, I’ve been called faggot, too sweet, Tinkerbelle, Mary Ann, gay about more times than I like to even think about,” he says.

His childhood comeback to defend his passion?

“My grandfather, who was a WWII vet—military all the way, said to me, ‘Nate are you okay with the tights and wearing the little, umm,’ and I said, ‘Granddaddy it’s like this, would you rather be in a room full of sweaty guys or a room full of beautiful women?’ and he’s like, “Well, uh, you got to put it like that, bring on the girls.’”

He’s laughing again now, suggesting that even name-calling couldn’t derail his passion that grew and flourished during a time when a man dancing for dancing’s sake could be seen as something taboo.

But his real retort to those names is that he continued dancing in spite of it all. While many who hear passion calling never answer out of fear, reservation, or something else, Nate answered the call and then never hung up. Instead, he pressed onward and headed to college.

You are unique, and if that is not fulfilled, then something has been lost. – Martha Graham

Then came Nate’s “Second Day.”

It’s rare enough that we’re given one day, one moment of clarity to know our passions and set out in all directions in pursuit of them, but to have a second moment, to know clearly the direction of our path is more than a luck and chance. 

That first day came when he was 11—that “toothpick,” wide-eyed kid watching Baryshnikov and Roman gods throw cards around. The second day came when he was nearing the end of his college career as he was studying dance at Western Kentucky University. That day, which involved another road trip, determined how the genial gentleman from the South would end up in the North.

Nate’s professor at the time, Bev, was the daughter of Marge Long of Erie’s Long School of Dance. Bev decided to bring a troupe to Erie to teach a master class at Mercyhurst Preparatory Academy. Nate, strapping on his shoes for the chance of experience, immediately volunteered to go. But before he finished lacing up, interruption barged in and took center stage: “How about a tour of the city before the class? The kids won’t have to wait too long.”

“Everyone said yes [to a tour of Erie], except me. I’m like, ‘Um, okay, Erie’s no bigger than any other town. We got all these kids here. I came here to do this, to dance. Nah, I’ll do the tour by myself.’ So I taught the entire workshop by myself. And that impressed Marge a great deal and when it was all said and done, she came up to me and said, ‘Would you be interested in teaching for me? You don’t have to answer right now. I know you’re graduating soon, but think about it.’”

Before being offered the job in Erie, Nate was LA-bound, planning to truck out west, walk off into the unknown, the big question mark a half a country away. So Nate thought. And thought. And then chose Erie—yes, Erie—over Los Angeles as the place he would take his talents to in 1990.

“I said ‘no’ to LA, and to Erie: ‘Here I come!’ And from that point on, it’s been awesome. Erie’s a great place to raise a family. I think we’re somewhat culturally deprived, but we’re working on that one step at a time, as we say.”

Great dancers are not great because of their technique; they are great because of their passion. – Martha Graham

“Dance hasn’t had this type of attention since the 1930s or ‘40s, and now, there’s been a resurgence,” Nate says of the rise in recent attention paid to dance. “If you look at mass media, you know, with ‘So You Think You Can Dance?’ and ‘Dancing with the Stars!’ it’s no longer taboo or a joke for someone to dance—male or female. All the boundaries have been removed.”

Those entering the world of dance under far more giving and understanding times can thank those, like Nate, who went before them, pursuing their passion regardless of the obstacles in the way.

“With that being said, we have evolved so far so fast,” Nate says of the world of dance today. “Now it’s a great tool for kids for keeping them physically fit. The tools used in dance to be successful are the same tools in life to be successful.”

At the bottom, that’s what Nate’s searching for the most: success. Nate strives for this success not for himself but for his students. “I didn’t do this for me,” he says. “I did it for the kids. And that is absolutely the truth.”

That truth is evident on a night when a bubbly group of students are practicing some new choreography in their hip-hop class.

They’re dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Dance Machine” but they’re starting to have a difficult time with the moves. There’s a tumble. A spin. A split that they shoot up out of to cross one leg over the other while balancing most of their weight on their opposite hand. One girl sighs and sprawls out on the floor. She chides Nate for sitting, as he queues the music. The rest of the class giggles. Such berating can only come from his own blood. She laughs and calls him old. Nate, acknowledging that, yes, he is a little old, flicks off his red University of Louisville cap and joins the group, getting right in the middle of things, stepping over his 15-year-old daughter. The sequence starts again. Seamlessly he performs, flowing from one position to the next, only to pop up off the floor at the end. After all, he had been dancing with them the entire night.

“Umm,” is all his daughter can get out as the class catches a case of the giggles again while she’s still sitting.

“Life went on. You sat there still,” he laughs. “And I’m old!”

The class is having fun. They share ideas, they share laughs, but they never become unruly. They respect him, and now what Hannah, Taylor, and Corinne said earlier can be seen. He’s among the group, challenging some, helping others, and welcoming them all to their best.

A shy girl—possibly a newer student—separates herself from the group. She’s watching the routine, making small gestures but completing none. Nate gives her time and space for a few minutes—but then it’s inclusion time.

“You got dust growing on your feet,” he says with a smile, as he ushers her into the group with a smile, suggesting even if she doesn’t realize it, she’s ready—much like a guy with a dream who needs a couple of nudges from friends to see it into realization.

To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak. – Hopi Indian Saying

Nate’s eyes are set on the future. But properly outfitting those on the path is still something he’s growing accustomed to.

“It’s a bit strange being your own boss and being the only one in charge,” he admits of his new challenges, which involve fixing the lights and getting the heat going. “Before, you could at least complain to someone and expect some change, but now, it’s like, ‘Okay, what are you going to do about it?’ and it’s like, ‘Oh, what can I do about it?’”

But running a dance program for 11 years before this, as director of Erie Bayfront Dance, afforded him the chance to rifle through the closet of dance to see what he could mix and match, to see what looked right in Erie—and more importantly, to see what looked right on West 18th Street. In taking the reigns, he wants to lead EDT into the future, and to do that, he wants to get the community involved.

“You have to come up with ingenuous ways to get the attention of the community, ways to get the kids to come in,” Nate says. “And get the parents to look past the fact that this is West 18th Street, and it isn’t what they remember when they were younger. When they walk in the studio they see what’s actually in here, they’re totally shocked. I’ve seen the expression on everyone’s faces repeatedly—every time—when they walk in they go, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and I say, ‘This is only the beginning.’”

The itinerary for the near future that extends beyond that beginning includes: increasing student enrollment, transforming the front room that still wears the coat of Johnson and Flick, for Tire and Wheels! showroom to another studio, adding a black box theater—or experimental theater in a small unadorned performance space—to another room, and incorporating music by utilizing the music studio upstairs as a space for artists to record and give music lessons. Doing all of this will, Nate hopes, bring an even fuller and richer experience to the performing arts he’s bringing to the community. 

“Then we’ve done exactly what we’ve come in to do,” Nate says. “The biggest thing now, is to get the community behind, and know that we’re here, and we’re not asking for a handout, just a hand up. That’s a big thing I think because a lot of other programs going on throughout the city and are always looking for somebody to give them something. No, we’re trying to give something back to the community.”

If it’s not challenging, it’s not worth it. – Nate Johnson

Nate wants to complement what other programs currently do—not take away, and for him, that means embracing the diversity that comes with being located on West 18th Street.

“We’re trying to add more variety to what’s out there,” he says. “That’s what I love about this school: You don’t walk in and see just one face, you walk in and you see life. And what is life? A variety. If you take that variety away, what are you telling the kids? What kind of society are you telling them actually exists? You go to New York and you’ll see anything and everything walking, so be ready. If you walk in and all you see is this [he holds up a piece of blank paper], you’re kind of like, ‘Oh, I’m used to this,’ but if you wak in and see something that looks like that [he points to a bulletin board adorned with multiple colors of paper] then you’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know, wow?’

“There are good people and bad people in all colors and shapes, so get to know good people—it isn’t about a color. That’s what I’d like to totally erase. I remember last year I had met one of my student’s grandfathers; he was dropping him off. And the grandfather had said something about that black gentleman. And his son said, ‘he’s not black, that’s Mr. Nate.’ And I was like, that’s pretty good. They’re pretty young, they know no different. And you can’t say color. You have to say the person’s name, what the person does, but to categorize and say green hat, that black gloves and then think that everyone with green hats and black gloves are going to act the same, that’s just not true. So to walk in here and see a multitude of various faces, various backgrounds, is absolutely beautiful… If we offer X, Y, and Z, and that appeals to you, you, and you, then you’re all welcome. And let’s dance!”

Tags: erie dance

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