Florida Keys Business
Sunday, February 24, 2013
Raising the barre
Dance Factory teaches step by step

"We do our feet like this, and our arms up like a tree," said 3-year-old Eva Norwood, solemnly demonstrating her very first ballet lesson at The Dance Factory on Kennedy Drive, where the scuffle of tiny feet in soft, pink shoes is punctuated by the sharp, staccato of tap shoes from the class next door.

Toddlers in tutus struggle to keep their legs straight and toes pointed while holding onto the barre that has supported local dance students for nearly 30 years.

Kari Peterson-Huffman opened Kari's Dance Factory in 1984, when Key West native Lynly Hill was still Lynly Curry and just 4 years old.

"I've gone through every facet of this building," said Hill. "By the time I was 15, I was teaching classes and by 19 I owned the business."

The studio's founder sold the business when Hill was graduating from Key West High School and heading to University of South Florida in Tampa.

"Then I got a call at USF from the new owner who said she wanted to sell it," Hill recalled. "I begged her to wait two more years until I finished college and could come home and run it."

But the second owner was ready to call it quits and Hill refused to let the dance studio of her childhood close its doors.

"So I figured out a way that I would drive home from Tampa on Thursdays after class, teach dance all weekend and then head back to school during the week. I found enough teachers to cover the classes in the evenings during the week and I somehow made it happen."

Hill finished college with a degree in early childhood education. She spends her days teaching kindergarten at Poinciana Elementary, and her evenings teaching tap, jazz, ballet, tumbling and lyrical dance to Keys kids of all ages. There's a creative movement class for kids as young as 2, advanced ballet, hip hop and jazz for high school students and ballroom dancing for adults.

"So many kids have come through here, and now I'm teaching the kids of girls I danced with growing up," Hill said during the controlled chaos that ensues when a group of 3-year-olds change their shoes between the ballet and gymnastics portions of their class. Ribbons are tied around their tiny right feet or toes to help the tiny dancers know their left and right.

"Ribbon toes, ribbon toes," a teacher reminds the class -- their signal to point the toes of their right foot.

Moms, dads and proud grandparents squeeze into the small waiting area and peer at the class through a two-way mirror that minimizes distractions.

"This isn't just a place to learn to dance, it's a family. We've all grown up here," said Jill Herasme, who took her first class at the Dance Factory when she was 5 and is now a part-time ballet teacher.

The studio produces an annual recital at Tennessee Williams Theater to showcase each class and dance style.

"The first half of the year, which coincides with the school year, is spent working on skills and teaching new ones, and the second half is about the recital numbers," Hill said, pulling her younger son, Sawyer, 2, onto her lap.

"He's basically growing up here as well," she said of the toddler who loves to dance and attends each creative movement class Hill teaches. "It started as kind of a joke when he didn't want me to leave him to go teach, so I said, 'OK, you can stay with me, but only if you dance.' He did and he loves it."

Hill's older son, Colbin, 7, still makes occasional "cameos" in the Dance Factory's recitals, she said.

"A lot of us have all been here for years," she said, referring to the students who become teachers once they reach high school.

She has watched an entire generation of dancers pirouette their way through school and childhood. And as little Eva pointed her "ribbon toe," another Key West dancer was born.

mmiles@keysnews.com

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