Bouncing back to teach dance to kids

By Jane Flanagan

With the on-going construction work after Sept. 11, jackhammers incessantly pound outside Loretta Thomas’ Murray St. apartment. Unsettling as that is, it’s the least of the problems that Thomas, who owns the Murray Street Dance Studio, has been facing since that horrific day.

That beautiful September morning fell in the middle of Thomas’ busy registration period at the studio, located three short blocks from the World Trade Center. She was feeling good. The school, which she had begun 6 years before, was on target to have its best season ever. When she started out she had 25 students. That Sept. she was expecting 100.

“It was going to be my breakout year,” said Thomas.

But by September 12, everything had changed. The studio was in the red zone, shuttered and unreachable. It remained that way for months. When students finally returned in late November, enrollment had dropped to 16.

Many families moved away, others, wanting to keep life as normal as possible, enrolled their children elsewhere. Also, the half dozen movement teachers who rent space from Thomas, payments she counted on to offset the rent, were forced to move as well.

Thomas has been trying to build the business back ever since. Enrollment this year was up to 55. The renters, fortunately, have been trickling back. But she’s got a way to go. But then, overcoming obstacles is not new to her.

Downtown Express photos by Akiki Miyazaki
Loretta Thomas in her dance studio.
A Houston native, Thomas, 51, who still speaks with a southern twang, came to New York when she was in her 20s to dance. She won a coveted place as a scholarship student with the Merce Cunningham Studio. Scholarship students often moved to the company and Thomas was pushing hard toward that goal. An athletic dancer, she performed leaps well. One day she was in class practicing one of her favorites. She leapt up, turned around, but when she came down something was wrong. Her hip hurt terribly. Till this day she doesn’t know whether she stretched ligaments or tore them. Regardless, she was in agony. But she kept dancing.

“The idea was to work through the pain,” she said.

She tried – for six weeks. Everyday she would dance hours in class, come home and go to bed.

“It was a, ‘I’ve got to get into the company no matter what,’ kind of thing,” she said.

Finally, the pain became so unbearable she had to stop. For the next four months she couldn’t get out of bed. It would be three years before she could perform again. It was while she was recuperating, that she began to study.

“I had a lot of time to read,” laughed Thomas, a tall, thin brunette who looks 10 years younger than she is. What she hadn’t realized at first, however, is that the reading would change her life.

She began by researching dance techniques that were not harmful to the body. She picked up a book by Isadora Duncan. While seizing on the essence of classical ballet, Duncan departed from it in a significant way, said Thomas. In ballet, dancers train to “turn out” their hips and stand en pointe, not something the body is designed to do, said Thomas. Duncan did not believe in this.

“She did not alter the body to fit the technique. She altered the technique to fit the body,” she said.

The method appealed to Thomas. When she recovered enough she found a teacher who taught these techniques.

Eventually, Thomas, herself, began teaching in her loft apartment on Murray St. She cultivated her own style which she calls “modern ballet.” She draws from her classical ballet training, from Cunningham, Duncan and others. Like Duncan she teaches in a way that is not harmful to the body.

After her daughter, Madeline, now 10, was born, Thomas began teaching children. The classes were popular and a few years later she opened her studio a couple of blocks east at 19 Murray St. She instructs all the classes, herself, teaching children ages 3 to 16.

Parents describe her as a strict teacher, who instills a sense of discipline.

“The kids love her,” said Erica Weldon, whose daughter Sarah has been studying with Thomas since age 3. “It’s not that she’s an easy teacher. But they respect her. They want to be there with her.”

“You have to stay focused and try. That’s what she cares about,” said Sarah Reetz, whose daughter Caroline, 8, has been taking class for five years.

Thomas is also not looking for a specific body type, something, apparently many other schools do.

“You don’t’ have to have certain look,” said Weldon. “And everybody gets to be in the recital.” The students, most of whom are girls, can also do their own choreography.

Thomas arranges to pick kids up at P.S. 234, 89 and 150 after school, a real asset for working parents. After dance class, they do arts and crafts, and are supervised for the entire afternoon.

Thomas performs with three adult companies: her own, “Moving Visions,” “Dances By Isadora” and “Catherine Gallant/Dance.” Gallant is the dance teacher at PS 89. In recent years, Thomas has performed at the Merce Cunningham Studio, Lemon Studio and St. Mark’s Church in the village.

Building back has not been easy. Thomas knew it wouldn’t be. In fact, in the weeks following Sept. 11, she contemplated moving out of the city, away from her neighborhood, which she knew would be under construction for years to come.

“I thought, well if I have to start over, do I want to do it here?”

But one day she took her daughter to school at P.S. 234 after it reconvened in its temporary headquarters. Many of the Murray Street Dance pupils are also students there. Thomas walked in the door and girls came running up, hugged her and asked when she would start teaching classes.

“I wanted to continue. It made it all worthwhile,” she said.

The Murray Street Dance Studio’s spring recital this year will be a benefit performance held Sunday, June 8th at 3 p.m. at the P.S. 89 auditorium. At the children’s request they will be performing, “Out of the Ashes,” a dance owner Loretta Thomas choreographed about the events of Sept. 11.

In addition to the children and teenager’s performances, there will be guest appearances by Thomas’ adult company, Moving Visions, Dances by Isadora and by the Catherine Gallant/Dance Company. Tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for children over 5. Donation tickets priced at $25, $50 or $75 will also include a reception and raffle. For more information contact Loretta Thomas at 212-608-7681.


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