by Rachel Mayan
During a typical weekday morning in the school year, the dance studios at HAC are quiet and dark — in respite from activities of the day before. Outside in the hallway, the studio windows are adorned with inspirational quotes, and display cases are glittered with shining trophies and ribbons — best “this’s” and most “that’s.” You can feel the pride radiating from the space, and the woman who runs it all, sitting just down the hall in an office holding much the same content as those display cases, feels even prouder. 30 years into her career in the dance world, and HAC Dance and YES Programs Director, Angie Craft continues to find joy in her job every single day.
She started dancing when she was eight. “Dance was an escape,” Angie recalls, smiling. “It was somewhere that I could just go and completely be myself.” She could feel however she wanted to feel – she could be sassy if she wanted to be sassy.
Growing up a cheerleader, Angie received criticism from some peers for her confidence that they perceived as “show-off-iness.” But when she went to dance class, her bubbly personality wasn’t seen as a threat; it was a gift. “It was the one place I could go and people understood me.” She danced all the time, and it gave her the “walk-with-your-shoulders-back” kind of confidence that she took with her into adulthood.
She stopped dancing after she finished school, not realizing she could do anything further with it, and it didn’t make its way back into her life for quite some time. The road to Angie’s dance career, she’d soon find, would be paved with generosity and supported by those who shared her passion. After eight years out of the discipline, shopping in a country western store called Bunny Junction, she found the passion she’d ignited as a child would be sparked again.
Her Early Dance Career
“A woman came into the store,” Angie remembers, “and we started talking about her outfit.” The woman was a dance studio owner who was opening a new studio in New Jersey. She’d even been an instructor at the studio Angie originally studied under, the Jean Ferrill School of Dance. She offered Angie a job at her new location. “After an eight-year stop, I went to teach for her.”
Angie taught in Jersey, connecting with her dancers and finding purpose in her role, until some years later when she had her son. The commute became too tough with a newborn. She was getting ready to give up her current position when one of the dance moms stopped her. She didn’t want anyone else teaching her daughter.
“Her daughter was extremely shy,” Angie says, “and when her daughter did her first solo, her mom saw what dance could do.” She believed in Angie, and she offered to fund a new studio under Angie’s direction.
The two opened a studio in Angie’s basement. “I had 18 kids my first year, and the second, I had over 50,” says Angie. They grew from there to a community center, and from there, a location on Kirkwood Highway.
After 10 years of owning and operating her studio, Eagle Dance Studio, Angie was approached by another dance mom. She had an exciting new opportunity — running the dance program of an up-and-coming fitness facility soon to open in Hockessin. After some persuasion and hesitance to give up her own studio, Angie interviewed and was offered the job as Dance Director at Hockessin Athletic Club that day.
HAC School of Dance
Going from a studio owner to a dance director of a program in a larger business was a tough decision, but it’s made all the difference for Angie. “Coming here allowed me more freedom, more flexibility, and it gave my kids a place to come,” she smiles. She runs HAC School of Dance as if it’s her own studio because it’s just as important to her. “I put in the same amount of time; I put my blood, sweat, and tears into it, and I think that’s why it’s so successful.”
Since the program’s inception alongside HAC in 2007, it has grown tremendously. What studios once held only ballet, tap, and jazz classes now also hold lyrical, musical theater, acrodance, hip hop, and more. Dancers are taking more than one discipline and now have the opportunity to perform on stages so much bigger than themselves — in places like Disney World, the Wells Fargo Center for a 76ers game, the Wilmington Italian Festival, The Wilmington Ballet’s Nutcracker, and even during a Harlem Globetrotters’ event.
They also get the opportunity to learn under world-renowned dancers during intensive classes held here at HAC. The program caters to those interested in competition, but recreational dancers can find just as much joy, too. “I think we’re known as a competitive studio right now, which I love,” Angie says, “but I don’t want that to be our staple. We are competitive, but our ‘rec’ program is just as important.”
The teachers share in Angie’s passion, and like Angie, they’re here for more than just dance. “It’s about so much more than just the steps for us,” Angie says. “Obviously we want to teach them the steps and we want them to grow and become great dancers, but there’s so much more that it teaches you. Discipline, self-respect, confidence, the ability to get up on stage by yourself in front of hundreds of people — you don’t get that kind of opportunity in very many activities.”
Making Dance about More than the Steps
HAC School of Dance is constantly evolving, with this year’s biggest initiative being the focus on personal growth in each of the dancers. When Angie had her studio in her basement, she started the “Great Job Self” movement that she carried with her here, which aims to guide each student to reward him or herself. Ask any HAC dancer what they say at the end of any class, and they’ll tell you: “great job, self!”
That kind of positive affirmation is what Angie wants to develop, making it natural for each dancer to find success in their performance and feel a strong sense of self-worth. “If someone had taught me that at 6,” she says, “I would be such a different person now.”
“We’ll ask them, ‘what’s your favorite body part?’ ‘Tell yourself, ‘I am great,’’” Angie says. “’I am gorgeous. I can do this. Never give up.’” This year, each month will feature a different topic on positivity and self-worth that will be discussed in every class, where each dancer can speak and share his or her thoughts, which Angie hopes will also foster healthy conflict resolution – having those difficult conversations in a respectful way without being afraid to do so.
“There’s so much drama around the dance world, and it’s so competitive,” she says. She believes conflict resolution is a life skill that should be taught young and can be well applied in the studio. The hope is that the space feels safe for the dancers to be who they are and creates trust dancer to dancer.
If nothing else, Angie wants her dancers to know it’s about more than the steps. When she was a young dancer, she would always hear things like, “if you were 5-foot-8 and could kick your leg up to here, you could be a Rockette.” “It was as if being a Rockette was the only thing you could do,” Angie says. “There was no direction beyond the lessons.”
That’s why she focuses so heavily on giving her dancers opportunities – like Disney and performing on cruise ships – so that they know there are so many things you can do with dance.
“You could be a dance teacher, you could be a studio owner,” she says, “you could be a Disney performer, you can go to Broadway; it’s very difficult, but I just want them to know that they can follow their passion in a lot of different ways. It doesn’t have to stop in high school or after you graduate, and competition isn’t everything.” Dance can be whatever you want it to be, but above all, it should be a positive experience.