REENFIELD — Forty years of dance memories fill the front office of Wilkerson Dance Studio.

Three walls feature a collage of photos, schedules, calendars and the owner’s post-it note reminders — “Alex needs size 7 shoes.”

Shelves line another wall with boxes of ballet shoes, leotards, tights and a lone pair of tap shoes. But it’s the shelf above the front door, home to 39 scrapbooks — full of pages of photos from 39 years of annual dance recitals — that has gotten the most attention lately as Debbie Wilkerson, founder and director, marks a major milestone in her business.

Wilkerson, of Greenfield, whose studio employs 14 dance instructors who teach 275 students all forms of dance from ballet to hip hop, is celebrating 40 years in business.

The upcoming 2016 spring recital, May 20 and 21, called “40 Years of Dance,” will be a celebration and a nostalgic look at Wilkerson’s decades of teaching young dancers to bring art to life.

Every year, the studio has had a theme for the spring dance revue; instructor Stacey Havlin came up with the idea to use themes from past spring recitals for the 40th anniversary celebration.

Havlin and fellow instructor Kathryn Ray pulled the scrapbooks from the shelf above door and started flipping through their pages.

They made a list of the recital themes from each of the previous years then invited instructors to pick their favorites to recreate.

Havlin, who began as a student at Wilkerson Dance when she was 9, now teaches for her old instructor. The studio where she now teaches hip hop and tap feels like home.

“I’ve been here as long as I can remember,” Havlin said.

The entire year has been a commemoration of Wilkerson’s career and students who have benefited from her teachings.

Havlin is in charge of going through the 39 scrapbooks to find pictures to post as weekly “Throwback Thursday” photos from previous years on the Wilkerson Dance Facebook page.

For Wilkerson, teaching has always come naturally — more so, she admits, than performing.

She trained as a young dancer at the Jordan College of Music and Dance at Butler University and later went on to earn her teaching certification from Dance Educators of America. She choreographed for the local theater group, Hoosier Heartland, in the late 70s and early 80s, and it didn’t take Wilkerson long to realize teaching dance was a much better fit for her than performing.

“People loved my choreography, and they noticed that I taught it in a concise way. Parents kept asking me: give my daughter dance lessons,” Wilkerson said, “and I woke up, and I had 30 students I was teaching in a spare bedroom in my parents’ house!”

Wilkerson’s first studio in her hometown was the upstairs ballroom at the Knights of Pythias building that used to stand at the corner of Main and Pennsylvania streets, where she taught for seven years.

Wilkerson’s mother, Ann Schrieber, at the time owned the Pizza Palace, a pizza business and an adjacent vacant lot on the location where Wilkerson Dance now stands.

The family worked together to build Wilkerson’s current studio there, which opened in 1984.

“The night we moved in was also the first night of classes,” Wilkerson said, “and we’ve been happy here ever since.”

It also was the night Wilkerson went into labor with her oldest son, Ross. She couldn’t teach because her feet were so swollen, so she sat with them propped up on a desk while class was going on.

At the end of the evening, she and husband were on their way to the hospital.

The studio continues to grow. A year ago, Wilkerson converted the old pizza place into a costume storage area, a kitchen and a second lobby and another dance studio.

Wilkerson now oversees classes in tap, ballet, jazz, contemporary, modern and hip-hop, conducted five days a week, but her role these days has transitioned to a more supportive role.

Tendon problems in her feet put a stop to the endless hours demonstrating technique for her students.

“After several surgeries, the doc said no more,” Wilkerson said.

She missed it terribly at first.

“I missed creating the class, the thrill of getting an idea, putting music and costumes to it, teaching the choreography — those moments it came to life,” Wilkerson said.

With no classes to teach, Wilkerson has found another way to stay close to the heart of her business. She is involved in some way in every class at the studio. Her instructors invite her in for critiques, and she has more time to funnel resources to her teachers: music, articles from magazines, dance videos on YouTube.

“I’ve reinvented myself,” Wilkerson said. “I’m half owner and half teacher. I never had time to do that before.”

Wilkerson is proud of the family effort at the dance studio. Her oldest son, Ross, sets and runs the lights for their performances, and younger son, Jess, is in charge of sound and music.

Plans for the 40th anniversary recital have the whole studio buzzing with ideas. One such idea came from a student who found a video on YouTube of a dance teacher talking about what her classes and studio meant to her.

Wilkerson adapted the idea to have an essay contest for the students with the theme of “What Does the Dance Studio Mean to You?” She said to her students: “I want to hear your stories.”

Wilkerson plans to compile a video of the students reading snippets from their essays which she plans to show at the recital.

“We have kids who get a bad grade or have parents yelling at them, and all they want to do is get to the studio and dance for three hours,” Wilkerson said. “It’s a safe place where they can be themselves and have fun and be accepted.”

If you go

Wilkerson Dance Studio presents “40 Years of Dance” at 7 p.m. May 20 and 21 at the Greenfield-Central High School auditorium, 810 N. Broadway St.

Tickets are $9 in advance and $10 the day of the show.

Former dance students are invited to a reception on stage after the Friday performance.

For more information, visit wilkersondance.com

Author photo
Christine Schaefer is arts editor and editorial assistant at the Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3222 or cschaefer@greenfieldreporter.com.