HAMMOND - Whether you fancy yourself the next Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers, the next Mikhail Baryshnikov or maybe you want to bust a move like your favorite hip hop performer, you can learn it all at The Dance Connection.
Originally the Muffett School of Dance, it was founded in 1953 by Rita Muffett. One of her first students was Tami Rogowski-Aldrin, who remained at the school after graduation to teach. When Muffett retired in 1986, Rogowski-Aldrin and her friend Cindy Melchor, another Muffett student, bought the studio and changed the name to The Dance Connection.
Rogowski-Aldrin said she and Melchor never retired, but they did slow down, so the business was passed on the Rogowski-Aldrin’s daughter Alexis Aldrin-West. One of the oldest businesses in Hammond’s Hessville neighborhood, The Dance Connection has continued to grow, adding a rented studio next door to the original location at 6635 Kennedy Ave.
The business now averages 200 to 250 students in classes that go from September through June, when the students perform in the annual recital at Morton High School with each style of dance performed: ballet, pointe, tap, jazz, hip hop, modern, preschool, special needs and Zumba.
“The Dance Connection is a neighborhood studio with affordable, family pricing,” Rogowski-Aldrin said. “It has a well-rounded and talented staff of 10 teachers, who teach students from age 3 to adult. By having such a varied staff, students are able to learn different styles of dance, and it gives students a good dance foundation.
“Children often start with ‘Miss Tami’ at the beginning level and stay until they graduate at the advanced levels,” Rogowski-Aldrin said. “Many come back during and after college to the alumni class. Then there are those former students who bring back their children or grandchildren.”
One of the many examples of the family tradition is Cynthia Fary, of Hammond, who started learning tap dancing at the school at age 3.
“I was really shy, but I decided I wanted to dance,” Fary said. “I did it until I was 18 and stopped for college. I came back after college but stopped when I had children.”
Her daughter Bess matched mom, starting tap lessons at age 3 at the same time her 4-year-old brother Christian put on the shoes. Christian has since graduated from college and is involved in musical theater in New York. Bess just finished her first year of teaching elementary school in Lansing, and both continue to dance in the city’s annual July 4 parade.
“I have friends I met there who are still my friends today,” Fary said of the school. “It’s not just a dance studio. It is a family. I have two other children who went there, and they are friends with the children of the people I was friends with there. They love it, and it is a part of our life.”
Muffett, who Fary said reminded her of Lucille Ball because of her red hair, played piano as the students danced even after she retired. Fary had two memories that stood out from her days at the school. The first was a costume fitting session that took an unfortunate turn when one of the students had chicken pox. All the other students soon contracted it too, she said.
Her big chance at stardom came when Muffett suggested she try out for a ballet company in Michigan City. She was still in grade school at the time and, though she wanted to learn tap, she had grown enamored with ballet and Muffett thought this might be just the thing to help her pursue ballet full-time.
“My parents said it was too far away, so I missed my chance to be a great ballerina,” she said. “At least, that’s what I thought at the time.”
She recently returned to her tap roots after about a five-year hiatus and said the people she danced with then she was little are dancing with her again.
Ofelia Jimenez had a hard time finding a dance class that would accept her daughter Nataly Garcia. Garcia has Down syndrome, and was 9 when she started lessons at The Dance Connection. That was 16 years ago, and now she’s not only still learning to dance tap and ballet, on Mondays she also helps the teacher with the younger children with disabilities.
“She loves to go to dance class,” Jimenez said. “It’s been a great experience for her and for her friends too. It’s very hard for families to find a place for something like this. The teacher is kind and encourages the students. It has been a great thing.”
Garcia takes tap lessons with the regular class but is in a class for young adults with disabilities for all the other dance styles.
Rogowski-Aldrin said a Hessville man who used to teach in the school has gone on to teach at Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago.
“Not everyone becomes a dancer after leaving the studio, but we have our share of dance majors, dance teachers and a few students who are Broadway bound,” she said. “We have been dubbed The Dance Connection Family by our students and their parents.
“One of our parents posted that The Dance Connection is a place where dance is not a competition. It’s not just for the young and fit. It’s a place for all to connect and feel the joy of dance.”