Meet the Danceworks team! Learn what makes us tick – why we joined the dance, and what we love about our great city.
Deborah Wenzler Farris, CEO
I never planned to dance. I took my first ballet class when I was five but quit before I was six because I had to lie on the floor and wear my pajamas for my first recital. Then, when I was seven my parents took me to the Pabst Theatre to see a production of the Sound of Music, I knew I wanted a career on the stage. I liked organizing my friends into theatre “productions” which I’d direct in neighborhood garages, living rooms and backyard patios and charge a quarter admission.
I was not athletic. I’d trip when I ran the 50 yard dash in gym class and blame it on the gravel. Swimming gave me ear infections and volleyball bruised my wrists. My mom was my inspiration to give ballet another try after she started taking classes with Pam Frautschi at Dance Spectrum Studios when she was forty-five and I was a senior at Riverside High School. Second time was a charm (kind of like my marriage).
While attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I kept disappearing from the music department where I was a voice major, to take dance classes. That trend continued throughout college. Even after I moved to New York to pursue a career in the theatre, married an actor/director and started an off-off Broadway theatre company in the Parson’s School of Design old movie theatre, I still disappeared whenever I could to take dance classes. And there were plenty to choose from. Dance kept me grounded. Dance kept me healthy. From NY to New Orleans, Dallas to Ashland, and California to North Carolina, I fit dance in whenever I could. And it was dance that kept me disciplined when life got tough.
When I was hired by the New Performance Dance Company in Durham, NC in my mid-thirties, I never returned to theatre. But I did eventually return home to Milwaukee. In the midst of making a shift in my career into business and finance around 1999, I married my brother’s best friend from high school and got distracted by an offer to teach and earn my MFA at UW-Milwaukee in, what else? Yes. Dance. Now I was the forty-five year old in dance class.
The rest is history.
I’m proud to be an MPS grad. I love Colectivo, the bike trails, Downer Ave, driving past the church I grew up attending on 4th and Meinecke while on my way to visit one of our schools, and I love seeing the smiles on the faces of the students we have the privilege of working with—all those who have joined the dance.
What is one thing on your “bucket” list? Who needs a bucket list when your life has been one?
Kim Johnson, Managing Director
As a professional, I joined the “dance” because quite simply, I was asked to by the founding Artistic Director of Danceworks Performance Company (DPC), Sarah Wilbur. I had just graduated from UW-Milwaukee and Sarah called asking if we could meet for a coffee and bagel. When she asked me to join the company, I just about fell off my chair as she and the other dancers at the time were ones I had looked up to for years and held in such high regard. My journey started a few months later. Working with this group was not only a dream come true, but a constant source of inspiration, laughter, and education.
Fast forward years and many dance performances later, I was heavy into teaching for a few different organizations, dancing with DPC, now married, and trying to figure out how to do it all gracefully and feel that I was impacting the community in the best way I could with what I had to give. The formidable Dani Kuepper was now leading the company and I slowly started assisting her with artistic and administrative duties. Around this time, I was also asked to start taking on more teaching at Danceworks and this included a class I had been developing, which is now titled Barre Workout, originally Dance Fitness. Danceworks DanceLAB was in need of directorship and I found its mission to be compelling and needed in the dance community. I was starting to feel that all the different “roads” I had to drive down every day, were starting to become one. I was able to use my abilities and passions to enhance the joy, health, and creativity of the community through my work with Danceworks.
I now feel that I am able to connect all that I do every day, be it in the studio, theater, or sitting in the office. I can share my love of dance and health with over a hundred students every week, ranging in age and dance experience. I’m able to share the stage with the most talented colleagues and let audiences escape. I can mentor and assist those emerging and established artists by providing them with a venue to showcase their work through DanceLAB.
I remember what it was like to be a young adult wondering how I was going to use my passion, my degree, and my talent in dance while impacting the community. Danceworks let this all happen. I can only hope that I can give back what they have given me so that others may find their journey, whatever it may be.
Since my mom was born and raised in Milwaukee, it was like a second home we’d visit a few times a year, but a REALLY big one compared to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is where I was raised. As a child, I remember thinking that going downtown or to a real mall with more than 5 stores was the coolest thing ever. To this day, I still get excited to drive downtown and think, “This is where I work!”
Besides my own nostalgia for the city, I love so many things about Milwaukee. One is the old, but new vibe it has. One can’t help but see what was once a hard-working manufacturing town evolving with the times – revitalizing downtown, turning old factories into housing and hotels, etc. Of course there is the lake…how can you not love it?! And, I can’t forget to mention the great food and art. There is always a new place to dine at or a new performance or gallery opening to see.
What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream? My favorite ice cream is White Christmas, which is a delicious blend of mint and white chocolate ice cream with red and green mint flakes. Unfortunately, this is not a common flavor, so my go to is blue moon. It reminds me of childhood.
Candice Wegner, Senior Director of Development
I joined the dance because I needed a purpose. I’ve worked for some of Milwaukee’s best non-profits and corporations, some of the greatest missions, products and services. However, at the core something was missing. Then I heard a presentation on joy and happiness by SoulPancake’s CEO Shabnam Mogharabi. How true joy has more impact on a person’s life than any basic human need ever could and that joy can make the most deadly of illnesses livable. The fire of needing to find my purpose, my joy started burning. Months later the Director of Philanthropy position here at Danceworks was brought to my attention. I did my research, looked at their history, donor lists and programs- everything a Philanthropy Director would look at and consider. What made me “join the dance” was the mission! Enhancing the joy of Milwaukee- why wouldn’t I want to be part of something that has the greatest impact on a human life?
What I love about Milwaukee is that it’s constantly different but ever the same. Milwaukee is my home. I was born and raised here; MPS proud, go 53rd Street Thunderbirds! I drive through Milwaukee and it’s nothing but nostalgia. Drive around Capitol and Fond Du Lac and you may see big box stores, some new, some run down but I recall many a shopping trips with my parents at Capitol Court. Drive near 4th and State and you see the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel building but what I see is my first work family and the place where I was pregnant with my baby girl. Drive down Broadway and you may see Cuvee but I see the place where I said “I do, for forever” to the man of my dreams. I may call Pewaukee my physical home but when people ask me where I’m from, I respond with sincere pride “Milwaukee.” Home is where the heart is and Milwaukee will always have a very special place in mine.
Who is your favorite cartoon character? Winnie the Pooh
Dani Kuepper, Artistic Director
I am honored to lead DPC as Artistic Director. I joined “the dance” of DPC in 1998, armed with both my BFA and MFA from UW-Milwaukee Dance Department. As an undergraduate at UWM, one of my first choreographic works, Mrs. Schultz, represented UWM at the national American College Dance Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Upon graduation, Danceworks welcomed my ambition and gave me a place to continue to create dances with professional dancers as well as community dancers of all ages.
Making dances has always been a part of who I am. Some of my earliest memories are of creating dances in my living room or back yard. It is a way that I feel empowered to connect with others and translate my inner world. I am a collaborator at heart, finding great joy in creating something together, that couldn’t have been accomplished alone. Milwaukee’s arts community is thriving and generous, paving the way for exciting collaborations. This interdisciplinary collaborative opportunity is my favorite thing about Milwaukee. Favorite collaborators include Milwaukee Opera Theatre, Present Music, First Stage Children’s Theatre, Chant Claire Chamber Choir, the master mind that is Jason Powell, The Tontine Ensemble and the UWM Institute of Chamber Music. DPC and UWM Dance Department have a strong connection. Nearly all of DPC is made up of UWM Dance Department alumni and I’ve been a member of the UWM Dance faculty since 1999. I received the UWM Alumni Association Teaching Excellence Award for non-tenure track in instructors in 2010. I cherish the opportunity to engage with and mentor the future artists of Milwaukee!
It’s 5:00 o’clock somewhere; what are you drinking? Assuming we are talking 5:00pm and I’m camping in Door County – I’ve mixed a Brandy Old Fashion and am sitting with my feet up in the sunshine. If it’s a work day – I’m drinking a glass of milk with my husband Ryan and four kids as we eat dinner and then race out to soccer, dance class, musical, gymnastics…
Gina Laurenzi, Artistic Manager of Danceworks Youth Performance Company
As a kid, I was choreographing evening musicals and dance extravaganzas even before taking a formal dance class. Proud director of the neighborhood block party, circa 1997, thank you very much. My crew of best friends and cousins worked long summer days to bring these events to life for our families and neighbors. Even as young people, we felt a serious need to expose our neighborhood to the arts. Many years later, after training, performing and experiencing the world of professional dance in countless ways, I have found a circle of people in Milwaukee that I am inspired by, and where creativity valued, explored and shared.
At Danceworks, I am a member of a great team working to bring arts events to the community. I was first drawn to Danceworks Performance Company because of the variety in theme explored through the performance season. I was invited to join Danceworks Performance Company for a single performance, and after being offered a company position, have since have become involved in numerous ways. While I grew up artsy and theatrical, I had a tough time in high school. I needed community, which I found at a local dance studio. I dove into dance seriously at fifteen and haven’t turned back since. Recognizing first-hand the effect the arts have specifically on young people, as Artistic Director of Danceworks Youth Performance Company (DYPC), it is wonderful to be able to give back and work with aspiring teenage dancers.
Who is your favorite superhero? My favorite superhero is Batman because who doesn’t love a guy in a cape cleaning up crime! Nerd alert: I’m a big fan of Christian Bale and the Dark Knight Trilogy.
Amy Brinkman-Sustache, Director of Education
I began dancing at the age of three. My parents thought it would be a fun activity for me to do before I started school. Once I began school they thought that I would lose interest in a year or so. They were wrong! I took dance lessons (and they paid for those lessons) for many, many years.
My father really wanted me to open my own dance studio, but I had a different plan. I knew I wanted to dance forever and to teach others to dance, but I didn’t want my own business. Instead, I wanted to be part of a creative team of people who could make a difference in the community through the arts. I really had no idea if/where a job like this existed. Then in 1992 I found Danceworks—or, I should say, Danceworks found me.
I’m proud to be a founding member of Danceworks. I love the challenges and rewards that come with working for a nonprofit. The joy we take in working every day on something we care deeply about is contagious and we hope to spread that joy to every part of our community.
I love Milwaukee for its historical landmarks, museums, markets and its diverse population of people. I also LOVE our city’s willingness and ability to make a festival out of almost anything. I admire how our community supports the endeavors of young professionals, entrepreneurs, small businesses and the especially the arts. MKE stands behind the individuals in their community and supports them however they can. I enjoy discovering the many partnerships and collaborations in and around our city. It shows me that Milwaukee is the type of place that treats each member of its community as a valued member of its family!
Are you a morning person or a night owl? I think I’m right in the middle. I usually get up pretty early but prefer not to have to be anywhere super early since many of my days go late into the evening. I definitely feel more motivated to get things done in the morning. I like to ease into my day when I can. I feel that this sets the tone for a calm and productive day.
Jolie Collins, Registrar
“Keeping it real,” as Gina Laurenzi phrased it, I’ll share how I joined the dance. I was out of work; looking for a job. A family friend, who knew I was looking, came up to me at church and told me to call her. During the call she told me to send her my resume; she made meals for a gentleman, who also was a friend of my parents, whose daughter owned a dance studio. Knowing that I danced at church, she thought I might be a good fit. I mailed off the resume and waited. About a week and a half later, I got this phone call from this wonderful lady, whose words restored hope in me when she described my resume as “wings flying off the page.” She saw how my experiences and skills could be used here at Danceworks. Her words empowered me. A couple of days later, I had a job interview and started training to learn the Front Desk. Oh, and the name of the wonderful woman whose words empowered me and who took a chance on me, that was and is our fearless leader, Debbie Farris. And as the years have gone by I see that empowering, encouraging and building up others is a part of what Danceworks is; and Danceworks does it by instilling hope, joy and community into those around them. It is a joy to be part of such a wonderful community of people. Things I love about Milwaukee include the lake and the Milwaukee Art Museum.
What’s currently clogging up your DVR? I don’t have a DVR! I’ve been watching Inuyasha on Hulu.
Gabi Sustache, Front Desk Staff
I “joined the dance” because I fell in love with it ever since I was young. I remember coming to see Danceworks Performance Company and Danceworks On Tap as a little girl. Sitting front row, on the mat seating, I knew even back then, that this is what I wanted to do when I “grew up.” Now I am proud to say that I am an instructor at Danceworks, and even am a part of our tap company, Danceworks On Tap. I hope that through my teaching and performing, I am able to inspire someone the same way that the performers at Danceworks inspired me – and continue to inspire me every day.
I absolutely love MKE in the summer! I love how there is so much to do; street festivals, Summerfest, NEWaukee Night Market. I love being able to spend time by Bradford Beach or go exploring in Seven Bridges. Milwaukee is the best place to be in the summer!
Beach or north woods? That is a good question. I would definitely have to go with beach, since in Milwaukee we are only able to enjoy the beach for about 4 out of the 12 months. In the summer, I always try to get to the beach as much as possible so I can soak up the summer sun before another long winter.
Alma Mercado, Front Desk Staff
My dance “career” really began when I was admitted to the Mad Hot Ballroom Competition in May of 2010. I was honored to win a first place trophy in swing. After that, I really got into dancing. I choreographed routines in high school for the international programs and talent shows. I also now choreograph routines for quinces and sometimes classes with youth and adults. My real specialty in dancing is Latin dances. Although my better rhythm skills are in Latin dances, I can dance tap, ballet, jazz and hip hop.
What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen? The worst movies I’ve seen has been the newest Transformers movies. They’re not the same.
Posy Knight, Community Engagement Youth Programs Manager
I surprised the world when I picked relatively-unknown and unloved Milwaukee as the place to begin a new career following three grueling years in the scenic design MFA program at the University of Connecticut and after years living in New York and abroad. Always an outspoken radical and hybrid workaholic, I enjoy the challenge of staying in shape, saving the world and pretending to be a people person.
If you were a superhero, what would your power be? My real name is Rosalind and my superpower is the ability to make others laugh on command!
View the full list of Danceworks Mad Hot Teaching Artists here.
View the full list of Danceworks Generations Teaching Artists here.
Hannah Pardee, Communications Manager
When I graduated from Rufus King in 2009, I couldn’t wait to leave Milwaukee. Everything felt old and familiar, and I was ready for something brand new. Attending college in New York City was wonderful, transformative and eye-opening, and by the time I returned for graduate school at Marquette, I had formed an adult’s appreciation for my childhood city. I love the sense of community here, and the unique combination of small-town and big-city that Milwaukee possesses. I love the city’s walkability, its parks and nature spaces, its pool halls and dive bars. I especially love being close to my parents, who still live on the East Side in the house I grew up in. I love being close enough to see my dad’s band play folk music each month at Sherman Perk Coffee Shop, and go to Fondy’s and the winter market at the Domes with my mom. They’re the ones who taught me about art, music, and the importance of access.
I joined the dance because young people need more from us. They each deserve to be rich in opportunities and experiences. Over the years I have taught college students, high school students, and third graders, and I am even more convinced than I was a decade ago that arts organizations are absolutely vital to the health and happiness of young people. The difference between me at 18 and me now is that rather than searching far and wide for creative spaces, I’ve learned to look right under my nose. I’m one of the people who had no idea that Danceworks was more than “just a studio,” even though I grew up ten minutes away. It was learning of their mission and commitment to Milwaukee’s youth that particularly drew me in, on top of the chance to utilize and expand my training in communication. I am so excited by the challenge and opportunity to share Danceworks’ many stories with my beloved Milwaukee community.
What’s your go-to coffee shop order? Anodyne’s nitro cold-brew on tap is the secret to my productivity (and also happiness).
Lisa Wenzler, Design & Advertising Manager
I love great design, and I especially love great design with a purpose. Prior to “joining the dance” at Danceworks, I worked as an art director and graphic designer for a wide array of clients. Those who most inspired my heart, and in turn my work, were the ones doing something with meaning, serving others or their community—making a difference. As a part of the Danceworks team, I may only have one “client,” but now I also have the opportunity be a part of an organization whose mission is ALL about serving others and the community. That mission informs and impacts every single piece I create, and I feel honored to play a part by making others aware of the work being done here.
Danceworks embodies what makes Milwaukee so awesome! I’ve lived here for nearly 17 years and have loved watching this city come into it’s own. The energy and creativity flourishing here is inspiring, and my favorite aspect is how MKE sort of flies under the radar of coolness, yet we have everything going on and more that other more notoriously hip cities have. I’m proud to be a part of a place where new businesses emerge, educational opportunities abound, neighborhood initiatives are inspired and cultural experiences are always underway.
To buy the shoes, or to not buy the shoes? Hmmm… If they’re cute, comfortable, go with more than one outfit, and preferably on sale, then sure! Does that mean I’m too practical? I probably need to go shoe shopping!
Maggie Seer, Development & Volunteer Coordinator
I began taking dance classes at Danceworks the summer after my freshman year to continue my training, and shortly after that I began teaching classes at Danceworks. I have always admired Danceworks for how they serve our broader community through the arts. All of this, combined with the welcoming and friendly atmosphere made Danceworks a very desirable place to work!
I love how tightly knit and supportive the communities of people in Milwaukee are, especially the dance community. I also love how I am constantly surprised to learn about new spots to visit in the city; there is always something new to try.
Who has the best french fries? Café Hollander – Frites with the roasted garlic aioli!
Debrasha Greye Rogers, Office Manager
I “joined the dance” in 2016 after being a part of the Intensive Study Program and the Work Study Program at Danceworks. I view my position as an opportunity to give back for what I received in my developmental years as a dancer. Observing the students’ growth through their passion for dance invigorates my desire to be a part of this organization.
What I have loved most after being raised in Milwaukee are the hidden landscapes; the small parks, lakes, and railroad tracks that paint a beautiful snapshot of the Milwaukee area.
What was the last book you read? My Sister’s Keeper.
Teresa Drews, Studio Youth Programs Coordinator
I have always admired Danceworks employees for the work they do. Not only do they provide exemplary dance instruction with phenomenal customer service through their studio, they also bring dance and the arts to people of all ages through their outreach programs. When the opportunity to join the administrative staff arose, I leapt at the chance. Though I had been working as an instructor at the summer creative arts camps, I had only a partial idea of the extent of the wonderful work they do through their outreach programs. I am so thankful to be a small piece of this amazing institution.
Two things I love about Milwaukee are: it has always given me ample outlets for my creativity, and – of course – the summers.
You are stranded on a desert island; what 3 things are with you? Sunglasses (I have very light sensitive eyes), my running shoes (though I’m old and slow, running makes me feel able), my phone with at least the ability to play Candy Crush (I have a problem).
Sarah Mesa, Front of House Coordinator
Milwaukee has an exciting, vibrant, and professional place to learn dance… Danceworks Inc. Here we welcome everyone, no dancer is left behind and dance is fun, professional, and the people that work here are passionate about the Art they teach. This is a part of the Danceworks experience that pulls everyone in as you walk in the front door, the diversity of music fills the air, and even if you have never danced before you will eventually find yourself trying out a dance class or two. I have always wanted to work at Danceworks, not just because I have danced my whole life and dance runs through me daily… Danceworks is a place to work that brings smiles to children and adults of all ages and I love seeing the growth & development of all the dancers. Danceworks is a place that gives back to our community and provides the arts to all. I have been coming to Danceworks for years to support my daughter’s growth in her dance career. Danceworks has taught me how to guide my daughter into a professional dance career; they have modeled her into becoming the professional dancer that she is now going to UWM to be, yet she is still also at Danceworks having professional performance opportunities to dance.
I am also a full-time teacher at the UWM Children’s Learning Center of children between PreK-3rd grades and I love to see the connection movement and music has with growth and development of children. Since I have been a teacher of 15 years at UWM I have learned a lot from my dance background which has influenced the way I teach the arts in my daily classroom. I teach dance, music, movement for all, and I really promote Danceworks Inc. for all my students to continue the Arts outside of my class room. Dance has always been a part of my life and has helped me to get through many hard times and good times. Dance has taught me how to get in touch with my emotions, learn about my body, learn about health, and as a teacher I am able to share every day these traits with my students. All our social/emotional and life skills that I learned in life somehow came back to a dance experience that I have had, or one that I will in the future. I am so proud to say that I am a Danceworks employee.
If you had to choose one food to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be? If I had to eat one food for the rest of my life it would be pepperoni pizza.
Laura Kolar, Box Office Coordinator
The outreach portion of Danceworks is what first drew me into the organization. I have always believed that everyone should be able to have the opportunity to dance no matter what so I love the way that Danceworks does so many programs trying to reach as many people in our community as possible. It brings me so much joy to see kids be able to dance and perform when they may otherwise never have thought they’d have the chance.
My favorite thing about Milwaukee is the summers. Summers in Milwaukee are the best because you can find festivals and music everywhere. There are so many fun and free things to do in the community that it just makes it a great place to be.
What book(s) could you re-read over and over again? How to Practice a Way to a Meaningful Life by the Dalai Lama, and Peter Pan by James M. Barrie.
Images: ɅLTVRɅ, Christal Wagner