Meet the Danceworks team! Learn what makes us tick – why we joined the dance, and what we love about our great city.
Julia Gray, Executive Director
I began dancing at the age of 4 at Wempner’s School of Dance in Fond du Lac, WI. Mary Wempner’s first studio was an abandoned, one-room grocery store. I took lessons in ballet, tap, and jazz, including performance with the school’s dance company. While I didn’t pursue dance as a profession, this job is the ideal marriage between my non-profit leadership experience and that youthful passion around movement.
Today I see Danceworks mission to enhance JOY, health, and creativity by engaging the community through dance as my call to service. From the performance company, to studio lessons, and our outreach work – I’m excited to continue this vision of excellence moving forward and deeper into the community. Especially post-pandemic, dance is needed now more than ever to connect our physical bodies with our mental health and the health of the community.
If there was a movie made about your life, who would play you? Ashley Judd
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.
Christal Wagner, Artistic Director
I found my love for dance from a very young age at Richards School of the Dance in Oshkosh, WI. The standard Tap, Ballet, and Jazz were what I studied there, but also I trained in Can Can and Kickline. It really was a wonderful introduction into rhythm, teamwork, and highlighted that I was a special case of a student, far more interested in my dance studies than anything else. I was always a motivated athlete from a young age and artist as well. I am so grateful for the well rounded arts and athletic education I had growing up. I also spent 4 nights a week at the local roller rink and speed team competitions on the weekends from the age of 2 until I was 12 when my roller rink shut down in my home town of Ripon, WI. My love for dance intensified as I abandoned confirmation class at my local church and opted for private ballroom dance lessons at age 16, training with dance instructors Frank Gillitzer and Denis Lopez in various latin styles. My parents also partook in ballroom lessons as a couple starting in their late 40’s at a studio in Oshkosh and I remember endless hours exploring how to fight boredom, waiting for them to finish their lessons in the lobby of the ballroom studio. They shortly after joined a West Coast Swing dance club in Oshkosh and just as the roller rink closed, my love for West Coast Swing started.
I have since traded in my love for west coast swing for a love of modern dance and musical theatre. I joined the Danceworks team in 2007 as a member of the performance company under the Artistic Direction of of Dani Kuepper after receiving my BFA in dance from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. I am proud to say that I have performed every single regular season show with DPMKE since my start with the company. I also proudly have taught for the Mad Hot Rhythm (formerly Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap) program for the 13 years I’ve been with DPMKE. Through the Mad Hot Rhythm program I definitely see myself in these young artists and am thrilled year after year to help young dancers start their interest in dance as I did.
My training under Dani Kuepper the past 14 years (18 years total if you include my time at UWM) has shaped me into being exponentially imaginative and optimistic about creating art. Her legacy lives on each day I choose to create something new. You can see this influence not only in my stage work but also in my developing skills as a cinematographer and photographer. Danceworks is a huge part of my established roots in Milwaukee.
What is your favorite TV series of all time? Star Trek: Discovery (seriously it’s the best show)
Kim Johnson, Artistic Support
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.
Rachel Griffin, Communications Manager
Dance has been an important part of my life since the age of 3. From a tap dance to “I’m a Little Tea-Pot” at the Parks and Rec dance class, to competitions every weekend in the spring, I couldn’t imagine my life without dance. It took 3 knee surgeries within a year’s span to realize the importance of dance not only for my physical health, but my mental health as well. I truly believe that dance enhances joy, health, and creativity.
I earned my B.A in Communication Arts and Digital Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was here that I discovered a student organization named Optima Dance, the largest student dance organization at UW-Madison. This organization gave me a platform to showcase my own choreography, as well as participate in other student choreographed pieces. I loved the creative process and seeing a vision come to life on the stage. Upon graduating and returning back to Milwaukee, I was determined to find a community of dancers and performance artists that were just as welcoming and charismatic.
I was introduced to Danceworks by a family friend, and was immediately ready to jump in and work after my first meeting with the Director of Education, Amy Brinkman. That summer I worked as a camp assistant at Danceworks Summer Creative Arts Camps, where I was able to be a part of the creative experience and see the positive impact an open and imaginative environment had on the kids as the weeks progressed. I was ecstatic when I was offered a communications position as part of the Danceworks administrative team. I also became involved in the Mad Hot Rhythm program as a teaching artist. I feel so lucky to have a job that combines my area of study with my passion for dance, and to be able to share the many benefits of dance with fellow community members along the way.
I love Milwaukee because it’s a big city filled with big hearts. MKE celebrates diversity, the many cultures that call our city home and embraces what makes us all unique. I look forward to contributing to Milwaukee’s cultural vitality by sparking a lifelong interest and participation in the arts in my position.
What’s your go to Starbucks order? I LOVE me an iced caramel macchiato. Fun fact: When the barista asks for my name, I always give a different alias. Sometimes I’m Sally; sometimes I’m Darla!
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!
Debrasha Greye Rogers, Finance & HR 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.
Julia Dorf, Development Manager
I was first introduced to dance at the age of 3, attending Milwaukee Irish Fest. I immediately fell in love with the rhythms, colors and movements of Irish dance and knew that I was going to be up there on stage one day. After 10 years of competitive Irish dancing, I found my home within contemporary dance and went on to get a BFA at Indiana University, where I also studied non-profit arts management. It was this transformative experience that led me down a career path of sharing dance with the community. Prior to Danceworks, I worked for various dance organizations, taught, and managed a performance program.
My love of dance and aspiration to make movement accessible to all bodies is what brought me to Danceworks. I am thrilled for the opportunity to join this organization and strengthen our diverse performing arts community in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee is home! I love how even in this small city, there is always something new to discover! Our cultural festivals at the Summerfest grounds and live music venues are some of my favorites.
If you could have any super-power, what would you choose? Breathing underwater. I love being in the water and swimming in the ocean. Plus, it would be a pretty cool way to travel!
Gina Laurenzi, Studio Manager
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 MKE 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 Studio Manager, it is wonderful to be able to give back and work with aspiring young 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.
Teresa Drews, Artistic Manager – Visual Arts
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).
Jessica Fastabend, Community Programs Manager
I received my degree in education from Alverno College and decided to pair my two passions, teaching and dance. I began dancing at the age of three and studied a range of dance styles such as ballet, tap, jazz, modern and ballroom. I am dedicated to helping my students grow in their ability and foster their love of dance.
I became a part of Danceworks in 2011 when I began teaching for the then named Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap (now Mad Hot Rhythms) program. Prior to that, I did not realize that a community teaching artist was even a job. However, after just a few classes I was hooked and knew this was my place in the dance world. Before I knew it I was involved with residencies, intergenerational work, summer creative arts camps and studio classes.
What I truly love about Milwaukee is the diversity of art and artists. It does not matter what you create, a dance, a sculpture or something completely different, there is a place for it in our city.
What would be the gag reel of your life? The gag reel of my life would be a montage of me laughing so hard that I snort, can’t catch my breath and have to run out of the room to compose myself.
Jolie Collins, Office Administrator
“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, Outreach Coordinator & Artistic Manager-DYPC
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.
Sarah Mesa, Box Office 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.
Images: ɅLTVRɅ, Christal Wagner