As we turn the page to a new chapter and begin 2016, I remember, at this time ten years ago, 22 Milwaukee schools were lining up—literally—to kick off Mad Hot in Milwaukee. The Marcus Center and UPAF had endorsed the program and we filled Uihlein Hall as we celebrated the launch of Danceworks Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap. That was a night I will never forget.
About a week later, Mario (Costantini) and I were observing the first ballroom class at Elm Creative Arts. Lead Ballroom teacher Neil Hollingworth was inspiring about 30 students to get into two lines, girls facing boys, and instructing them to take hands. It didn’t go over big. He was patient and firm and there were a lot of sleeves being pulled down over knuckles before anyone touched a single finger of a partner.
What followed was more challenging. “To ballroom dance, you must look your partner in the eyes,” Neil said. That didn’t go over well either. There was a lot of squirming and shuffling. Neil is a professional ballroom dancer and expects the best from his students. He demonstrated then waited.
A couple sets of eyes began to lift off the floor and some began to squint in the direction of their partners. Then it happened—eyes met eyes and you could have heard a pin drop. Within seconds everyone was on the floor laughing.
We knew we were onto something good—and fun! We had the movie Mad Hot Ballroom and its producer Amy Sewell to help us get started.
Year by year, the program has grown steadily in structure and depth beyond my expectations with thanks to great faculty and lead teachers like Neil and Amy Brinkman, Jacqui Lefebvre and Christal Wagner, project managers Debbie Payden, Liz Tesch and Kelly Drake and outreach director Rachel Payden. It’s hard to believe the program now has almost 50 faculty to cover classes in 45 schools throughout the city.
Over the years, one of the questions we are often asked is if we know what kind of long term impact Mad Hot has on our students. You’d think with over 20,000 students served we’d be able to come up with that but it’s tricky. Many students move and change schools. It’s difficult to gather statistically significant longitudinal data.
In honor of our 10th year, however, we decided to track down 10 students who were in the program back in the day, interview them to see what they are up to now and find out if the program had an impact on their lives since then.
Finding the first student was easy. Gabi Sustache was a student at Elm Creative Arts and is now a senior at MPS’ Ronald Reagan College Preparatory High School. She also teaches and works part-time at Danceworks. She covered the front desk over the holiday and let me ask her a few questions to help get me started:
Me: Gabi! What’s your first memory of Mad Hot?
Gabi: My school, Elm, won tap. I remember when the second place winner was called and we all knew we had won 1st place. I still have my number 344 hanging in my bedroom.
Me: Do you have a memory of your teacher?
Gabi: Rachel (Payden) was my teacher. She made it fun for me to learn a new style. It was the first time I did ballroom. I had a great classroom teacher, Mr. Vitrano. He let us practice during class time. I was at an arts school so we already had dance. Partnering was new though and made us all a little nervous but Rachel did a good job of getting us all dancing together.
Me: Did you notice a change in yourself as a result?
Gabi: Yeah, partnering helped me grow. It made me like that kind of dancing.
Me: What was the Mad Hot Competition at the BMO Harris Bradley Center like for you?
Gabi: I was a finalist in the Swing. I remember I wasn’t disappointed that I didn’t place (1st, 2nd or 3rd) because I had the most fun I’ve ever had in my life! I didn’t think so much about the competition aspect of it but about performing at the Bradley Center in front of all those people (about 6000).
Me: Did the competition open any new doors or inspire a desire to perform?
Gabi: It helped me overcome my fears. I did Mad Hot Phase II the year after and got to perform several times around the community. Then that moved me into DYPC (Danceworks Youth Performance Company). That opened up doors for me to perform with different dance companies in town. And now I teach eight classes a week at Danceworks. I also went back and taught at Elm. I choreographed a dance for an after school musical about anti-bullying. I went to see it. It turned out well.
Me: I know you are a great teacher. I’ve seen you teach. And popular! You have an openness that lets people warm up to you quickly and that’s the quality we want in our teachers. You can’t teach someone that. What do you think makes you able to meet people where they are and to inspire them?
Gabi: It’s how I was taught. I’m trying to teach the same way that I learned because I think it’s the best way. Ms. Dru (Cagnoni), Melissa (Anderson), Cedric (Gardner), and Amy (Brinkman) were huge inspirations. When I teach I try to be friendly about it. There’s no need to be…well, you know, mean and strict, it’s supposed to be fun. I think people learn better in that way.
Me: Aww, thanks for those words Gabi. Anything else you’d like to add?
Gabi: I think that everything I’ve done at Danceworks has improved me as a person. It all started with Mad Hot. That was the first program I was with before I started performing. It helped me become a better dancer performance-wise but it also helped me become a better person. And, I’ll be auditioning for the UW-Milwaukee dance department in March!
There you go! Join in our Mad Hot 10th Anniversary fun as we continue to share the stories of students then and now. If you have a Mad Hot story please feel free to leave a comment or call me at 414-277-8480 ext. 6000. We want to hear it. And in case one of your resolutions is to get moving, our adult session begins January 4 and youth classes start on January 11. You can register here.
Here’s to a great new year! Wishing you much joy, health and creativity in 2016—
Welcome to the Danceworks blog, where we're hoping to share a little bit more about the heart and soul behind Danceworks… what made us join the dance and keeps us dancing, what keeps us inspired, and where we can share some of the stories worth telling.