The building located at 1015 Kenmore Blvd. has been home to several different businesses over the past century. It was Pearson Used Car Company in its earliest days, and from 1934 until 1953 it was home to Walter J. Burkholder Dry Cleaning.
But it’s probably best known as the longtime home of Etta Mae Smith Studio of Dance, which occupied the space from 1964 through the Fall Dance Season in 2021.
Dancer Etta Mae Smith first opened her dance studio around 1950. The school trained thousands of dancers in ballet, tap, jazz acrobatics, and more on Kenmore Blvd. over the course of 70 years, including Etta Mae’s own children – her two daughters, who went on to become Radio City Rockettes, and her son, who went on to become a Broadway dancer and now co-owns Studio West Performing Arts Center with his wife.
Etta Mae Smith owned the studio for 64 years until passing away in 2014 at the age of 84. The studio was then sold to Judy Adams, one of Etta Mae's students and teachers, who would then run the studio for the next eight years.
The COVID-19 pandemic was hard on the studio and in spring 2023, after over a year of inactivity, the building was listed for sale marking the end of Etta Mae Smith Studio of Dance.
But the sale was not the end of the building's history as a dance studio.
Thanks to new property owners and a new business owner, the building will continue to operate as a dance, yoga, and "movement" studio for years to come, albeit under a new name –The Center Dance + Yoga Studio.
The Center, which quietly opened earlier this week, is operated by Gina Wilson – a Kenmore native and former Etta Mae Smith Studio of Dance student and teacher – and is already offering ballet, tap, meditation, and yoga classes.
When Etta Mae Smith Studio of Dance first stopped offering classes, Gina began hosting dance workshops at The Rialto Theatre to keep dance alive on Kenmore Blvd. and formed a group called "Dance on the Boulevard."
"It was really just to get the dancers who remained [from Etta Mae Smith Studio of Dance] back to dancing and moving again," Gina explained. "At the time I thought of it as a placeholder until Etta Mae Smith Studio of Dance opened back up again."
But instead of opening back up, the building went up for sale this spring – that's when friends of Gina's stepped in to purchase the building so she could begin hosting her classes there and continue to build on the space's legacy as a dance studio.
"I started dancing [at Etta Mae Studio of Dance] when I was five years old," Gina said. "I met two of my best friends here, and one of them (Megan Kalil) is going to teach various yoga and meditation classes here. A dance school like this is such an important thing because it brings people in the community together."
And now that she has the building, Gina is hitting the ground running. The Center is already hosting regular classes and hoping to bring a steady revenue stream in so she can begin remodeling, modernizing, and renovating the studio, as well as hiring additional teachers to offer more dance classes throughout the week.
"None of this would be possible without the amazing help of my friends and family, including Nate and Seth Vaill (owners of the Rialto Theatre), Megan Kalil, Marisa and Haley Jones, and my mother, Teri Wilson," Gina said.
Gina hopes The Center will eventually evolve into a performing arts hub where performers can get all their needs met – potentially even including music lessons – but for now the focus is on movement.
"I'm also a cellist and a choir director, and with the potential of Miller South coming here I just really want to offer a center for performing artists, but the renovations will be ongoing for at least the first year so it's not feasible to do everything just yet," Gina explained.
Rather than operating on a recital or class season type of model, The Center operates on a "drop-in" model where anyone can drop-in and pay for a single class as they wish. While this model is not new to the yoga world, it is not as common to dance studios in our area. However, if you visit New York City, you can find a variety of drop-in classes and workshops at studios such as Steps or Broadway Dance Center that exclusively offer classes in this way.
This model not only affords dancers from other studios extra opportunities to come in, focus on technique and gain some additional practice, but it also helps accommodate busy schedules by allowing dancers to come when they can without the obligation of a whole year's worth of classes or performing in a recital.
"There are some adults who grew up dancing, but they can't come to classes all the time anymore." Gina said, "But many still want to dance or maybe just want to dig out their tap shoes and come every now and then when they have free time on a weekend. I want them to be able to do that."
For now, the age group allowed to attend classes is at the discretion of the individual teachers, but typically anyone age 12 and up is welcome to attend. Regular classes and workshops for children younger than 12 will be added later in the year as The Center continues to update the space and grow its clientele.
The Center is in the process of getting its website online, but for now you can check out the schedule of upcoming classes by joining The Center's Facebook Group and and following the studio on Instagram. Prior registration is not required at this time, however if you'd prefer to register and pay in advance, you can do so through The Center's page on the Vagaro Booking App. Introductory promotions will also be posted on Vagaro.
Gina says they plan to hold an official grand opening and fundraiser sometime later this summer or in early fall.
The Center Dance + Yoga Studio's current schedule is:
5:30-6:30 pm Vinyasa Flow Yoga (with Samantha Grace Lindimore)
6:45-7:45 pm Yin Yoga (with Samantha Grace Lindimore)
5:45-6:45pm Beginner's Yoga (with Megan Kalil)
7-8pm Meditation & Movement (with Megan Kalil)
5:45-6:45pm Fun Friday Yoga (non-traditional yoga with Megan Kalil - *Beginning 7/14/2023*)
9-10am Vinyasa Flow Yoga with (with Samantha Grace Lindimore)
10:15-11am Yin Yoga (with Samantha Grace Lindimore)
**All Yoga classes are currently 1 hour and $15 per class**
3-3:45pm Drop-In Tap Class
3:45-4:30pm Drop-In Dance Class (rotates between Jazz, Ballet, Musical Theatre, and Ballroom - check The Center Dance + Yoga Facebook Group for updates)
Teachers for Sunday drop-in dance classes include Gina Wilson, Michael Musarra, Isaah Henderson, and Denise Bryant.
**All Dance classes are currently 45 minutes and $12 per class**
The Center will also offer special free programming during Kenmore First Friday events, including a children's yoga class from 6 - 6:45pm and beginners yoga from 7:15 - 8pm.
While the Etta Mae Smith name is now gone from the studio, her legacy will live on through students-turned teachers like Gina who are now passing on her lessons and sharing stories of what she was like as a person.
"She was always doing impressions and whenever we did something wrong she would scream this ear piercing scream and tell us we were making her teeth itch" Gina recalls. "Sometimes she would just stop and say to us 'Do you know what's going to happen if you dance like that on stage? Ladies will be sitting in the audience and one will turn to the other and say 'Oh, Hazel look at her un-pointed toe,' and then her friend will turn back and say 'Oh Opal, I know. It's so bad.'' My friend and I actually still make references to Hazel and Opal to this day."