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An oasis for dancers

Tucked inside a New Tampa shopping center is a dance school where students dream of Broadway - and a teacher does her best to get them there.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published May 9, 2003

NEW TAMPA - Once, like them, she was a child with visions of Broadway.

Now, Dyane Elkins-Joseph is a keeper of dreams.

"Smile! Leg kick not high enough!" the dance teacher barks, voice barely audible above the thunder of metal-tipped shoes on polished wood.

"Don't push the tempo!"

Outside the New Tampa Dance Theatre, it is no Broadway.

A Farm Store peddles gasoline and milk. Next door sits a vacuum supply shop.

Inside, the dancers struggle to keep pace with Joseph's directions. They smile gamely, but their feet, squeezed into tap shoes, have turned red. Their hair is matted with sweat.

For the past eight years, students with hopes for a bigger stage have sought out the New Tampa Dance Theatre, a high art oasis tucked in the Pebble Creek Collection shopping plaza. Enrollment is now at 450 students, with some coming from as far away as Brooksville. The school regularly graduates dancers to programs in New York City and Boston. Working for Joseph are eight instructors she recruited, including the assistant artistic director of Busch Gardens and a graduate of the Royal London Ballet.

"The unique thing about this place is the discipline," said Philip Pegler-Burnham, the Royal London graduate, who also heads the classical ballet program at the University of Florida.

"You don't see that anywhere, and that comes from the top," he said.

Joseph smiles when told about the school's reputation for professionalism.

She enjoys it when parents describe her program as "prep school for dancers."

Still, she doesn't exactly fit the headmaster stereotype.

At 32, Joseph could pass for 22. She wears leopard skin tap shoes. Her long brown hair has streaks of blond and purple.

Megan Dobson of West Meadows began dancing at the theater at age 11. Now 18 and a senior at Wharton High School, she thinks of Joseph as a big sister. Some days, they even shop together.

But at the studio door, two girlfriends become teacher and pupil.

"She's pretty demanding and she doesn't have much patience for people who don't take it seriously," Dobson said. "She wants the very best out of her students."

It's a tough profession that demands both artistic discipline - much like mastering violin or piano - and athleticism. The wear-and-tear would make a football player wince, Joseph said.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the profession's fickle nature, something Joseph says she knows all too well.

Her story reads almost like the classic Gotham tale: Mid-western girl from Columbus, Ohio, leaves family and boyfriend to chase the Broadway spotlight.

That was in 1991.

On a full-scholarship to the prestigious STEPS on Broadway, she studied under hoofer greats from the 1940s - Buster Brown, Leonard Reed and Fayard Nicholas. She waited tables at night to pay for a studio apartment she shared with another dancer.

Only a month after she moved there, she got her first break.

She was among 20 women picked from a field of 700 to dance for the New York Knicks. The pay wasn't great - a little more than what she was making as a waitress - but the job promised exposure.

She quit her waitressing job and followed a whirlwind schedule of photo shoots.

But the dream ended when a new choreographer was hired. He wanted his own dancers and another round of auditions. This time, Joseph didn't make the cut. Only 15 dancers were hired. She placed 16th.

"I cried all the way home," Joseph said. "I said: So this is the real world. I learned it's about who you know; it's about your hair color. You never know what the director is looking for. That's why I teach my children that it's not always about the dancing."

Joseph soon married her long-time boyfriend, Ryan Elkins, who is a professional photographer. He joined her in New York, where they worked odd jobs for the next year. They returned to Columbus when Joseph was offered a slot in JazzMet, a jazz dance company. But that company was soon canceled. So in 1995, she and two friends, Troy and Kristen Jansen, scouted for a location to open a new dance school.

They settled on New Tampa, drawn to its young families.

More than 100 students enrolled the first year.

When the Jansens returned to Columbus in 2001 to be near family, Joseph took over the school.

She is involved in nearly every aspect of the program. At 8 a.m. on weekdays, she begins working the phones from her Tampa Palms home, organizing costumes and set pieces for upcoming productions. She recruits future instructors and arranges visits from New York dance choreographers.

By 2 p.m., she's at the studio, where she teaches until 10.

Things have been hectic lately as Joseph prepares for the Spring 2003 Concert, which will be held May 17 at USF's College of Visual & Performing Arts. The show will open with Act 3 of the classical ballet "Sleeping Beauty," and it will follow with a medley of work set by choreographers from around the country. The show ends with scenes from "A Chorus Line."

Joseph wants more. She envisions broadening the school's curriculum to include voice and acting lessons. She wants the Tampa City Council to approve spending on a public arts center in New Tampa, where Joseph hopes to stage her concerts.

She's the relentless energy and drive behind the school, said Pegler-Burnham.

"She's smart, she has the experience and she has good business sense," he said. "On top of all that, she plugs into the lives of her students. They're not just a number in the enrollment book."

It heartens Joseph to see students such as Megan Dobson evolve into confident dancers. Her role now, far from the glamour of the Big Apple, is to prepare her students for the world outside her studio.

"This is a tough business, where at 15 or 16, you're already old," Joseph said. "I see my job as being a mentor, to help give them every tool they need to compete. And if they don't make it, hopefully I've taught them confidence that will help them throughout life."

- Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 269-5312 or mvansickler@sptimes.com

If You Go

The Dance Theatre of Tampa stages its Spring 2003 Concert on May 17 at Theatre I of the University of South Florida's College of Visual & Performing Arts. Shows are 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets: $12 for adults, $8 for children ages 3 to 12. Call 991-4343.

[Last modified May 8, 2003, 11:31:55]

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