Love of dance takes woman from performer to studio owner
09/21/2017 03:19PM ● Published by Richard Gaw
Abigail Sites is an enthusiastic fan of dance legend Gene Kelly. The athleticism, grace and creativity of the 1940s and ‘50s movie musical performer are a constant source of inspiration.
Abby gets the motivation by way of her mother, Sara-Jo Sites. “My mom has always been really good at educating me about old musicals,” she said, her face lighting up at the memory. And as owner and instructor at Abundance Academy of Dance in Landenberg, Abby has plenty of chances to put her passion for Kelly’s work into practice.
Abundance, entering its eighth year, is a business built on inspiration. But the first steps started years ago.
“I asked my mother, when I was 6 years old, if I could please, please, please take dance,” Sites said. “She graciously listened and agreed. And I just fell in love with it. I took a simple jazz/tap combo class at my elementary after-school program, and became obsessed with the different styles and the relationships that come with being a dancer. It has always been my identity.”
The girl from Endicott in New York’s southern tier, whose favorite Gene Kelly movie is “Summerstock,” with Judy Garland, ended up going to the University of Delaware, double majoring in psychology and women’s studies. (“They didn’t have the dance minor like they do now,” she said wistfully.) Of course, she was still dancing. And teaching dance.
She started working for the City of Newark’s Parks and Recreation Department, as an assistant to the dance program offered there for children. She eventually ended up running the program while attending graduate school at Wilmington University.
“It was really big,” Sites said of the program. “My friend who I took it over from built it up into a really big, beautiful program. There were over 100 dancers and a full recital every year.” While she loved the program and teaching the kids, Sites was studying to be a school counselor. She thought that would be her career and she’d “dance for fun.”
Sometimes fate has a funny way of turning us around.
“My very last recital there was one week before my master’s graduation, and in that week, I had multiple parents pushing me to open my own studio,” she said. “I just thought I was going to be, ‘Thank you very much. I'm moving on to my new profession.’ I loved [teaching dance] so much, but I was 25 and I was ready. But I had such amazing parent support that … it's just one of those things that you have a short window of time to take advantage of the community you're a part of and that you helped build. So I did it. I took the leap.”
Sites opened her own studio.
Although in the beginning she did work as a school counselor in Newark while simultaneously running the studio, “After three years, I retired and just did this,” she said.
Sites said she had huge support from the parents and dancers who grew up around the parks and rec program. “One of the parents is a communications professor at UD, so she initially helped me with marketing. It was very much a sweet community effort backing me,” she said. Sites even got help finding her Chester County studio.
“I had a parent who said, ‘Abby, I've found the most beautiful space for you. It's in Pennsylvania,'” Sites said. “I said, 'But I've got to do it in Delaware!’ I fought it and I fought it, and then we drove here. I even liked the drive here -- I love these rolling hills. I couldn't have asked for a better space. There was just no going back.”
While Sites loved having a following from the parks and rec days, “To me, what was most exciting was people who just walked in off the street. I remember my first little girl, she was 3 years old, dressed as Cinderella, and I immediately bonded with her. Brooke’s danced with me all seven years.”
The most intimidating aspect of starting a business such as Abundance Academy is, of course, if the customers will follow through. In the first year, they had 115 students; at least 80 of those were kids who had taken part in the parks and rec program.
The Abundance staff is now up to three teachers, with Hannah Sanchez and Rachel Abremski joining Sites in the teaching duties. The school is accepting ongoing enrollments.
The classes are varied,and for all age groups. Ballet, jazz, tap, musical theater and lyrical – which is “like ballet, but with fewer rules,” Sites explained. “The reason it's called lyrical is that there is a connection to the lyrics of the music. A ballet may be a beautiful orchestral song, while lyrical could be something more dramatic, like ‘My Heart Will Go On,’ from ‘Titanic.'” Hip-hop is also taught, as is acro, which is a combination of acrobatic and dance moves.
For ages 3 to 6, there's Tiny Dancers, which teaches ballet and tap through games and spatial awareness, and new is Acro Groove, which “takes the fundamentals of acro and hip-hop for preschoolers. It’s proving to be wildly popular and ridiculously adorable,” she said. Also new for children 5 to 7 is Bunhead Academy, so-called after the nickname for ballet dancers, which can transition them into first level dance class.
Although most of the students are girls, last year 11 boys signed up, and Sites is hoping for at least as many this year. And what classes do the boys gravitate toward?
“They all took hip-hop. We've had some boys take ballet sporadically through the years, but we finally just said we're doing a boys’ hip-hop.”
Sites said the class was created because they found that the brothers of the girls taking hip-hop were very interested, but they tended not to want to dance in front of girls.
Abundance Academy classes are open to everyone, regardless of ability. “I've had kids with all sorts of disabilities and learning styles,” Sites said. “Kids with diabetes ... all sorts of things that you need to be aware of as a teacher. I think, with my background in school counseling, people get that I’m a big fan of inclusivity and treating people with respect.”
Recently, Sites got her certification in Rhythm Works Integrative Dance. “It’s basically a program to help teach all different types of learning styles and disabilities. It's something that we do anyway. But it was really exciting for me to get the certification and dive deeper into it.
“Everyone has their own way of learning. and to be able to better know the cues faster, and to tailor my teaching towards them, it's just more efficient. You learn that connection better, they learn quicker, everyone feels better.”
Sites said there was one Tiny Dancer, in particular, who motivates her. “She's a superstar. Her name is Natalie and she does have Down syndrome, so that's another layer of motivation in getting this certification, to be able to continue to work on my teaching skills to serve her best. She's just got a spark. She's funny, she's goofy, she's got a great sense of humor. She challenges me and I try to challenge her back.”
Another class offered by Abundance is called Company, which has students averaging 12 years old. “They have to audition. It’s mainly jazz based, but we do do combined styles,” Sites said. “Lots of technique and conditioning and team-building. It's a special program for those who really want a challenge. So it's small -- there's only seven of them this year.”
The unfortunate sharing of her first name with a reality-TV dance teacher who has a rather abrasive approach has underscored to Abby how she wants to relate to her students. “I like to distance myself from her as much as possible,” she said.
She grew thoughtful. “I think kids are very busy these days and we have high expectations for them, and that's OK. But I'm working very hard this year to make sure -- particularly with our Company girls – that they have the skills and know how to be accountable and to be kind. I'm not going to assume that they already are, and help build those skills.”
Sites said she always knew if she ever had a dance school, she was going to name it Abundance. Ab, for her name; bun, for a ballet dancer’s bun; and dance, for, well, you know.
Dance class, Sites believes, is the great leveler. “The thing is, we're all coming in as individuals,” she said. “We're all trying to learn how to be ourselves, but be in a team atmosphere. So we're all just trying to do the best we can. Everyone can dance.”
Natalie Smith may be contacted at DoubleSMedia@rocketmail.com or www.DoubleSMedia.com.