PUNXSUTAWNEY — Through the past 35 years, Van Dyke & Company has taught local students to point their toes and spread their wings in the world of dance.
Punxsutawney resident Joan Van Dyke grew up near Pittsburgh, and started to dance at the age of 4, she said. When she was in the eighth grade, she began taking dance classes at Point Park University. After graduating from high school, she went to Virginia Intermont College. During her undergraduate education, Van Dyke traveled to Alaska to teach dance classes.
Van Dyke & Company was started in Punxsutawney in 1984, she said, and expanded to open a downtown DuBois studio about six years ago. The company has anywhere from 50 to 100 dancers, starting at the age of 4 years old, training students to get to the pre-professional level, hoping to see them advance.
Dance is not a sport, but an art form, says Van Dyke, who also teaches classes at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Van Dyke & Company teaches jazz, tap and modern dance, as well as ballet. The Mahoning Valley Ballet (MVB) also provides the company’s more serious dancers with further opportunities like additional performances, master classes, guest artists, workshops, training assistance and scholarship awards, according to the company’s website.
Teaching dance is different than it was 20-30 years ago, Van Dyke says. One of her goals is to keep the tradition and beauty of ballet alive in today’s society.
“Ballet enables you to move in a way that’s a language,” she said.
The MVB has hosted 24 classical ballet and other showcases, including favorites like The Nutcracker, Cinderella and Dracula.
Besides being a beautiful form of expression, dance is a great exercise, as well as a way to teach discipline and hard work, Van Dyke said. She has seen her dance students also do well academically.
It’s great experience to see them move on professionally, or become teachers themselves, she said.
“It’s very rewarding to see them continue their passion and pursue dance,” she said.
There are several levels of dance, from beginning to advanced to pre-professional levels, she said. Typically, if a dancer starts at the age of 4, he or she will be at the pre-professional level by their sophomore or junior year of high school.
Instructors also aim to think outside of the box, providing modern productions like “The Red Shoes Project,” which incorporated a form of psychological dance. Students worked with a therapist to portray real-life issues and struggles on stage.
The Punxsutawney facility on East Mahoning Street has more than one dance studio, including an aerobic and exercise room. The upstairs walls showcase paintings, awards and pictures of company dancers.
Classes are taught at the downtown DuBois studio on Tuesdays, Van Dyke said, but some DuBois students will travel to Punxsutawney for classes. Guest artists and master teachers are also brought in for students to learn from.
Nancy Jones, who has been Van Dyke’s partner since the company’s initiation, has enjoyed watching students grow and flourish in the dance world. She also is an art teacher, and instructs “stretch and flex” classes at the studio.
“The additional classes are a supplement to what we do as dancers,” Van Dyke said. Dancers often work with bands, exercise balls and weights.
One of the firm’s most significant accomplishments was sending four dancers to the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts in 2008, Van Dyke said. Students have been awarded seats and scholarships in a variety of other programs, like Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, School of American Ballet and Boston Ballet.
Van Dyke also started a scholarship in the name of her father – James Merritt – and that scholarship has awarded more than $30,000 to seniors pursuing dance in higher education.
Forest Dancing, a summer dance program offering professional instruction in ballet, jazz, modern, tap and pointe, will be held June 23-28 this year. A spring showcase is held each spring at the Cook Forest Sawmill Center for the Arts in May.
Advanced dancers have made a trip to Florida, where they danced with the Cuban Ballet, Van Dyke said. She hopes to offer an international trip as well.