By Linda Pang
“Come on, Tyler,” Julie Berger calls, walking through the grass to the parking lot. Tyler is sniffing the ground, but moves closer to Berger when she calls. He follows her up the dark wooden stairs of a brick building with a green awning.
“He’s my son,” she says, laughing, and tugs on the leash attached to the small white and grey Shichon. Berger adds that he is three years old and a mix of Bichon Frisé and Shih Tzu. “He’s the studio mascot,” she explains, smiling. “Students ask for him by name!”
In a cozy waiting area, a few women are chatting with each other on wooden benches and a large, red suede couch. The large window that looks into the main dance studio shows a darkened classroom, dimly lit by rope lights, and sounds of a slow pop song wafts through the closed door. Shadowy figures can be seen inside doing cool-down stretches in their fitness class.
Paintings and posters of dancers line the walls. Nearby, a red, fabric-covered table displays tan and black ladies’ latin and ballroom dance shoes with gemstone-covered-heels that sparkle when they catch the light.
Off leash, Tyler roams the waiting area as the previous class finishes. Berger exchanges her sandals for tap shoes, grabs her pink covered laptop, and heads into the studio room, where the adult tap students are waiting.
“Welcome, it’s week one,” Berger says, motioning her students towards the center. The sounds of clicks, clacks, and taps fill the room as they make their way into a circle.
“I’m so excited for this new choreography!” Berger declares. “But first, let’s go around the room and say your name and one fun tap fact to fill the room with good vibes!”
The class of eight women and one man take turns sharing their names and facts, with laughter, cheers, and applause from their classmates. Berger instructs the class to form two lines and face the front floor-to-ceiling mirrors, which are bordered by rope lighting giving off a warm glow beneath the fluorescent overhead lights. She returns to the front of the room to begin warm-up.
“Eight shuffles front, three, four… seven, eight, side…back, now four,” Berger calls out, as she flicks her leg and taps her shoe. “Both feet now to the side… toe, heel, toe, step and clap.”
The faces in the mirror look serious as students concentrate to follow the pattern, watching her feet in the mirror. Click. Clack. Clickity. Clack. Clack. The sounds of 10 pairs of tap shoes moving in unison fill the room and echo off of the walls, mirrors, and smooth tan floors.
“It’s okay to smile and have fun,” Berger says, reminding her students with a laugh.
Berger, 34, is the founder and artistic director of Salsa in the Suburbs Dance Studio in Media, Pa., and her days are filled with both teaching and administrative responsibilities. This past May, the studio celebrated its 10-year anniversary and Berger couldn’t be happier.
The happiness shows as tap class begins wrapping up an hour later with a mini exercise. After each student gets a chance to show-off to applause from their classmates, Berger gathers the group into a circle again with their hands in the center.
“One, two, three…” she calls out.
“Best tap session ever!” shouts the entire group in reply, raising their hands into the air as a team.
After class, Berger quickly checks-in at the desk, while swapping tap shoes for strappy, satin dance shoes with gem-covered heels.
She is multi-tasking: answering questions from a student, chatting with Kim, changing shoes, and instructing her co-teacher for the next class to get the group started. Ryan Morfei, a high school student and the studio’s youngest Latin dance instructor, nods and heads to the studio, calling the intermediate bachata performance students to follow as he walks past.
“Dancers, get into two lines and look ready to warm up!” Berger says, calling out to the dancers as she closes the door. Berger and Morfei take their places in the front of the room, leading the co-ed group of dancers through bachata dance warm-ups.
Berger fell in love with dance at a young age, starting tap classes at age three. As she became more experienced, she started teaching hip-hop and tap lessons at age 14 to classes of eight-year-olds, before teaching tap lessons at a Latin dance studio later on. Berger said although she chose to study theater in college, she wanted to veer back to her first love of performing arts: dance.
Berger added that her first vivid memory of salsa was in a London nightclub, when she was 20 and studying abroad.
“It was mystical,” she says. “I wanted to understand what it was.” Her next vivid experience was in France, when she went to teach English.
“I started the studio because I fell in love with salsa dancing and wanted to share that with everyone,” Berger says. “I felt like I had to share this great secret with the world!”
Her first salsa classes were taught in a small, rented room above a pizza shop.
Today, Salsa in the Suburbs Dance Studio offers a variety of classes for adult students, mostly in the evenings and on weekends, plus special dance socials and workshops. There are Latin dance classes such as salsa, bachata, beginner and intermediate group performance classes, plus fitness classes such as Zumba and yoga. Berger adds that other dance styles, such as ballroom, swing, belly dance, ballet, and burlesque, are available currently through private lessons and half-day workshops.
According to Berger, adult tap has been offered at Salsa in the Suburbs for only the past year, after she finished creating her Latin dance curriculum, a systemized and detailed syllabus for each course from beginner to advanced dancers.
“I’ve videotaped the patterns and trained the teachers so they can all teach it,” Berger says. “It was hard before to take a vacation, now it’s so easy to just go.” She adds that the instructors can also use the videos as reference and, with new instructors to help teach, she was finally able to find an open slot to offer tap classes.
“It’s one of my happiest hours of the week,” Berger exclaims. “My first dance language.”
But Berger admits that there are still daily obstacles and running her own business isn’t always smooth sailing. “Some obstacles right now are figuring out where the company should go,” Berger says, adding that another challenge is setting long-term goals for the company’s growth and future vision.
Back in the classroom, Berger lets Morfei takes the reins as he explains the next section of choreography. At times, the class splits into two groups, based on gender, to work on footwork and arm styling for specific sections, Morfei leading the males.
“It needs to be a cross, step-out, and lunge,” Berger instructs, demonstrating at the same time. She adds choreography and then isolates just the arms for practice.
During the last minutes of a two-hour class, Berger calls out the choreography they have learned while the dancers walk through the steps. The dancers try it twice before she adds the music, encouraging them to try it at regular speed.
“It’s fast!” exclaims a student in surprise as the selection ends.
Berger agrees, reminding them that there are still many weeks until their upcoming performance to get it perfect, as they exit the studio room.
While she is still thankful for finding the current location, Berger adds that she has big dreams for her company. Berger explains that initially she was renting a private space by the hour and is now renting her own space with two studio rooms. “I wanted my own space in Media,” she says. “But I didn’t even know what that meant.” Now that she’s been in the current space for a few years, she says she has an idea.
“Maybe form another studio location or find a place to have a bigger studio” she says, explaining that it would require having a completely full program to fill the studio with classes all day.
“We have a successful daytime yoga program finally,” Berger says. “In the day, you’re really limited to your audience.” She adds that she hopes to fill all of the quiet time, so that she can feel like the studio has truly outgrown its current space, while continuing to pursue its mission of using dance as a “vehicle to enhance and change lives.”
“There’s a quote about if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life,” Berger explains. “I sometimes wish I could see more friends or have evenings free, but I really love it here. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”
Contact Linda Pang at email@example.com