Twas a few nights before the opening of West End Academy of Dance’s production of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and all through the studio dancers were stirring, especially the mice. The costumes were hung in the closet with care, in hopes that audiences soon would be there. Where? Glen Allen High School, December 11 at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.
WEAD’s family-friendly show is based on the iconic poem A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore. All of the ensemble dancers in the production are part of that poem, portraying everything from the family at home and the mice that come out to Santa and the Sugar Plums.
Tony Oates, former Richmond Ballet dancer, will appear in the role of Cavalier and partner with the Sugar Plums. “It’s a cool opportunity for our dancers to experience that level of partnering,” says the studio’s director of ensemble and ballet, Lisa Rumbauskas.
The show features different styles of dance – ballet, pointe, musical theater, jazz, contemporary, hip hop, and more. “We’ve accomplished a lot in a short amount of time,” says Rumbauskas. “We started practicing on Saturdays in September.”
Dancers will perform sixteen professional-level dances in the show. “They had to pick up the choreography quickly,” Rumbauskas says. “When they audition for ensemble, we are looking for dancers who are passionate and dedicated. They have to know there is a lot expected of them in this program.”
Rumbauskas took over as director of ensemble in September 2020. “It was a challenging year to be stepping into a new role,” she says. “We started ’Twas the Night Before Christmas last year when we did a video production with no live audience because of COVID-19. This year, we are on stage with a live audience. That’s so special for the dancers and their families.”
Celebrating 45 Years of Dancing Expertise
West End Academy of Dance was founded in 1976 by Mary Munroe. Current owner Madison Ellington took over the studio in 2018. “I grew up dancing,” says Ellington. “I have been part of the school my whole life.”
She is staying true to Munroe’s original vision, keeping a lot of foundational components that Munroe created. And she’s taking the studio to the next level, building a new two-story facility from the ground up on Ridgefield Parkway in Glen Eagles Shopping Center.
“We are growing,” she says, adding that the school has about 400 students who range in age from three to adult.
While the ensemble is a big part of the school, West End Academy of Dance also teaches recreational dances and all types of dancers in between.
The school will be moving into its new building at the start of the new year. The new facility will have three state-of-the-art dance studios with tall ceilings, top of the line flooring and a state-of-the-art sound system.
“We have the ability to turn it into a small in-house theater,” she says. “We are building to my specifications. We’ll also have a nice lobby area for parents to wait in during class.”
Ellington chose to install Harlequin wood-sprung flooring, a well-known dance flooring. “Two of the floors are vinyl for pointe, ballet, and jazz and one is hardwood for tap and hip-hop. We will have appropriate flooring for all dance genres.”
Creating a Strong Ensemble
All of the school’s performances for dancers are done in a non-competitive setting. The ensemble does not compete. “We are very focused on classical ballet technique and training our staff to be knowledgeable and versatile in a variety of genres,” says Ellington. “We have never competed in 45 years. That’s one of the things that sets us apart from other schools. We are able to devote our time to technique so dancers develop the skills they need.”
The ensemble is for dancers that want more performance experience. “Potentially a lot of them consider going professional after school,” Ellington says. “We also are clear that they can learn other skills from dance training and apply what they learn to other things. We show them all the different things they can do with their dance background.”
The school also has a pre-professional program for high schoolers who are considering continuing dance after graduation. “We provide guidance and advise them of the next steps after high school,” Ellington says.
This June, the ensemble will perform on stage in New York at the Gershwin Theatre (home to the Broadway show Wicked) in Arts for Autism, a benefit performance, hosted by Tony award winner, Kelli O’Hara. All of the proceeds from the show go to Autism Speaks.
Last year, the school videotaped a dance piece for the charity event.
“This year is really different,” says Rumbauskas. “We will have thirty-six students performing.”
West End Academy of Dance is one of a handful of schools around the country chosen to perform that will be either dancing or singing in the production. “We are going to perform a dance from the Broadway show Six,” Rumbauskas said. “We will be paired with a Broadway singer who will sing for us. There will be an orchestra in the pit.”
Rumbauskas, who is mom to seven-year-old Benny and five-year-old Caleb, lived in New York for twelve years and is planning on sharing several tourist destinations with her students. “Some of these kids have never been to New York,” she says.
Participating in the show in New York City is a cool opportunity, says Ellington. “This is the first time our ensemble dancers will have performed outside the city of Richmond. Performing in New York City will be something they will cherish for a lifetime. We are honored for the opportunity.”