The Times West Virginian

January 12, 2014

Movements in Dance celebrating 25th season

By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — For a quarter-century, Movements in Dance has been instilling a love of the arts and dance in children.

This Fairmont dance studio, located at 119 East Park Ave., is celebrating its 25th season.

Stephanie Lopez, owner, instructor and choreographer, teaches ballet, tap, jazz and acrobatics, as well as a fundamentals preschool class that combines ballet and tap.

Her daughter, 16-year-old Sophie Sea Silnicki, serves as the assistant choreographer.

Lopez, who is a Fairmont native, was enrolled in her first dance class at the age of 2 1/2, continued to dance through high school, and went on to major in dance at Point Park University.

“I did every form of dance in college, but ballet was always my passion and still is my passion,” she said. “I believe it’s the basis for why our school is successful, because we have a strong ballet background. With ballet training, then every other dance form becomes much easier.”

After college, Lopez took a few years off to travel, but she always knew she wanted to teach dance and have her own studio.

“It’s been a great life ever since,” she said.

She started Movements in Dance at a space on Morgantown Avenue, where it was located for two years. Her father, Frank Lopez, then converted the East Park Avenue building, which was previously East Side Towing, into the studio’s new home.

Stephanie said her family remains closely involved in the business today, which she believes is the reason why it has survived 25 years. Her dad; mom, Virginia Lopez; brother, also named Frank Lopez; uncle, Bobby Wierbonski; and late nana, Helen Wierbonski, have all been involved in the studio in some way or another.

“I think, too, we are really successful here because we have a strong studio family, not just my related family but the parents within the school,” Stephanie said. “Most of (the students), they come as preschoolers and they stay through high school graduation, so they become part of our extended family. They feel safe here, they feel a sense of accomplishment, something they can be proud of.”

Movements in Dance will hold its annual recital the first weekend in June. This year, in honor of the studio’s 25th season, the recital will include a dance featuring students who have graduated from the school through the years.

The studio teaches 100 to 125 students every year. Staying within this number range allows Lopez to be involved in each class and know each child, which gives the school a personal touch.

Movements in Dance currently has 11 student assistants, including Stephanie’s 15-year-old niece, Isabella Lopez.

Dancers in this group must be at least 10 years old, take all types of classes, understand the school’s values, and be a good role model and person. During class, the student assistants provide other instruction for the small dancers and help build their skills, and those younger students look up to the older ones.

Stephanie teaches classes Monday through Thursday, and the rest of the week is dedicated to competition rehearsals for Movements in Dance’s company, which is a big part of the studio. This year, 26 students are part of the company.

Dancers audition to be in the company, which goes to conventions and workshops throughout the year as well as a national convention every other year. The group always travels to events that offer dance education in addition to competition.

“It’s great to win a trophy, but it’s more important to go and learn how to dance as a group, and then the trophy’s just the bonus,” Stephanie said.

Last year, the dancers went to nationals in New York City, and they have attended regional conventions in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio and Tennessee in the past. The students have taken classes led by dancers from major ballet companies and the hit TV dance competition “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“They get to experience dance outside of Fairmont, which is wonderful,” Stephanie said. “They’re exposed to choreographers and teachers from all over the world. It’s a great way to expose them to the arts, and it makes them become a better dancer because they see what they can achieve with hard work.”

Some of the company dancers choose not to be competitive, which means they only attend the workshops.

For the past couple years, Stephanie has choreographed a ballet production that incorporates every competitive student in the company, who range in age from 5 to 16 and are at different ability levels. This year, the company will do a ballet piece that is a take on “Swan Lake,” called “Swan School Graduation,” with Silnicki as the principal dancer.

The parents are willing to give up their time to take their kids to rehearsals and to make the financial commitment involved with the classes, costumes, and hotels during trips. But early in the life of the studio, Stephanie created a nonprofit organization, called the Association for Dance Enrichment, with the sole purpose of fundraising for the company.

The organization holds an elimination dinner and other fundraising activities every year to help pay for hotel bills and the workshop fees at national conventions. The Association for Dance Enrichment also offers scholarships to seniors, especially those going into the field of dance.

Seeing a student move on to a dance school on scholarship or dance for a ballet company is always very rewarding for Stephanie, but she knows that isn’t realistically the path for everyone. Whether that training leads to a career in dance or not, the experience is beneficial in so many ways.

She said dance teaches discipline, time management and self-confidence, and those qualities allow students to feel better about themselves and give them a better advantage in life.

Of course, this training provides the physical benefits of a healthy body, mind and spirit. With the choreography and steps that students must remember, dancing also helps the mind work quicker and improves coordination, in turn providing advantages in all aspects of life, Stephanie said.

“Dance training is something that your children will value forever,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any regrets about dance education for your child.”

Stephanie’s daughter, Sophie, said she has been dancing since she was 18 months old and always knew this was what she wanted to do.

“My main goal is to be in a professional ballet company,” she said.

Stephanie said she continually reminded Sophie that dancing was her own choice, and also always told her that she had to work harder than anyone else to show that she didn’t have an unfair advantage as the teacher’s daughter.

“From a very young age, I made sure she had a strong work ethic, and I think that’s really paying off now,” Stephanie said.

Sophie is now in her fifth year at Pittsburgh Ballet Theater School, where she is on full scholarship. She is on the go from about 5:45 a.m. to 10 p.m. six days a week, with her dance classes in Pittsburgh, her academics online, and an evening class at Movements in Dance.

Stephanie said this schedule wouldn’t be possible without the support of her family. She and her mother and father take turns driving Sophie to Pittsburgh.

On Jan. 23, Sophie will be leaving to go to Switzerland for the Prix de Lausanne international ballet competition. She will be there for a little over a week with her mom, grandmother and coach from Pittsburgh Ballet Theater School.

Afterward, they’ll take a train to Paris, France. Stephanie said she always wanted to take Sophie there when she was 16 years old.

“That’s quite an achievement coming from a small ballet school in Fairmont, W.Va., to end up in the Prix de Lausanne,” Stephanie said. “I think it’s a small token of how much I’m proud of my daughter to take her to Paris. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event.”

With a successful dance school and a daughter who is on her way to becoming a professional ballerina, Stephanie said she feels like she “hit the lottery.”

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.