Story and photos by Jennifer Lee
The Blue Ridge Studio for the Performing Arts offers people of all ages the opportunity
to kick up their heels.
Every weekday afternoon and evening in autumn, winter, and spring, Berryville’s Main Street is graced with a tutu-clad bevy of little girls, or a group of fleet-footed 40 and 50-somethings, or a band of youngsters tapping their way up the stairs to learn a new dance step or perfect an old one at the Blue Ridge Studio for the Performing Arts.
In the 22 years she has operated the Blue Ridge Studio, Nela Niemann has helped hundreds of students of all ages and backgrounds learn to dance, commit to a practice, and make lasting friendships.
Lessons and Legacies
“You have to give kids the opportunity to do their very best. You can’t just put them on a stage,” Nela Niemann said that was one of many valuable lessons her mother, Cornelia Niemann, taught her about preparing students for a performance. Indeed, Mrs. Niemann was a well-loved powerhouse who produced, directed, and promoted the performing arts in Clarke County for many years, beginning in the mid 1960s. A professional actress from New York City, Mrs. Niemann and her husband Don moved to Boyce in 1963 where both have left enduring legacies. Mr. Niemann, now residing at Westminster-Canterbury, served as headmaster of Powhatan School for 19 years—its auditorium and service awards are named in honor of him and his wife, who passed away in 2000.
“She came from a theater background and was easily my biggest influence growing up,” says Nela of her mother. “She was my mentor and my friend, as well as my mom.” Michael Hobert, an attorney in Berryville and now Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, grew up with the Niemann family. “She was always alive with energy and when she asked you for something, it was impossible to turn her down,” he remembers.
“She took me on my first trip to New York City and bought me my first suit, at Saks Fifth Avenue. I am forever a loving fan of Cornelia Niemann, indebted to her and her inspiring husband Don, for their perpetual guidance and support,” said Hobert (who also is my “bonus-dad”).
Another Clarke County native and now the county’s zoning administrator, Jesse Russell, was also a beneficiary of Mrs. Niemann’s dedication and generosity. He spent several summers in high school as part of the Battletown Drama Group, which Niemann organized and directed. “She was a perfectionist dealing with a bunch of kids that had the attention span of a fly swatter. She never got mad at us and somehow was able, by sheer repetition and force of her will, to get us to remember our lines and cues. I thought she was great and thought of her as having been some great actress and director from Broadway,” Russell muses.
Among others, that troupe also included Rick Sponseller, Billy Whiting, Susan Smalley, and John Gilpin, who went on to become an actor in New York.
Hobert recalls that Mrs. Niemann also held together the Blue Ridge Players at the Old Opera House on Church Street in Berryville, “supported mightily by Jane Caspar and Barbara Sambol, and featuring Art Weiss, Harry and Barbara Lee Jones, Chet Hobert, Helen Byrd, Bill Donovan, Kay and Lucy Gilpin, Julian Everly, Becky Mitchell, Sarah and George Burton, the Clagetts, John Richardson, Ben Harrison, and many more luminaries of the time, too numerous to list.”
It is apparent that energy is reflected and carried on in her daughter. “I really have the best job in the world,” Niemann beams from her office, adjacent to the studio. Though the business part of her job doesn’t rate highly, the enthusiasm for her students, instructors, and all kinds of dance is more than evident in her bouncy step and infectious smile.
“I knew right away…”
Nela moved to Clarke County with her parents and two older brothers and younger sister from Palm Beach, Florida, when she was 7 and promptly started ballet lessons with Miss Ewing, for whom the dance studio at Shenandoah University is named. “She was an icon in Winchester at the time … and I was smitten from the start. I absolutely loved dancing and knew right away that classical ballet was what I wanted to do in life.” By the time she was 14, however, she realized that dream was impossible given her petite stature, but she never stopped training and took classes with professional companies in Washington, DC, and Spain.
“I taught dance part-time everywhere I went, but I didn’t realize it was my career until I was 27 and a mother,” Nela says. After her third son was born, the decision was made to stay in Clarke County near her family, and Berryville seemed like the natural choice of where to open a studio. “I knew the area and the people, and there were no other dance studios [in the area]. “
After significant research, diligence, and talking to other businesses in the area, Niemann was told a dance studio wouldn’t fly here. “I believe the exact quote was ‘We’re a farming town. We don’t need no dancin’ school,’” she laughs. But she says she knew the time was right and in September 1991, after adventures with textured paint and the installation of a dance floor, opened the doors to the studio at 5 East Main Street, (below where the studio is today). The first spring show, the culmination of the season, had a cast of 30 students.
Students from 3 to 93 can enroll in classes at the studio, which range from beginning to advanced levels of classical ballet, jazz, tap, and modern. Creative Dance is offered for 3-5 year olds, but it is at 7 years that Niemann says kids really start to “get it”, gaining control of their bodies, and the ability to sharply focus. Classes have always been female-dominated, but even more now than in the past. “Back when my own sons were dancing, we had quite a few boys, and my husband still dances, but other than three men in my adult classes, we only have two other little boys.”
“It takes a special kid, willing to stick with it, especially if you’re a boy surrounded by all girls. And kids are so overscheduled these days, “ Niemann says. “When they’re little, it’s all fun, fun, fun, but as they progress, it gets to be a lot of work and requires commitment and dedication.” Among the approximately 140 students currently enrolled in classes, most are from Clarke County but include many from the four adjoining counties.
Niemann credits her instructors, some of whom have been with her for many years, with the success of the studio and students. “My instructors are the best. I have five teachers working with me, and we all work beautifully together. Each and every one is highly trained and they are dedicated to their students and their art.”
She also feels that people choose the Blue Ridge Studio because of its family-oriented, accessible and inclusive nature. Lauren Olinger, 17, attests to this. She has been attending an array of classes at the studio since she was in first grade. “It’s a good environment. I like the teachers and it’s a close-knit group of people. I’ve made a lot of friends here. And it’s fun and I get to use my body. I also get to help out with the younger kids,” she says.
Niemann says her most dedicated students continue to pursue dance at the college level. She feels her biggest job is to prepare them for whatever dance path they choose, whether at the professional level or as a hobby they can participate in for the rest of their lives. Her students report back that she continues to accomplish this. “They always advance beyond the freshman (college) level,” she says proudly.
Beyond the Dance Moves
The physical benefits of dance are obvious and, though everyone may not be a Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers, it would appear that the desire to dance in some form is innate. “It is part of who we are,” Niemann states. “Virtually all babies sway or bounce to music. It’s in our DNA. More importantly, dance is part of our heritage and culture.” She points to studies that show dancing also improves cognitive acuity as well as providing an excellent emotional outlet.
“Shy children come out of their shells a bit, hyperactive children learn a little restraint, awkward children get a chance to feel elegant. I had one student who needed help with sequential thinking in math, and our tap class was very successful for him. I have seen introverted toddlers grow up to become leaders, truly exceptional young women. They learn everything from time management to strong work ethics to the meaning of commitment. Learning to dance is painfully slow – no instant gratification – so children learn to understand what dedication really is,” Niemann says.
That’s not all. Good nutrition is always discussed as part of the education. “I say if it comes in a shiny wrapper, it’s probably not good for you.” “Oh, and I also correct their grammar. We are a full service dance studio,” she smiles.
Community support is essential to the success of the studio and Niemann gushes that “people are much more genuine and generous than you could ever imagine.” The Blue Ridge Studio is a non-profit organization and has awarded tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships over the years to children who otherwise could not afford to attend classes. With the help of her students’ families, anonymous donors, small fundraisers throughout the year, an annual contribution from the Clara Weiss Foundation, and ticket and concession stand sales, Niemann says they have never turned away a child who couldn’t afford the class tuition.
Summers are spent planning shows for the following year. There is usually a winter show and at least two major spring productions. This spring, the Junior Company (ages 3 to level II) will be performing “Alice in Wonderland,” the first story ballet they have done in a long time, on May 30 and 31. The Senior Company (Level III – Advanced and Adult classes) will be performing to Broadway music in an as-yet unnamed production. Millbrook High School’s auditorium provides a large, welcoming space for these performances.
In addition to having “the best job in the world,” Niemann is perhaps even more passionate about her family. “I have three sons, four stepchildren, a wonderful husband who helps me with virtually everything at the studio, and a new grand- daughter who is the most amazing little baby on the planet!” If Nela Niemann’s overall jolly countenance, love of her work, and joy of life is any indication, dance is most definitely good for the soul.
For more information on the Blue Ridge Studio for the Performing Arts, visit their website at www.blueridgestudio.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 540-955-2919.