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A diamond in the rough, a New Mexico school of dance is also a school of thought, turning out dancers with a can-do mindset and a skillset to match.
Deborah Rogers’ voice rises above the teenage chatter. “Girls, everyone in second position on the wall, please.” Founder and artistic director of Ruidoso Dance Ensemble (RDE), Rogers watches as 20 dancers move quickly to the walls — their hair in buns, dressed in leotards, tights and ballet shoes. The black flooring of the studio, its mirrors and ballet barre are brought to life with the energy of the dancers, and this snapshot at the start of class encapsulates the essence of RDE. Dance is taken seriously, as is respect. People say please and thank you, and there is a zero tolerance policy toward foul language.
Rogers teaches students to be tough, but they find equal parts discipline and love here. Many of the 70 dancers call the studio a second home, consider fellow classmates family, and see Rogers as a second mother.
Rogers is an elegant role model, and her 50 years of dance experience are revealed in the intricacies she imparts in her teaching. Chin up. Chest open. Elbows soft. Even though RDE is located in south-central New Mexico, it exudes the same professional vibe as top dance studios in New York City.
Building Strong Bodies and Minds
Children ranging in age from three to 18 come to RDE to dance, but they learn much more than ballet, tap and jazz.
“What I like to have is a learning environment at all times,” says Rogers.
While building a dance base through ballet, dancers are also building a foundation of social skills which will serve them for life. Through the 12 years of RDE’s existence, Rogers has watched her students grow from shy toddlers to teens with self-esteem, strength and smarts.
“I tell them, you are going to be so successful in whatever you do. It doesn’t matter if you are a ballerina. You could be an accountant, an engineer, whatever. You’ve got skills. Not just dance skills,” says Rogers.
It’s a message the dancers hear and internalize.
Aidan Haney is a radiant 17 year-old, and to meet her you’d never know she’s already survived cancer. At age 10, she was diagnosed with leukemia, a road she traveled for four long years. Now a healthy high school graduate, Haney says there were times during chemotherapy when she was too weak to walk. But as soon as she could, she danced her way through treatment, one plié at a time.
“I didn’t just sit at home. I actually went to dance, and that really helped me feel better about myself,” she says. “It helped me get through it.”
Through it and into the future, where Haney plans to study dance and neuroscience at Duke University.
For 14 year-old dancer, Ariana McLeod, dance is a platform for expression. And even though she has experienced injuries and surgery, she is undaunted. Her eyes sparkle when she tells you she plans to dance forever.
“When you come here, you can forget about everything and just dance with the people you love,” she says. “It’s something I can’t live without.”
This level of maturity is evident in younger dancers too, like nine year-old Regan Forster who remembers her first dance performance. Scared, she cried through the entire show, but she didn’t give up. Ask her why, and she explains her perseverance like this: “If I quit, I would not come over my fears.”
These dancers are driven and goal-oriented. With three shows a year, there is an ever-present air of anticipation and a mindfulness that deadlines are looming. To dance at RDE is to have grit, and it is not for the casually committed. Each student dances for an average of 12 hours each week, and to participate in a large scale production such as the Nutcracker or Le Corsaire, dancers must attend at least 80 percent of practices. Behind the serene faces and demeanor, dancers push the boundaries of mental and physical stamina. Feet bleed, bodies are stressed and inner mettle is tested.
“There is a lot of hard work and dedication,” says McLeod. We’re not just these pretty little ballerinas. It’s a lot more hard core.”
Labor of Love
It’s that kind of heart that Robert Phaup has observed in dancers and performers throughout his 36 years of music and theater experience. A tireless and seasoned stage veteran, Phaup is in charge of production design and management for RDE, as well as technical director for the Spencer Theater for the Performing Arts where RDE’s biggest productions are staged.
Phaup and his crew work closely with Rogers, and together they marry the artistic vision of dance with a stage experience so elaborate that in the end, it “will knock your socks off,” says Phaup. To pull that off, there is also a small army of dedicated community volunteers who do everything from constructing sets to sewing costumes. Phaup lights up when sharing moments from performances past — like the time a metaphorical electrical charge shot through the dancers when they nailed their big finish. “The audience felt that energy, and then they exploded!” For his part, Phaup was glad he was in a sound-proof booth. “I yelled and threw my pencil across the room! It was just that amazing to watch.”
The love that comes through from both Rogers and Phaup for dance and the dancers themselves is self-evident. But what’s even more telling is the fact that RDE is a 501c3 non-profit, and neither Rogers nor Phaup earns an income for the hours of labor they put into RDE projects. To suggest they are committed to what they are doing is an understatement — often working upwards of 80 hours a week. They both wear many hats and occasionally dip into their own pockets to make their vision come to life.
They know too well there is a flip side to their current reality. It is the question of sustainability. How will RDE live on without them if the sweat equity they invest now is not matched by real dollars down the road?
“We want it to go beyond us,” says Phaup.
The cost of doing the shows is high, but their monetary needs are not just about maintaining a professional tier production value. The real goal is to continue to change lives for the better — those of the dancers and the audiences they entertain.
Phaup says that they want to expand the existing scholarship program so they can reach even more low income families, explaining that he wants everyone to have this dance opportunity. “To be able to do this, we have to get funding.” The need is palpable, and the thought fills the quiet theater.
Back at the studio, the dancers are focused — for a time, safe and unencumbered by peer pressure and teenage worries. Staccato musical notes rise into the air, as though punctuating the motto painted across the wall in gold script: “To watch us dance is to hear our hearts.”