Academy of Dance
The Academy of Dance in Union, New Jersey was founded by a women named Connie Blecher in 1990. Its story is an interesting one at that. Shannon Reilly Gutches took over this dance studio after being a student since it’s inception. Having been founded by Miss. Connie, Shannon started out as a student there, and two years later, her sister Caitlin joined the studio. They practically grew up there.
When Miss. Connie was looking to retire and move, she couldn’t stand the idea of closing down AoD completely, so she sold it to one of her teachers, named Shannon Damato. Sister duo Shannon and Caitlin became teachers around this time. Shannon D, or “Shandi” as she became known as at the studio, owned AoD for 6 years. Later on, she became pregnant and wanted to take a step away from owning the studio. It was at this point when Shannon Gutches, who everyone called “Shangee”, stepped up with her parents to buy the studio from “Shandi” to keep the legacy of AoD alive.
This would have been Shangee's 10th year as owner. However, sadly, Shannon Gutches unexpectedly passed away on October 6, 2019. This studio and its legacy meant so much to her, and this was about to be its 30th year as a business, so her sister Caitlin knew she needed to somehow keep the doors open.
Caitlin inherited ownership after her sister's death and has been the sole owner for the last 6 months. To Caitlin, this studio is so much more than a place to dance, it’s a part of their DNA. AoD has a special impact in its community through dance by providing a unique dance experience that is unlike the other studios that exist within the city of Union.
The dance school not only teaches dance to illicit a love and passion for the art form; not necessarily to train the next Misty Copeland. None of the owners and teachers had the stereotypical or ideal “dancer body”. Almost all of their staff have other careers they pursue beyond the dance studio. This is a passion for dance teachers at AoD. An escape and place of release. The Academy of Dance provides a loving, nurturing and inviting environment that teaches the foundations and technical principals that dance is based upon, but that also spreads the joy and self-expression of dance.
AoD is also one of the only non-competitive studios around. They also provide theatrical elements to their training. The dance school has a family like atmosphere and encourage the individuality and uniqueness of their dancers to shine through. Although AoD is a non-competitive, they truly do their best to provide as many chances for their students to perform as possible. They have winter showcases within the studio, perform in parades or city wide feasts and festivals, annually perform at Six Flags for their Dance Fest in addition to their recital in June.
They go to all of their students Sweet 16’s or special events. They have had numerous dancers come to the studio and get their hair and makeup done by our staff for their prom! AoD is truly a family. They take care of each other in ways that extend far beyond the dance floor. For AoD's 25th anniversary, Miss Shangee organized a massive reunion show. They had so many alumni come back to dance with them. That year all three owners were present, even the original owner who now lives in Arizona. It was such a display of love and support and the ties that bind everyone all watching generations of dancers all gather and greet one another as though they’ve known each other forever.
AoD has had so many great performance moments as a studio and pieces that are iconic and etched in the minds and hearts of all their dancers. With recitals that have a deeper meaning to each piece like one of their shows “Outside The Lines”.
The recital's premise was a world where colors represented wealth. The more vibrant the colors, the wealthier you were. The leadership becomes so blinded by their greed, that the system goes haywire and crashes, leaving them in a world without color. The rest of the recital centered around the society coming together, regardless of social status, to restore the color to their world.
There’s always a message and a plot-line to all of their shows. COVID-19 has impacted AoD greatly, as it has so many other small businesses. Being a non-essential business, they are happy to comply with whatever needs to be done to keep everyone safe, however not being open to hold classes is a financial and emotional blow. However, the AoD family are doing their best to make it work! Their staff did not hesitate when AoD owner and director Caitlin said they were moving to online learning.They all stepped up in the best way by creating practice videos and conducting live classes from their homes through services like Zoom.
Their families have been equally amazing and so patient as they all try to navigate through these unprecedented times together. To remain active and productive during this time, along with continuing to dance with virtual classes as much as possible, AoD have created a new and fun movement called “Let’s Move! Lunches”. The way it works is every “School Day” of Quarantine at 12:30 p.m., they go live on the AoD Instagram and Facebook page and lead whoever is watching in a short 2-minute stretch and then do a fun and easy “follow me” type routine. The whole thing lasts about 10 minutes, total, but it’s a great way to break up the day of online learning!
AoD's impact on the reach and sharing of dance and dance education may be larger than they knew. All of their staff pursue other full-time careers, some are teachers, psychologists, nurses, salon owners, make-up artists, and legal assistants. However, at the end of their regular workday, they all can be found at the same place, pursuing another deep-rooted passion of theirs, and that’s dancing. AoD's students know their teachers have more than one job, and they think that’s important.
So many people quit dance at a certain age because they think unless they are going to pursue dance as their career, there isn’t a point. AoD's staff are living proof that that simply isn’t true.
By instilling the notion that students can do both work outside of the arts and still have dance as a constant and essential part of their life, AoD is extending their reach as dancers. The principals learned in dance have directly impacted the watch each one of the staff members approach and execute their primary job. They share their knowledge and passion for dance in all that they do and pass on techniques gained at the studio to their students, clients, or patients.
This dance school creates a dance space to inspire dancers to grow inside and outside the dance community. Every student and staff has been encouraged by founder Miss. Connie to do their best, challenge themselves, and to cultivate their creativity. The core principals of the studio are the same 30 years later. AoD does all that they can to create a safe space for all of their dancers to grow as a dancer and as a human being. They are a team and a family supporting every single AoD dancer even if and when they move on from the school. Once and AoD dancer always an AoD dancer, you are always welcomed. The dance community and the arts in general have an essential impact on the community and society. Its creativity, ability to adapt, acceptance of people’s differences and the way they embrace emotion and expressiveness of all race and gender is imperative.
Dancers are some of the hardest working and most athletically capable people you will ever meet, and because they understand what it means to be in an ensemble and to truly be a part of something bigger than themselves, they understand the importance of creating collaborative environments. This is an impact that will be helpful and felt far beyond the dance floor. Right before everyone was all quarantined, AoD started coming up with ideas to get people from the community who may not necessarily consider themselves a “dancer” coming into the studio. With events like mommy and me classes, or Sip and Step Ladies nights, AoD hopes to reach out to the community and draw in people to have some fun through a much more relaxed dance experience.
It is AoD's hope to further develop and execute those plans once business is back to normal. Right now, AoD's one and only goal for the upcoming year as a dance school is to make it through this year and to ensure they have their 30th Recital “Legacy”. It is currently schedule for June 20, 2020 at The Hamilton Stage in Rahway, New Jersey. However, they have no idea when the quarantine will be lifted or when events of large groups of people will be permitted. The Academy of Dance will continue dancing and celebrating their 30th year as a business from home.