Like most Mondays after class dismisses, Deena Laska-Lewis steps onto the dimly lit stage in the gymnasium of Caze Elementary School amid a gaggle of giggly girls to lead Pirouette Project, a program she started to give underprivileged girls the chance to dance.
Donning velvety pink leotards, pink tights, pink ballet slippers, and eager smiles, the girls prance around the stage and “Ms. Deena.” It is obvious she has danced her way into the girls’ hearts — and they into hers. As they spin and leap in front of their instructor, the girls look her way for a smile and affirmation of their beauty, grace, and worthiness. She gladly takes the invitation, showering the girls with praise, words of encouragement, and hugs.
“This is real life — not sitting in a theater and rehearsing for a week before opening night,” she says.
Although she has Midwestern roots — she was born in Champagne, Illinois, once lived in Terre Haute, Indiana, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana — her dance shoes have taken her many places. From age 7 until she was 17, she studied at North Carolina School of Arts in Winston-Salem. She also has danced at the Juilliard School in New York City, various companies throughout the country, and even the Israel Ballet Company in Tel Aviv.
“When you have dance, you can go anywhere with it,” she says.
In 1991, she was recruited as artistic director of the now-closed Evansville Dance Theatre, which she left in 1995 to found what is now known as Children’s Center for Dance Education (CCDE). She could have gone anywhere in the world to dance and teach — and at one time considered an offer to teach at the Boston Ballet School — but her calling is in Evansville.
Why did you choose to work in Evansville?
While at Evansville Dance Theatre, I realized this city wouldn’t have a successful dance organization unless the school came first. That is my focal point — creating a school where every child can dance, and that’s what I’ve done. At Boston Ballet School, that would have been a really cool job, but there are a lot of “me’s” in Boston. There’s no one who does this outreach and arts development here. It’s pretty good to be one of a kind, but then to teach others to do that, too.
What prompted you to bring dance into the schools?
In the Tri-State, working parents are the reality. Very often they’re not two-parent households. When you have a mom who works until 5 p.m., what do you do for her kid? She can’t get her children here, so we go to them. You can’t, if you’re a real teacher, just teach dance steps. You’ve got to teach a whole child, and you’ve got to teach them what they need. That’s what makes a true artist.
What challenges do you face?
Economics. No one sees the need for the arts. So arts are suddenly going back to what they used to be, only for the elite. Everybody deserves the arts. Who am I to say that a man not as financially stable has less of a right to see something of beauty? So that’s what I do, I make things of beauty. I can make small pieces of beauty.
What would your students say about you?
I’ve taught my students that if you do not hear your name yelled out at least once per class, then you’re being ignored. I hear them say, “She yelled at me twice.” They know I care. They speak more of what I do than anything I can of myself. They are the representation of me. It doesn’t matter if they’re not the greatest dancers; they know how to take a class, they know how to say “thank you.” They are respectful, and in the end, that’s what you want your kid to be. Ballet class is learning how to dot i’s and cross t’s, tuck in your toe shoe ribbons. They also learn to work with each other even if they don’t like each other. Not everything is going to be perfect, but you need to work together to make something magnificent. You do not have to like the girl standing in line in front of you, but you need to be in line with her.
How is CCDE different from other studios?
We are like studios of larger cities — a nice strong core, with an outreach so everyone can dance. With music, you learn your alphabet, you learn your right and left, you learn oppositional motor skills; it’s called skipping. These are the things children have to go into kindergarten with. I can teach it. Let me have these children at an early developmental stage. It should be part of their curriculum. That’s what I do and that’s what I will continue to advocate for — children in the arts.
What made you decide to use dance to advocate for the community?
Because the only thing you need for dance is a room, a CD, a boom box, and a teacher willing to share. It takes almost nothing. Every culture in the world has their form of dance, so we need to dance. And skipping with friends makes everybody giggle. So that’s the good part.
For more information about Deena Laska-Lewis and the Children’s Center for Dance Education, visit childdance.org or call 812-421-8066.