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Lifting Up the Community

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Is karma real? We often chuckle about karma when a miserable person gets a comeuppance, but what about good karma? By doing good for others, will good find its way back to us?

Carrie Smith would say so. Owner of The Dance Corner in Killingworth, Connecticut, Carrie’s desire to support her greater community through benefit performances and activities has created a strong, giving-back-minded community within her studio. “I just want the right kind of people,” Carrie says of her studio clientele. “When you create opportunities for people to work together—parents, staff, kids both on and off team—it’s all encompassing.”


Another good karma candidate is Ami Yaro, owner of the Des Moines-based Iowa Ballet Academy. Each year she spends endless hours working alongside studio owners and students from as many as 35 area dance schools on a community-based “Nutcracker.” “It’s a year-long commitment for me, but it’s important,” she says. “I’m friends with all these studio owners and grateful to have the opportunity to work with dancers from so many studios. This feels like my family in this community.”


And then there are Dr. Addie Briggs, pediatrician, and Dr. Kim Evans, educator, who know a thing or two about karma or kismet or plain-old blessings from above. Best friends torn apart in early childhood, the two serendipitously found each other 40 years later. Not only was a cherished friendship renewed, but together they were inspired to create a nutrition- and movement-based program to improve the lives of children in their community of Richmond, Virginia, and beyond.


“What we do with these kids today, right now, will show up 15, 20 years from now,” Kim says of the Fitness DAWGS program. “As an educator, that’s my driving force. It’s important to me.”
Or, as Addie puts it: “I think we have reached our purpose for why God made us. And that’s exciting to think about.”
In using their personal gifts, studios, love for children, and drive to lift up their communities, these four entrepreneurs have found joy, contentment, and purpose. Good karma, take a well-deserved bow!

Dancing From the Heart

Carrie Smith didn’t buy her studio for altruistic reasons. It was 2005 and her first year teaching at the Connecticut studio; the owner’s offer came as a complete surprise. “I said to myself, ‘Wow, maybe this is what I want to do,” she says.


Neither she nor the studio had a history of community service. About five years in, looking for a performance opportunity for her students, she invited local music schools and choral groups to share the stage in a Winter Follies performance. “I wanted community people to come, not just the parents of my students,” she says of the annual event. Admission to the Winter Follies is a new, unwrapped toy, all of which are distributed within the community by the local police department.


In 2016, inspired by stories of charity endeavors by fellow MTJGD® members, Carrie thought: “I can do more.” What about a benefit dance festival of performances and master classes? “We have a good dance community here and I wanted my kids to see what’s outside the studio door,” Carrie says. She began emailing and cold-calling area professional concert dance companies and was blown away by their enthusiastic response. With four professional companies and 50 of her students, she mounted a 90-minute show and a day of classes that—between admission, raffles, and donations—netted $6,800 for the Child Life program at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital.


Carrie called the event “Dancing From the Heart,” and it ran in four subsequent Octobers until halted by COVID. (The 2021 event was limited—a small show; no classes—but with the pandemic mostly past, in 2022 the show returned better than ever.)


She chose Child Life as the beneficiary of the event because it provides play experiences to help children deal with hospitalization. Carrie believed that even her youngest students could understand how their dancing was helping a sick child. At the time she didn’t know one of her dance moms was a Child Life specialist—“I can’t believe I chose a studio that sees this need,” the mom told her— nor did she know how many of her studio families had been positively impacted by the program. As each show nears, posterboards with Child Life pictures and testimonials brighten her lobby walls.


Today, The Dance Corner’s calendar is filled with charity events such as food drives, a national Toys for Tots drive, a Traveling Tutus collection, and fundraising efforts conducted on an as-needed basis (such as for the Paradise, California, fire). And even COVID couldn’t stop the Winter Follies—in 2020 students danced, outdoors, on a stage set in front of a local gym. In December!


Giving back has become part of her studio’s DNA. Carrie sees the sparkle in her students’ eyes when they come to her with suggestions of ways to help others; sees how her studio family works together to support the charity events. “We are meeting good members of our community, artists we didn’t know, and creating this whole environment of giving,” Carrie says. “And I wasn’t trying—I was just trying to stay alive and run this dance studio thing.”

A Communal ‘Cracker

Ami Yaro’s organizational skills and energy would be the envy of any five-star general. Every fall she and two other studio owners wrangle production assistants from five studios, 250 student dancers ages 8 to 18 from between 20 to 35 studios, and a party-scene worth of adults (some former pros, some dance parents); schedule a 6-week rehearsal period at multiple studio locations; iron out details with the production’s costume mistress and a civic center union crew; secure outside adjudicators for auditions; and organize any number of parent volunteers in a myriad of tasks, such as putting up “Iowa Dance Theatre’s ‘The Nutcracker’” posters around Des Moines, Iowa.


“It’s more than ‘it takes a village,’ she says. “’Nutcracker’ takes a county.”


Ami first became involved with Iowa Dance Theatre in 1993 when she performed in “The Firebird;” by 2002 she was working for the non-profit, directing rehearsals and choreographing ballets. When founder Mary Joyce Lind Thomas died in 2015, Ami and fellow dance school owners Elizabeth Adams and Janice Baker took over as artistic team leaders.


The non-profit holds various workshops events, an annual fall production of “Dracula,” a day of tap performances, and a spring show. But “The Nutcracker” is the big kahuna with kids. Some students gladly travel hours to rehearsals for the chance to perform on the 2,400-seat Des Moines Civic Center stage, and to meet and interact with their dancing peers. “My students would tell you ‘Nutcracker’ time is their favorite time of the year, even more than competition,” Ami says. “Instead of dancing against others from different places, they get to dance with them. They love the new friends they make and the old friends they see year after year.”


She feels the same. It’s a rare event when so many studio owners “come together to make something beautiful,” Ami says, speaking not only of her peers-in-charge Elizabeth and Janice, but the multitude of owners who send their dancers to auditions or lend a hand as rehearsal assistants. And the camaraderie doesn’t end when the curtain comes down—Ami says many of the owners get together socially and stay in contact throughout the year, trading weather-related news or offering teachers as substitutes.


“I hear from others that this kind of behavior is unusual,” says Ami, who had four daughters of different studio owners attend her summer intensive. “But when you work with someone for so many hours, it builds trust because you really know them.”


Many of these same owners danced in “The Nutcracker” when they were students. The greater community, too, is familiar with the show—for years, 5th graders from around the state have attended two special school performances of the five-performance run. These shows are Ami’s favorites: “I love sitting in the back of the audience,” she says. “The children are so animated. They go ‘oooh’ or clap, and there is so much energy and enthusiasm.


“I think [about] how lucky I am to hear the sounds of thousands of happy children admiring ballet. And I’m incredibly proud that I’m a part of making that happen.”

Letting the dogs out

“I looked over and saw my little friend in that grown woman’s eyes.”


Addie Briggs tells how a casual birthday dinner in 2015 became an unexpected reunion. At age 5 Addie’s family moved away from the Petersburg, Virginia, duplex where she lived next to Kim’s family. Too young to write or keep in touch, the previously inseparable friends lived for 40 years less than 25 minutes from each other. Once they were back together, it was like they had never been apart.


As a pediatrician concerned about the health complication of childhood obesity, Addie had long wanted to make fitness videos for children. As a school superintendent, Kim understood the social challenges facing those same children, such as bullying, poor grades, and low self-esteem. Together, in 2017, this mutual interest became Fitness DAWGS, a program of healthy eating and fun exercise helmed by seven life-sized mascots, each a different “breed” with different coloring, body shapes, and sizes.


Both walked away from well-paying, successful careers—Addie retired in 2019, Kim in 2021—to work full time on Fitness DAWGS. “As an educator, I believe we need children to live their best lives and be their best selves,” Kim says.


“We have no excuses now,” Addie says. “Sometimes when you have a vision, you have to say, ‘Hey, I gotta go after this thing.’ This is what I needed to do—to make this impact on Planet Earth.”


To date the Fitness DAWGS (Diet And Workout equals Great Success) have starred in several live-action specials broadcast on PBS and appeared in three books (available on Amazon). Kim and Addie are now perfecting a school-centric Fitness DAWGS curriculum of lesson plans and activity books that can be incorporated into elementary schools.


The lessons tackle the gamut of healthy living—not only advice on eating fruits and vegetables, drinking water, and incorporating fun physical fitness into the day, but positive affirmations geared to support children’s social and emotional well-being. A pilot program held last year at Woodlawn Learning Center in Hopewell, Virginia, was a revelation for not only the children, but for Addie and Kim as well.


“When we did the final evaluation, not only had the children grown and learned so much, but the teachers said how they were making better choices based on what we were teaching the children,” Kim says. Others, too, felt the DAWGS’ power—a school secretary was inspired to start a walking regimen, and parents enjoyed the healthy recipes their children brought home. The program will be expanded to three more schools in Hopewell this year.


Working from their own initial financial investment, the partners are confident that, with continued revenue from TV, books, and curriculum sales, they can continue to grow the program and expand its reach. Two more books are on the way, but the big dream is a DAWGS cartoon that will be broadcast around the world.


For Addie, she’ll know the moment when the Fitness DAWGS make the big time. “As a pediatrician, I saw lots of diapers,” she says, remembering the proliferation of disposable underpants brightened with cartoon characters. “We’ll know we’re a success if our DAWGS make it on that diaper.”

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