Holiday Memories

There are dates in our lives that become engraved in our memories. December 14th is one of those days for me!

Three years ago on December 14th was our studio’s last Christmas show.   This was not the original

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plan, and although the studio has produced one January show after that, I have not done another Christmas show since this night.  COVID has helped me make that choice, but I will also admit that it has been challenging to think about doing a Christmas performance after all that happened at this one.

Times goes fast, and sometimes details of a particular day are blurry.  However, this day remains as fresh as the initial moment, and every detail is permanently kept in my memory.

The woman in the photograph is Lisa Jones Kutra.   Lisa’s older daughter, Cassie, started dancing in my studio at the start of my second season back in 2006.   Lisa was the perfect dance mom.  She made sure that the kids did every performance or extra event they were asked to do.  She never complained.  She recommended the studio to everyone she knew, and she

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thanked me for all my hard work regularly.   She was also sure to ALWAYS compliment me on every performance, and she would always tell me that the show was better than the year before.

For some reason that I will never understand, Lisa’s journey with being sick constantly crossed with the dance studio.  Lisa’s initial diagnosis with breast cancer came during a dance recital weekend, and after beating that, she was then diagnosed several years later with Metastatic Breast Cancer also on a recital weekend.  Four weeks ahead of this picture, she was unconscious in a hospital with all of us wondering if she was going to wake up, and she went into this coma while I was with her daughters at a Christmas parade.   Lisa did wake up a day before Thanksgiving, but when she did the outlook was really bad.   She was very sick, and the optimistic timeline got a lot more bleak and a lot shorter.   When she came home from the hospital, she had all kinds of equipment in tow, and she was very weak.

Since I knew the show was coming quick, and I was fairly certain that she would not get there in person, I started working on how to do a live stream of the show to her.  I found a person who could do it, and I had all of that in place.   We were all set so that she could see her daughter dance….or so I thought.

Nine days ahead of the show, I got a text from Lisa asking how to get tickets so she could come and see it.  I was working on my computer in my kitchen, and the word “stunned” cannot even sum up how I felt. I really did not know what to say except that I would have tickets for her, and I asked what she would need in place to attend.  She said that she needed to be able to get in using her wheelchair, but she could move to a seat.  She also said that she would need a plug.   Since the show was already sold, that part was a little tricky, but I knew I could figure it out.   After I cried for a few minutes, I called the Theater Director at the venue to work out the details so that we had everything in place.

When we got to the night of the show, there was a bit of a weather event that included some snow and sleet.  There was an accident on the

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way to the theater, and Lisa had treatment that day that ran later than expected.   She was already cutting it close to show time, but the accident closed the road for her to get there, and she was now going to be very late.  My decision was to wait for her.

This choice was really not as big of a deal as it seems now.  My thought was that if she arrived when the show was happening, the house lights would be out, and it might be unsafe for her to get into her seat and make sure all of her equipment was set up properly.  It seemed almost a “given” that we would just wait a bit for her to arrive.    And so, with a theater full of people and a studio of dancers backstage, we waited….and waited…and waited.

The Theater Director eventually made an announcement that we were just waiting for everyone to get there because there was an accident tying a few people up. Her daughter told me to start because she danced later in the show, and it would be fine. At one point, the front of house manager told me that it could take an hour or more for an accident to get cleaned up and I had all these people waiting.  I didn’t know what to say to that so I just looked at her and replied “OK” then walked away quickly before anyone could say anything else.

We held the curtain for that show probably close to 30 minutes if not longer. Lisa eventually pulled up in front, but since there was now no place to park in front of the theater, her dad double parked the car.   As everyone was getting Lisa into the

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building and to her seat, I started down the hall to get ready to begin the show.  Before I even took a few steps, I noticed that a police officer with lights flashing was behind her now empty car in the middle of the street.  Since the whole family was working on getting her in and situated, I headed out to explain to the cop why the car was there.   YES!  I was literally out in the middle of the street talking to a cop with a theater full of people and over 100 kids backstage.

Eventually, we did start the show, and it was absolutely flawless.  At the end of the performance, I had someone take flowers out to Lisa, but I knew this was probably the last show she would attend.   I was sure that I could not speak about her on stage without crying so I just thanked everyone for waiting so patiently, and after the curtain closed, I went down to see her.   We all talked for quite a while, and Lisa said for the kids to get a picture and told me to get in it.   Our Theater Director, who had helped make sure so much was in place for her, took this picture.  In the background, you can see the Police Academy usher bringing Lisa’s wheelchair down the aisle for her.

I post this picture a million times.  It is my favorite!   Her daughter, Cassie (who is directly behind her), and Cassie’s friend, Natalie (who is to the right of her), gave me a canvas print of it when they graduated this past year. It sits in my home where I look at it every single day.

If you told me that this recital night was in the cards when I opened the studio back in 2005, I would have never in a million years believed you. At that time, I had a lot of “rules”, and anyone who knows our Theater Director knows how he is always hounding me to start right on time.   I am so blessed that this night did happen though, and I am always so happy that it happened to me with all the people in place to make it such a powerful moment.

This night marked the exact moment that I realized how much I grew as an owner in the 15 years that I owned my own studio.  It was when I realized how much I stopped worrying about the actual dance steps in the show, and how I started caring more about the kids, people, and memories that it creates along the way.  This was the first time that I told everyone that we will wait until we are ready to start no matter how long that took, and I did not really care who got angry and complained.  This was the day that I realized how amazing my staff was because they somehow took care of over 100 children while I was out in the front of the theater for almost 45 minutes.

This picture is a regular reminder of how much more what we do as studio owners means to the families we serve.  We do not just teach dancing by any standard. We show our students how friendships are built, and how people will come together to make impossible things happen when things get hard. We bring incredible stories and lifetime memories to families. And we create so many smiles and so much joy along the way.

We are all blessed with the gift of dance in so very many ways. But no

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one will ever be more blessed than I am by the wonderful lives I have encountered along the way, and I can never thank these families enough for allowing me the honor of being part of so many important memories!

Lisa passed away on March 25th, 2019.   That Spring, after many years of not performing in any shows, I danced with her daughters to her favorite song, Bon Jovi’s “Livin On A Prayer”.  Her family and I have only grown closer as time has gone on, and the studio has performed at many fundraising and awareness events in her memory.  On February 14th, 2020, the studio established the Lisa Jones Kutra Memorial Scholarship for a student at our local high school.  Many of our dance families make donations to help fund the scholarship, and her daughters pick the recipient each year.  The exact seat where Lisa is sitting in this photograph has been permanently removed from our seating inventory, and it will no longer be available for purchase at any recital.  For performances, the seat is marked with a “RESERVED” sign, and a bouquet of flowers is placed there in Lisa’s memory.

Belcher headshot 2
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Amy Hlavaty Belcher has studied dance locally for the past 20 years and has been teaching students for the past 14 years.  Amy's extensive dance training has expanded to include studies with such notable teachers as Frank Hachett, Jeffery Ferguson, Karen Gayle, Jimmy Kitchler, Sue Samuels, Finis Jung, and Billie Angel. In addition, Amy attended private coaching sesssion in New York City with Catherine Kingsley, director of the Anglo-American Ballet and former performer with the Royal Ballet.  Amy regularly attends teaching seminars conducted by Rhee Gold, and she is a member of Sam Beckford's Studio Mastermind program.

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