Last month a Falcon Heights dance troupe with an inspiring mission hosted a gala to celebrate its somewhat unlikely survival. The name says it all: Out on a Limb Dance Company and School opened its doors to a handful of students on Sept. 10, 2001—the day before 9/11.
They stepped from a borrowed walk-up to a tiny, one-story rehearsal space near the State Fairgrounds. Since then, fueled by boundless positive energy and a belief that dance is within everybody’s reach, they have survived a decade on what its founding director calls a wing and a prayer.
Initially, the school split off from Midwest Youth Dance Theater (MYDT), where founder Kim Martinez felt the call to form a nonprofit arts organization offering dance to at-risk and underserved youth, while providing a healthy and supportive home for young dancers. Today, Martinez’s dreams have come full circle. Her studio returned home to the old MYDT space, 1535 Larpenteur Ave. W., at the corner of Snelling. The studio mirrors reflect Martinez’s background: They once hung inside her mother’s dance studio. (Her family spans four generations of dance.)
Out on a Limb has hosted annual dance-theater extravaganzas at O’Shaughnessy Auditorium since 2003, starring a large cast of enthusiastic performers of all ages, colors, shapes and sizes. Martinez says she rarely turns any dancer away from her auditions. She finds a place for all, to tell a popular tale through music and movement, showcasing all styles of dance. These annual shows entertain thousands of school kids who attend for free, children who otherwise might not be exposed to an art form often considered elite.
Did you see the film Black Swan? Beware, this company’s balletic technique may be as sound, but it leave sthe angst at the door. Thus, the troupe opened the “Celebra-ten!” show with a classical Swan Lake that suddenly fractured into parody, comedy pratfalls choreographed smartly to tweak the original ballet with a wink and “a nod to those of us who refuse to take ourselves too seriously,” says Martinez.
The 10th anniversary gala included videos of longtime dancers talking about why they have stayed with Out on a Limb, some for the entire decade the company has been in existence. Common themes were a sense of belonging, heartfelt joy, a freedom to create and family involvement. Between show-stopping numbers from their past kids’ show productions—from “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cinderella,” “Oliver!,” “Annie” “Aladdin,” “Mary Poppins”—they weathered a few projector glitches with aplomb. Everyone laughed and went on with the show. Out on a Limb is not into perfection.
“It’s all about love, but we train really good dancers,” says school director, company member and frequent choreographer Amber Rosah Keeley. As she begins her 11th year with a class starting this month, Keeley strives to make newcomers welcome. “It starts in the studio,” she explains, where new students can take creative risks and feel safe stepping out of their physical comfort zone.
Keeley’s aim is “getting more kids moving . . . the deeper into our technological world we go” (here Keeley glances down at her hands and mimes two thumbs frantically texting). Students who enter her studio leave all that behind for an hour or two. She challenges her preteen composition class for example to dance the color blue, or create the alphabet using only their bodies. “They are a really magical group of kids, so passionate,” she says.
Keeley’s upbeat attitude is shared by Marcey Bolter Mastbaum, an active fundraiser for the annual school shows who serves as vice president of the board of directors. Martinez is board president, as well as artistic director and costume coordinator, with casting, props and set wrangling on the side.
“It’s about technique, but it’s more heart and soul,” says Mastbaum, “and that’s where your audience is going to connect.” Connect they do, with a host of volunteers and an audience that includes 3,200 children each year bused in from less advantaged metro schools, where 75 percent or more of students receive free or low-cost lunches. Sometimes these kids want to learn dance, and there have been scholarships scrounged up if they need help paying for it.
It’s noteworthy that Mastbaum’s involvement started way back when, as a parent of two small boys taking dance lessons. One of her sons, Jeremy, all grown up, is now a principal dancer with Out on a Limb and several other well-known local companies. Another unique quality: Out on a Limb is not exclusive about where company members perform, and they don’t demand “Courtesy of” printed on other organization’s programs. “We’re here to educate,” says Keeley. “We want them to spread their wings and fly, then bring back what they learn.”
Every year, several apprentices graduate to dance with the company, but no one has to graduate from dancing classes, open to all. Adult Tap is a popular offering.
The only age criterion for the dance school? All students must be potty-trained.
D. J. Alexander lives and writes in Falcon Heights.