Lifelong dancing ... and learning

Opinion: Columns

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Janine Katonah

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On Sept. 25 at 7 p.m., the Senior Citizens Center of Oak Park-River Forest will hold the 17th annual Ulyssean Awards via Zoom. This year's honorees are Stephanie Clemens and Marge and Galen Gockel. The following is a profile of Clemens.

 

Stephanie Clemens knew from the time she was very young that she would become a dancer. Both of her parents admired ballet, but they chose other art forms for self-expression. Stephanie's dancing career began when she was 8 years old and enrolled at the Victory Gardens School of Dance in Hollywood, California. Although she knew dance would always be central in her life, her college major was physical anthropology, a just-in-case alternative career path.

In 1971 Stephanie began teaching ballet in her Oak Park home with two students. In 1972 she expanded her space with a move to the Tai Chi studios on South Boulevard where she taught moms and babies exercise classes. Dance was soon added. Another expansion was needed and thus a move to a new school of dance on Marion Street from 1977-1982. 

The former Bishop Quarter school became the current site of the Academy of Movement and Music in 1982. The first recital of the academy's dancers took place in the Little Theatre of Oak Park and River Forest High School in late spring of 1982. So that all dancers might have access to dance lessons and performance, many accommodations were needed in the academy's new home at Bishop Quarter. The Oak Park Development Corporation provided a grant for a wheelchair ramp and a lift. Instructor Larry Ippel, who retired from the academy in the 2014-15 season, wrote the first recital piece for dancers with limited dancers at the academy. 

As the parent organization, the Academy of Movement and Music is a training school. Momenta later formed as a nonprofit performance organization whose students are chosen by recommendation. Momenta finds inspiration and foundation in the pioneering dance work and history of Doris Humphrey, who lived in Oak Park in the 1920s and '30s. Momenta's goals include: teaching young people to dance, creating beautiful choreography, and creating performance opportunities for all. Sarah Najera is Momenta's director. Her dancing career was fostered by the academy and Momenta. 

Although Stephanie Clemens is not quite as agile as she once was, she still teaches to stay active. She believes everyone can dance, feel the pleasure of dance, enjoy moving, and feel the benefits through movement, rhythm, and esthetics. She still finds great joy in watching ballerinas, especially the tiny ones! Dancers with physical and visual challenges can still move and create. Passion and determination can bring greatness despite the limitations of our physical bodies. 

Stephanie also believes that age doesn't have to stop us from doing what we love; we just need to find a different way of doing it. Working with adults with disabilities has helped Stephanie to gracefully accept her own process of aging.

Her dance system is generational. Children come to the academy, often as tiny dancers. They graduate high school and college, become members of the community, start families, and enroll their own children in dance classes at the academy. The cycle continues.

Outside of the academy, Stephanie is mom to Jason, Justin, and James Paul (JP), who is the current ballet master at the academy. Her sons and daughters-in-law have blessed her with four grandchildren whom she adores. Stephanie's husband, Mike Dutka, has managed the facilities at the academy from its inception.

Stephanie confesses she is working harder now than she ever did since starting the business. Writing grants, updating and adhering to safety codes, Zoom sessions due to COVID-19, assisting teachers, running programs and finding staff, fill her days and overflow. Yet she has no regrets. Doing something positive in the face of something terrible (the pandemic) and being with multiple generations of dancers, continues to bring fulfillment and joy to her life.

Janine Katonah is a Senior Citizens Center board member.

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