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Sunday, July 28, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Chance To Dance -- An Influx Of Styles And Talent Brings Life To The Studio Scene

Seattle Times Dance Writer

------------------------------------------------------------------ I got to class And had it made And so I stayed The rest of my life

- Mike in "A Chorus Line" ------------------------------------------------------------------

In 1975, when Michael Bennett's "A Chorus Line" hit Broadway, audiences fell hard for the musical's behind-the-scenes look at the slavish, complicated devotion of a group of professional dancers. A crucial element in the production was the tale of a young dancer entering the studio for the first time and knowing instantly that an eternal pact had been made.

By 1990, when "Chorus Line" was closing after its record-setting 15-year run, the society of the dancer had been transfigured. The personal fitness boom lured dancers away from the studios and into the gyms.

Forget the romantic 90-minute class, dancers could now use machines to target specific muscle groups as easily as ordering from a restaurant menu. To address balance and placement concerns came body awareness and strengthening systems like Pilates, Alexander technique and good old yoga. On stage, the explosion of pedestrian-movement, mixed-discipline performance art put little cache on looking like a dancer straight out of dance class.

But thanks to kids' classes, and diehard nonprofessional adults who bucked the gym trend, dance studios managed to survive the dismal '80s, and today, enrollment is increasing again.

At Dance on Capitol Hill, Shirley Jenkins reports that beginning modern dance classes have grown "surprisingly large," and that tap dance enrollment has "skyrocketed," particularly with seniors.

"There are now 75 people over the age of 55 tapping here," Jenkins says.

At Dance Centre Seattle, enrollment also has started to pick up since the appointment of its new directors, Tom Truss and Sheri Cohen, who favor alternative modern dance methods like the Skinner Releasing technique and contact improvisation.

There are enough jazz dancers in town to support two studios these days: the long-running Spectrum Dance Theater at the Madrona Dance Studio, and the growing Westlake Dance Center, which opened in 1993.

In September, ex-Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer/instructor Vivian Little is opening Dance Fremont!, a beginners' ballet studio that will also offer yoga and choreography workshops.

Today's dance classes are not your mother's dance class. There's no allure in the rigid taskmaster, the same three plunking piano chords, the violent hair restraint. Contemporary dance studios - still listed in the Yellow Pages under the subheadings "ballet," "tap," "jazz" - now feature social forms like country and western swing, funky ethnic and hip rhythm tap.

In the past year, Dance on Capitol Hill and Dance Center Seattle have instituted weekly open-improvisation sessions, where dancers warm up with an instructor, then cavort spontaneously for 90 minutes or more, all to their own calling.

But what about that challenging, technical dance class that hooks a person for life? Outside of college programs and ballet studios, does Seattle have a place for the wannabe professional?

The answer hasn't been good. Then, in May, Velocity struck. The work of Michele Miller and KT Niehoff, two ex-New Yorkers, Velocity is an airy new studio whose owners remain addicted to the special discipline, camaraderie and commitment of the daily dance class. Plus the place has windows, a first for a Seattle modern dance studio.

Hardly traditionalists, Miller, 31, and Niehoff, 27, initially moved to Seattle in 1992 to work with the pedestrian-oriented Pat Graney Dance Company, though they both moved on soon after to work on their own projects. Miller, quite buffed, obviously does some weight training. Niehoff is big on contact improvisation, vocalization and music-making, partnering and other experimental modes of movement exploration.

Neither was a child dancer: Miller was in an advanced placement pre-med program, and Niehoff was studying theater arts, when they wandered into their first dance classes. They both settled in to regular study, and later teaching, at a downtown New York studio called Dance Space Inc. (Miller was Niehoff's first teacher there.)

Since moving to Seattle, they've both been as committed to the dance community as they have been to their own careers. Niehoff was a founder of the free monthly dance newspaper DanceNet and taught classes as well. Miller focused on teaching, doggedly calling up ex-students of other teachers in town and introducing herself. Both are founding members of the stellar performance collective D-9.

After three years of teaching and rehearsing in dark basements and stuffy attics, Miller and Niehoff decided to rent and renovate a 3,000 square foot meeting room in the old Oddfellows Hall early this spring. The mint-green walls were painted white, two layers of linoleum were peeled back to uncover a hardwood floor and Miller built the ballet barres herself.

"We wanted a studio so beautiful that dancers who haven't danced for three years will walk in and say, `I've got to get back to class,' " Miller explains.

Miller's challenging morning and evening technique classes are the studio's mainstay. The schedule also offers Niehoff's more spontaneous, musical modern dance class, plus classes in tumbling, swing, karate, funk and Pilates mat exercises, along with frequent guest workshops. (The full class schedule of classes will be exhibited as part of a special Dance Day on Saturday, Sept. 7.)

"One of the main focuses for me was having a place where we could have a continuing guest artist series," Niehoff explains, "where we could start to rotate people into Seattle . . . national people to teach workshops for a week or two weeks to try and get Seattle a little more enmeshed in what's happening across the nation."

"Our ultimate goal is to help the dance community in Seattle continue to get bigger," Miller says. "And also to try to sustain a level of classes and variety of offerings that will really interest professional-level dancers and keep them here, instead of making them feel like they have to go somewhere else to continue their training or to be a dancer.

"They shouldn't just get to be a baby dancer in Seattle, then have to go to New York or San Francisco or somewhere else to really work as a dancer."

The studio name came easily.

"KT's big vision is to see the community progress," Miller says, "and my big vision is to see the individual dancers within the community progress. So we wanted a name that indicated propulsion, measurements of momentum, something that moves forward.

"Velocity seemed to stick."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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