Auburn Dance Center keeps shaping talented dancers, more than 50 years after opening

Ballet instructor Akema Segawa, of the Auburn Dance Center, performs the port de bras, a term for a group of exercises that makes the arms move gracefully and harmoniously.  - Gary Kissel/Reporter
Ballet instructor Akema Segawa, of the Auburn Dance Center, performs the port de bras, a term for a group of exercises that makes the arms move gracefully and harmoniously.
— image credit: Gary Kissel/Reporter

Instructor Monica Boldizsar put herself and three students through the rigors of intermediate-advanced adult hip-hop class at Auburn Dance Center.

First came stretching, of the grimacing, grunting variety.

For half an hour, Boldiszar coaxed Amy Craig, Carolyn Creasia, and Samantha “Sammie” Moore into working their obliques, thighs and lower backs, tweaking muscles undreamt of in the philosophies of the flabby.

“We’ve got to fit into those dance outfits, right ladies,” said Boldizsar.

At last, with legs pumping, arms reaching, bodies moving back and forth to a room-length mirror, the women danced, pushed by a hip-hop beat capable of lifting a body up and setting it down with a good healthy whack.

“Come on, guys, up, up, up!” said Boldiszar.

Chose your dance form, ballet, tap, lyrical, jazz, or hip-hop, for more than half a century the center at 306 Auburn Avenue, its founder Robert Smith and generations of his own students have taught it superlatively.

Smith came to Auburn at 18 in 1954, fresh from Seattle’s Barkely School of Dancing to launch his studio in the old Fraternity Hall above JC Penney. In 1964 he moved to the former Auburn Library, a Carnegie building dating to 1914. Over the years thousands have skipped up the worn steps of the tree-shaded studio to learn from him.

Smith estimated that he has trained 10,000 dancers.

“I think we have an excellent program in ballet, which is the main dance form for all dancers,” Smith said. “If any dancers aspire to be professional dancers of any kind, they must, absolutely must have a very strong ballet background. In addition to ballet, we teach tap. If you want to be a professional dancer, you must be able to do just about all of the different dance forms.”

Many of Smith’s students have gone on to dance professionally.

“We have one young man right now touring with the Celine Dion show who started off touring with Paul McCartney. Last year he was here with a Broadway musical road show. He’s our latest one still dancing. We have people teaching dancing who came from our school,” Smith said.

Today 73-year-old Smith leaves most of the teaching to four younger dancers, Boldiszar, Craig, Akema Segawa and Akio Segawa, all of whom began studying with him when they were small. He hopes to leave them the studio, but he has no plans to retire.

“I’m not slowing down,” Smith said. “Well, maybe a little since I’m using a cane.”

Smith’s wife Mary, who taught music at the school and accompanied the ballet classes for a generation on the piano, died several years ago.

Teaching generations

Former students bring Smith their kids and their kids’ kids. And every one, from the tiniest tutu-wearing girl on up, reveres him.

“Many of my first students returned with their children, and today their children are coming in, so we are now having the grandchildren of some of the original students,” Smith said. “That says a lot. When they come back they say, ‘Mr. Smith,

it’s like coming home again.’ ”

Smith figures that many students probably have spent more time at the studio than in their own homes.

“They grew up with me, so I had them in grade school, I had them in middle school, I had them when they went into high school, and some when they went to college were still around here,” Smith said.

Boldizsar is one such student. She started studying with Smith at 6, has danced at the studio for 20 years and taught there for 10.

“My parents decided to start me out here, if only they had known that I would never leave! I will probably be buried somewhere on the grounds. I am Buddhist and all, but I am sure we’ll figure out a place for my crypt somewhere,” Boldiszar said.

Boldiszar said teaching there made her realize she wanted to teach in general. She is currently earning her degree in education at Pacific Lutheran University.

“This place inspired me, and I met a lot of really good friends here,” Boldiszar said. “One of the great things we have here is that we do a lot of dance formats that other studios don’t do. Also, the fact that we have a really strong dance community here, where everybody has known each other for a really long time.

“We have all pretty much grown up together. We have multiple generations dancing at one time. So you rarely see one generation floating through here, usually it will be two or three. I’ve even heard cases of four.”

Moore, 18, first came to the studio when she was 4 years old.

“It’s been an outlet for me, the only time I could actually express myself,” said Moore. “The teaching is the best. They teach you technique instead of teaching you to go to competitions and stuff. So you don’t just learn choreography, you learn how to make yourself better.”

None of the good stuff is lost on 4-year-old Makenna Severson, now in her third year with Smith. Her mother, Katrina, and father,

Brandon, at first just wanted something for her to do, something

to tap her boundless energy. They found Auburn Dance Center in the phone book.

But the little girl quickly came to love Smith and Amy Craig, whom she calls “Miss Amy.” And now the studio is central to her life.

“Every summer before dance class starts Makenna bugs us because she knows when it’s Thursday and wonders why she isn’t dancing. On Thursday morning she says, ‘I can’t wait to see Mr. Smith and Miss Amy,’ ” Katrina said.

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