Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

All they want to do is teach the joy of dance

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Courtesy of Dawn Crafton Dance Center
The Dawn Crafton Dancers went to Orlando to become stars of their own Disney World show in July at the Galaxy Palace Theater in Magic Kingdom Park as part of Disneyıs Magic Music Days program.
It’s what they do, what the females in their family have done for five generations. Dawn Crafton’s mother taught dance in Wheaton, and her grandparents owned a D.C. ballroom dance studio. Now the founder and executive director of the Gaithersburg dance center that bears her name works alongside her daughter, artistic director Kelly Crafton Welch, whose own daughter Blair, 10, takes classes.

Crafton’s mother was in vaudeville, a tap and acrobatic dancer who toured with her brother, then went solo when his new wife insisted on the end of that stage of his life. ‘‘Hanging around backstage” as well in the audience while her mother performed looms large in her stock of childhood memories. Crafton took dance lessons ‘‘from the time I could walk,” and along with her two sisters, would perform in USO shows during World War II.

‘‘It’s what our family did,” she says.

Crafton says she continued to ‘‘dance all through school.” Her family lived upstairs from her mother’s business, the Sellers School of Dance in Wheaton, and by age 14, Crafton was teaching classes of her own. As such, she recognized early on that she ‘‘enjoyed teaching and [creating] choreography more than performing.”

Opting for a career of ‘‘preparing others for performance,” Crafton began teaching out of a licensed studio in the basement of her Aspen Hill home in 1964. This also allowed her to be at home with her own three young children.

‘‘I ran the business and taught every child myself,” she recalls proudly.

Her daughter’s path to a teaching career was not so direct. Still, having grown up with a dance teacher mother and a dance studio in her home, Kelly Welch’s attitude toward her dance-infused childhood echoes her mother’s.

‘‘It’s just what I did,” she says of her years of training in mostly tap, jazz and ballet.

Welch remembers precisely what fueled her aspirations to perform. After seeing a production of ‘‘A Chorus Line” from a balcony seat at the National Theatre, the 16-year-old knew ‘‘This is what I want to do.”

Nevertheless, Welch proceeded to study dance and psychology at the University of Maryland. At the end of junior year, however, she and her roommate moved to Manhattan. They were set on seeing if they could make it in the professional worlds of musical theater and acting, respectively.

As is often the case, the would-be dancer paid her bills by waiting tables, allowing her time to acquire the necessary head shots and resumes and take dance classes. She stayed for 15 years, during which time she was in both the national touring companies and the final Broadway cast of the Tony Award-winning musical ‘‘42nd Street.” The tours took her to some 92 cities, including Tokyo and Monte Carlo. In addition to the professional experience, she says, ‘‘I got to see the world, and save some money.”

Having achieved ‘‘what I wanted,” Welch says, ‘‘I knew I was ready for the next part of my life.

‘‘I wanted to be normal.”

She proceeded to complete her undergraduate degree at Hunter College, followed by a master’s in social work at Columbia University. During graduate school, she commuted on weekends to give dance lessons in her mother’s studio.

Kelly Crafton Welch came home to the Washington area in 1995, once she and her new husband chose not to raise their family in Manhattan. The couple’s move gave Crafton the impetus to take on the challenge of opening the Dawn Crafton Dance Center (DCDC) in a commercial space in Gaithersburg.

‘‘If it were not for her [Kelly], DCDC would not be teaching the grandchildren of kids I taught,” Crafton says.

About their partnership, Welch acknowledges that ‘‘it took a while to figure out who does what.”

With two young children of her own, she didn’t want to be working every day after school. So, the directors brought on teachers with varied styles and disciplines. Classes range from mommy and me groups all the way through high school-level classes in ballet, hip-hop, tap and jazz.

The goal, Welch says, is to foster the growth of ‘‘well-rounded dancers without stopping them from becoming well-rounded people.”

‘‘School comes first,” Crafton says, noting the importance of other activities, like religious school and sports.

In addition to providing dance education to nearly 300 students, DCDC launched D.A.N.C.E. (Dance Arts Nurture Children’s Education) Partners International last year. Plans are underway for the nonprofit outreach organization to provide dance instruction to autistic, deaf and Down syndrome children as well as scholarships for economically disadvantaged students. They’re in search of ‘‘angels” to fund these projects.

As for Blair Welch, there’s no pressure for her to follow in the footsteps of her ‘‘foremothers.”

‘‘I never wanted to push her,” Kelly Welch says, noting that her daughter ‘‘really enjoys” the activities — including a trip to perform in Disney World and an annual spring recital – as well as the camaraderie of friends and being part of the community of their family-friendly dance center.

‘‘I don’t know if dance will be her passion, or if she’ll pursue it,” she adds, but both Welch and Crafton have witnessed the physical, intellectual and psychological benefits of a commitment to dance in generations of students.

Above all, Crafton says, ‘‘It has to continue to be fun.” The goal is always to ‘‘dance with joy.”

It’s what they do.

The Dawn Crafton Dance Center is located at 7601C Airpark Road, Gaithersburg. Call 301-840-8400 or visit