WALLINGFORD – When Natalie Cruz was a year old, her mother was a dance student at the Academy of Dance and Music, a school that Cruz enrolled in shortly after.
In September, the school celebrated its 65th anniversary, continuing its tradition of seeing several generations of the same family attend the school.
Cruz, who is now 26, is a dance teacher and deputy headmaster of the school. His younger brother is also a student at Wallingford Academy.
As part of the anniversary celebration, the school got involved with the community. This weekend, the dancers performed at Celebrate Wallingford. After the festival, the school organized a demonstration class open to the public.
Judyth Parks opened the school in 1957 at the age of 17 in a hall in Wallingford.
“She just knew she wanted to be a dance teacher that young and she had the support of my grandmother who also played the piano for all the classes and made the costumes,” said Courtney Billings, owner and director of the school.
Billings noted that the school has grown over the years, becoming an “important part of the community.”
The school was then moved to a building in Simpson Court and in the late 1980s moved to its current location, 245 Center St.
Billings began teaching at the age of 12. She attended Curry College in Massachusetts and ran its dance department for a time.
She said she took over the operations of the Academy of Dance in the late 1980s.
The school teaches dance as well as private music lessons focusing on voice and piano.
Billings’ daughter, Sydney Billings, is a head teacher at the academy. She studied Marketing and Dance at Central Connecticut State University and would like to take over the school’s operations when her mother retires. Additionally, she said she would like to incorporate more dances, including the ballroom, which includes some Latin rhythms.
Billings enjoys seeing several generations of the same family attend school. She said they take students from an early age, but people over 60 also participate in their dance program.
Cruz’s mother was a student at the academy from the age of three and also took classes as an adult.
Cruz has Puerto Rican roots and although she does not speak Spanish, she enjoys dancing to Latin rhythms, she said.
At one point, she danced a mix of Spanish and modern music and performed at a Latin show with a dancer she met in college.
She said being a Latina helped her enter the dance world naturally. When she was younger, her family took her to salsa conventions, she said.
Cruz’s brother, Danny Cruz also dances at the academy. He is a junior at Maloney High School.
He said he grew up seeing his mother, sisters and other family members dance. They always encouraged him to go to dance school but he was skeptical as he did not know if dancing was for boys.
Five years ago, he decided to join the academy, automatically falling in love with dance, he said.
Being a dancer and having his sister as a teacher gives him a closer bond with his family, he said.
His favorite part of the academy is that the teachers make the students feel comfortable and at the same time they are good at taking the students out of their comfort zone.
Cruz mainly dances hip hop and contemporary music. However, he said, because of his family, he hears a lot of Spanish music, which he practices freestyle at home and at family gatherings.
When Adilene Garcia was four, she used to visit the academy because her mother was a student. She said she used to stand at the door of the classroom to dance. One day, one of the instructors invited her to the dance floor and she has been attending school ever since. Today, Garcia is 25 years old. She takes dance lessons with her sister to spend more time together.
She said she loved the feeling of community at the academy and had made some precious friendships over the years.
Garcia has also danced at the Spanish community of Wallingford where she connects to her roots by dancing to traditional Mexican music. She loves both dance schools because they help her be more open to music and history, she said.
For more information on the Academy of Dance and Music, visit http://www.academyofdance1.com/.
[email protected]: @KarlaSantosNews