Those three guidelines form the foundation of the studio and have helped it grow into a safe, creative space for Lakeside youth since its inception in 2009. Lakeside Dance enrolls 80 students and also offers lessons in karate and gymnastics through partnerships with instructors based elsewhere in the valley. The 500 square-foot building adjacent to U.S. 93 is also one of the few extracurricular offerings the community has for local kids, Cara said.
“For a tiny bit there was Boy Scouts, but there’s no sports … the school does have a couple things, but mostly basketball for fifth graders and up,” she said.
When she opened the studio in 2009, part of her objective was to provide an activity space for her own children. When they demonstrated an interest in karate and gymnastics, she brought in those classes, too.
In addition to teaching classes in ballet, tap, jazz and other styles, the studio has another role: a safe haven for local youth.
One day, Cara noticed a child riding their bike back and forth in front of the studio searching for a safe place to get out of the cold.
“Finally I said, just come in,” she recalled.
The student now takes class thanks to Cara’s sponsorship with remarkable results.
“The change that I’ve seen is incredible ….and nobody can believe it,” Cara said.
Youth from a variety of backgrounds find a second home at Lakeside Dance.
“It’s very, very important for kids these days to be able to express themselves,” she said. “It’s getting harder and harder to just have any privacy and security because everything’s always changing. Here they can come and be mad or sad or angry — everyone leaves laughing. They’ve created lifelong friends. They’re able to let down their guards. It’s just healthy.”
Cara wants to provide a space where students can express themselves creatively and emotionally. She usually assigns a research paper to her lyrical dance students, but this year she decided to do something different. Instead of having them research a famous dancer and perform one of their pieces, she asked her high school-aged students to perform their own dance based on something they’ve struggled with in their lives.
Amanda Sheppard, 18, has been dancing at the studio since she was 10 years old and performed a piece on winter depression.
“The arts are really a good place to show what’s going on inside your heart and I think we don’t do that often in our normal lives,” Sheppard said.
“It was a powerful evening — just the older students opening up and being able to share those deep, dark secrets that are going on in their life. We had a huge dialogue afterwords,” Cara said.
And in the spirit of continuing positive dialogue, she’s started a wall of encouragement. On a wall near the entrance of the studio, each student has a paper bag with their name on it so other students or Cara herself can drop an uplifting note for them to find.
Sheppard said the environment at Lakeside Dance is “like a family” and “super encouraging.”
“Everyone has a genuine joy to be there or to be teaching,” she added. “I’ve never walked in the dance studio and out the dance studio the same person. I’ve always grown either personally or technically.”
But for all the good that goes on within their walls, the future of Lakeside Dance is far from certain. The Somers Lakeside School District purchased the building that houses the studio at 7200 U.S. 93, Cara said.. The district has generously let Cara continue to use the building, but she’s uncertain how long it will be before she needs to find a permanent home.
“I think if I had a bigger space, we could explode. We could grow so much. Right now it’s so small,” she said. “These girls are taller than me, they’re hitting the ceiling — I had to take the fan out. We can only have one class at a time with 10 people. It’s just very limiting.”
She’d also love to host after school program students, but without more than one room, that dream will remain just that.
“We need a permanent place that we can roll with an offer more things for the youth in our community,” Cara said. “We’re desperate to find a new place to be honest.”
For now, the studio will go on as is — continuing to be that safe space for local youth as long as possible.
This Sunday, they’ll be performing “Aladdin’s Journey” an 80-person dance showcase based on the classic Disney film.
“I just thought it would be a really upbeat, welcome to spring and summer,” she said. “It was a really long winter and I felt like everyone was a little down. We started in March with this, just brining that warm, happy vibe kind of perked everyone up.”
Lakeside Dance will present “Aladdin’s Journey” for one night only this Sunday, June 10 at 4 p.m. at the Flathead High School auditorium. Tickets are $9 per person and can be purchased at the door. For more information about the studio, visit www.sites.google.com/site/dancelakeside.
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.