Lisa Thompson has a tendency to refer to her dance studio as “small,” which, relatively speaking, might be an accurate description, though when you dig into its 35-year existence, little about Step By Step Dance should be construed as diminutive.
Sheer numbers, maybe. Certainly not stature.
When parents who danced with Step By Step arrive at her Arlington studio with their own wide-eyed, leotard-clad munchkins in tow, there is something quite magical and even surreal about the whole thing.
Step By Step isn’t known for being this way station for dancers trying to stuff themselves into the proverbial pipeline with a major dance company payoff, though some, like professional dancer/singer/film and television actor Sydney Duncan, certainly have achieved such. But that was not the aim when the studio opened its doors in 1985 – or now. When former dancers return – and many do – they do so as accountants and teachers and entrepreneurs and lawyers, often attributing their attainment to the discipline and inelastic lessons learned at Step By Step.
Whenever I caught a Step By Step performance, Thompson would introduce her group by outlining its mission of educating dancers to first appreciate the art form. What followed were the oft-taught intangibles: self-esteem, discipline, self-confidence.
In other words, veteran Step by Steppers don’t tiptoe into studios, or anywhere else, with slouching shoulders. They stroll, or sashay, with heads held high.
Melissa Moore remembers bringing her daughter, Alyssa, a shy three-year-old, to Step By Step and watching in glee/wonder/horror Thompson asking Alyssa to come out on the studio floor with the other dancers.
“It was clear what Lisa was doing – just making her feel comfortable, making her feel a part of the group even though she wasn’t yet,” says Moore. “That just touched me.”
Alyssa returned – for the next 10 years.
Step by Step is also one of the few dance studios teaching liturgical dance, whose origins spring from spiritual worship rather than dance as strictly entertainment. Dancers use their bodies to express the word and spirit of God.
Which makes sense, seeing that Step By Step began at Grace United Methodist Church, where a Thompson-choreograph dance led to a dance ministry at the church, which grew into Step By Step.
“God kept opening doors for Lisa, and she kept walking through them,” said Grace Pastor Dr. Luther Felder. “When the studio came along, it gave her the opportunity to not just teach dance but educate these kids in social graces. The love of dance led to many other things.”
Thompson knows that fully well. Her mother put her in dance hoping it might break her shy-girl shell. “I wouldn’t talk to people,” Thompson recalls. “I was very withdrawn. Turns out dance was a place to share my feelings. Just move and let the dance speak for you.”
She ended up at Kansas State University where most of her classmates were striving to be professional dancers. While she did win spots with professional sports dance teams (Kansas City’s Kings and Chiefs) and coach university dance groups, she felt more at home working in higher education (Thompson is executive director of the Trio Pre College Programs at UTA).
Marriage brought her to Texas, where she taught dance aerobics, devised exercise programs for a fitness club, and coached cheerleading while an advisor at SMU.
Pastor Felder eventually came calling.
The pandemic sent the studio online and pushed its season-ending presentation into the parking lot with everyone staying put in their vehicles. Enrollment for the new season, part online, part in person with limited groups, is underway.
For Thompson, her dance passion might have begun due in part to a shyness remedy, but it’s now all about servitude, another of those intangibles she’s passing on to people like her daughter, Erica, one of those former Step By Steppers who is now Thompson’s go-to assistant (and attorney).
As for teaching the children of former students, it never gets old.
Says Thompson, “Whenever they call and say, ‘You were my dance teacher, can you teach my daughter?’ I just love hearing that.”