PERU — Debbie Alwine was 7 years old when she joined Ballet Arts of Peru. It was 1972, and the studio had just opened in her hometown teaching tap, jazz and ballet.
Fast forward 50 years to today, and Alwine now owns the studio in which she first developed her passion for dance. She’s been to every recital in the studio’s history, even when she wasn’t involved with it.
And she’s increased the number of students from around 90 to nearly 300 since she took over operations 20 years ago.
That includes teaching students who eventually went on to dance in major troupes in New York City, Chicago and Los Angles. Three of her students ended up as cheerleaders for the Indianapolis Colts.
Alwine said looking back, it’s hard to believe she’s been part of the studio’s history nearly her entire life. It’s even harder to believe she’s running a business that has taught thousands of area kids over the last 50 years.
“Fifty is just a big number for any business, let alone a dance studio,” she said. “It makes me very proud.”
But none of it would have been possible without its founders, Frank Ortiz and Sylvia Ortiz-Farrior, who decided to move back to Indiana after working as professional dancers in New York City.
A BALLET IS BORN
Ortiz-Farrior grew up in Wabash, where she attended the long-running Wabash Valley Dance Theater. She went on to study dance at Indiana University in Bloomington, which is one of the nation’s top dance schools.
From there, Ortiz-Farrior’s talent took her to New York City, where she landed a position with a professional dance troupe and met her husband. She even landed gigs performing in a commercial and a horror movie.
Eventually, she moved back to the area and decided to open her own dance studio. Instead of opening it in her hometown and competing with her old teachers, she decided to open it in Peru.
With her dancing prowess, the studio quickly gained a reputation as a professional, top-notch place to study dance. That reputation attracted a 7-year-old Alwine to sign up for classes.
Alwine stayed with the program all through school, and she and Ortiz-Farrior formed a tight bond. After Alwine graduated, she married and had two children, leaving dance behind.
But that all changed when Alwine received a call out of nowhere. It was Ortiz-Farrior, asking if Alwine had any interest in coming back to teach. At the time, Alwine was working as a bookkeeper for a local company, but she couldn’t turn down the chance to once again flex her artistic muscles.
“It was the best phone call ever because I know that this is what I was supposed to do,” she said.
After taking some summer dance classes at Butler University to get in shape and hone her moves, Alwine was back in the studio less than 10 years after graduating as a student.
Under Ortiz-Farrior’s tutelage, Alwine quickly got back in the swing of things and realized she had a natural aptitude for teaching. It’s something Ortiz-Farrior noticed as well.
A few years into teaching, Ortiz-Farrior approached Alwine and said she had a five-year plan for the studio. That included Ortiz-Farrior retiring and Alwine taking over the business.
“She said, ‘You’re the one I want if you want to take it over,’” Alwine said. “Five years later, I was ready. She really helped train me, and the transition went very smoothly.”
In a way, running a dance studio was the perfect fit for Alwine. She said she’s always been creative and enjoyed putting together dance routines, but she also likes numbers and has always had an inclination for business.
“You have the left and right side of your brain, and I could use both by doing this,” Alwine said. “It really was a perfect combo.”
With her mix of creativity and practicality, it didn’t take long for Alwine to take the studio to the next level. Soon, she moved the whole operation to a new location where they could have two dance floors instead of one.
The extra space allowed Alwine to double, then triple, the number of students they could teach. It also helped that nearly all the dance instructors she hired had been taught by Ortiz-Farrior and knew how the studio operated.
Alwine also realized that kids wanted to learn more than the traditional dance forms of ballet, tap and jazz. They wanted to learn hip-hop, lyrical and modern dancing. So she took classes to learn them, and then introduced the styles into the studio.
“You’ve got to keep going and keep evolving because dance is always evolving,” Alwine said. “So we kept going and growing.”
Today, more kids are enrolled in the modern dance classes than the traditional ones.
THE BIG SHOW
Through it all, the biggest selling point has been the annual ballet and dance show each June that let’s the students show off their moves. This year, that show includes a full ballet performance of “Beauty and Beast,” and then dance routines from all the kids.
Alwine said they’ve done a full ballet every season for five decades, including hits like “Sleeping Beauty.” She even has written her own ballets, including the plots, characters and choreography.
But this year, the performance will be even bigger to celebrate the studio’s 50th anniversary. That includes bringing back Ballet Arts of Peru alumni, who will put on their own performance as part of the show.
Performances will be held at the Peru High School auditorium at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday.
Now, looking ahead, Alwine said she has no intentions of leaving the studio anytime soon. She’s 56, and pulling off some of the dance moves has gotten a little harder, but she still feels good.
“As long as I’m physically able to do it, and I still feel artistic and am still able to crank it out, I will,” Alwine said. “I’m still feeling really creative, but every year it gets a little more difficult physically.”
She said in the end, though, the job is about way more than teaching dance. It’s about giving kids confidence, building self-esteem and providing them a form of self-expression.
And it’s the kids who have made running the dance studio for the last 20 years all worth it, Alwine said.
“For me, the most rewarding part out of all of it isn’t the career or the job, but it’s the relationship you have with all these kids,” she said. “I just love it.”