Before she danced her way across the stage in the chilling Oscar nominated film Black Swan, Natalie Portman learned her technique at the American Theater Dance Workshop, located at the in New Hyde Park.
“Natalie was here from the time she was eight to the time she was 14,” said Director Madeline Dempster. “It is such a thrill and I am still in touch with her parents.”
Portman is just one of the ATDW’s many famous alumni, who also include Jamie Lynn Sigler, who played Meadow Soprano on the TV series The Sopranos, and Lauren King of the New York City Ballet.
“They came here for years, they were my babies, they were my students,” Dempster said. “One of the most rewarding things about this business are the kids who come back — and they do — some of them have really made it in the profession, others are lawyers and doctors and moms and dads and teachers, but they all come back to visit.”
The American Theater Dance Workshop began in 1982 as The American Dance-Machine, but changed its name when founder/director Lee Theodore died in 1986.
Dempster and her partner, Sofia “Peppy” Semler, were both on the board of The Eglevsky Ballet Company and vowed to continue the educational aspect of the school; and to this day the ATDW teaches choreographic styles of Broadway musicals in their theater dance, musical theater and tap classes so that they will be preserved for future generations.
“Lee Theodore had a school in Manhattan and Tokyo and the goal of that was to pass this on to the younger generations and so we opened a school on Long Island,” Dempster said.
The American Theater Dance Workshop is known as the most professional dance school on Long Island, where the faculty has trained at the greatest ballet schools in the world including New York City Ballet’s, School of American Ballet, The Royal Ballet School of Great Britain and the Vaganova School of the Kirov Ballet.
“I came here nine years ago…and at first [dance] was a hobby for me, but now it’s my life,” said 17-year-old Alexis Marquardt. “The teachers are absolutely amazing. They always push me to my hardest, fullest extent and I’ve been moved up different levels to be more challenged. They focus really on technique and it’s not so much about performance here, which I love.”
The ATDW has two repertory companies: a pre-professional class and a theater dance class. They have performed in schools on the Island, at organizations and libraries and will be attending the dance conference all day at C.W. Post.
“Our show at the end of the year is not one of these glitzy recitals where we rehearse seven months to learn one number," Dempster said. "We actually don’t even start rehearsing for the show until March. There are no costumes, they wear what they wear in class -- leotards, tights and a ballet skirt and for theater dance, jazz pants and T-shirts -- it’s one of the best shows you’ll see.”
Emily Glaser, a 17-year-old musical theater, theater dance, tap and ballet student said, “I used to go to Jam in Great Neck, but it was too much about the costumes and the glitz and the glamour and competitions and I wanted a place that would really be about skill, getting better and technique, so I came here -- and I love it.”
Fifteen-year-old Paige Smallwood has been dancing at the ATDW since she was seven and plans to make dancing a career of hers.
“I definitely think that every year I learn something new and we always review a lot which helps,” Smallwood said. “[The show at the end of the year] is really fun and I love buying the CDs and seeing all the other numbers I couldn’t see during it. Just the feeling of being on stage is so cool.”
This year, June 11 is the theater dance show and June 12 is the ballet show. The ATDW offers pre-classes for children between the ages of three and six and regular audition-based placement classes for ages seven and up.
“We really are like a family,” Dempster said. “It’s not competitive with the kids and it’s not competitive with the parents; we have a wonderful group.”