No matter what we do, what we do matters.
Meet Amber Saraceno. Amber is the owner of Expressions Dance Studio in Westmont, IL. Amber had a vision to bring dance to students and families at a young age, and is happy to have a flourishing studio focusing on inclusion and the joy of dance and movement.
G: How did your studio get started?
A: I was 24 years old at the time and I had been teaching dance for about ten years. I just loved every minute of it. I felt strongly and passionately about doing it my own way, and I knew the time was just right. I wasn’t married at the time, and I didn’t have any kids, so I felt that if I didn’t succeed at least I will have tried something new. I knew my whole life I wanted to own a dance studio. So, I finally took the plunge and we opened in 2009. We started with 50 kids and by the end of that year we had 200 kids in our first recital. We now have over 600 students.
G: What were your intentions in starting the studio? What did you want it to be about?
A: I wanted to create a space where everyone was welcome. I wanted to create a space where you didn’t have to be the best dancer in the world, you didn’t have to only want to dance or need previous experience. I truly wanted it to be about dance for every age and every ability. I just wanted it to be a warm and friendly place. That was all truly important to me.
G: I noticed your wall of painted handprints. What is that about?
A: I had the idea of the handprint wall with my first vision for the studio. I wanted kids to leave their mark and to always be a part of the studio. That was something I created and wanted to be a part of it right off the bat before we even created the space. I wanted the place to reflect the handprints and the colors, and be kid-family and family-friendly.
G: I grew up with dance 30 years ago and have two boys. My perception of the dance world is that it has gotten competitive, expensive and intense. I think of the reality tv show “Dance Moms”. Is this an accurate perception?
A: I think that studios are trying to trend away from that. But absolutely the competition world kind of took over. This is true of so many sports for kids these days. It felt like, if you started too late, how could you even try dance? When I was teaching before I started my own studio, the teachers wanted the competitive dancers that were there five or six days a week giving all of their time. And then after three or four years those students were done. They were burnt out and they hated it. Here was something that they loved to do but it was being turned against them because we were trying to push and make everyone the best of the best. And that’s not how it has to be. Especially for dance. I feel very strongly about that. We all love to dance. We all love to hang out with our friends, or at the club. Maybe some are embarrassed. But I believe that everyone has an innate feeling of wanting to have fun and bounce around.
G: It sounds like you really resonated with finding a market for parents who were looking for a difference experience with dance for their kids.
A: Yes. I felt from parents who mentioned the same thing that there was a need for it to be less intense. I just wanted to dial it back and simplify it. Here, there absolutely is a place for that dancer that wants to be here four or five days a week. But that’s not the way it has to be. We love to dance, and we want to find a level for everyone to be able to do it. So if you want to come once a week for 45 minutes you can. And you are loved and welcomed just as much as my elite dancers that are here five days a week. Or maybe you are a Mom that has wanted to learn to tap dance. I had a student that was 78 years old and had wanted to tap dance her whole life and now there is a place for her to do that. She did the recital and everything. It was so cool. And I couldn’t have been more proud for her. Our niche has been really family-driven and really simplifying it all. Keeping the kids, kids. Keeping them involved in their schools, involved in their communities, as well as still dancing. And finding that balance.
G: What a great philosophy! I came to hear about you through a family with a daughter who has special needs. Tell me more about your inclusivity here.
A: I feel like dance is the universal language for inclusivity. It doesn’t matter what your ability is, or disability is, we are all in this together, and that’s how life is reflected as well. I want when you walk through these doors for you to feel welcome, no matter what. No matter who you are. No matter your gender, color, ability, age. It’s really important to me that everyone feels really welcome. Life is not separate and segregated. It’s not how dance class should be either. I feel like it is just so important. It’s just the norm here. It’s the inclusion revolution.
G: You are so passionate about bringing dance to everyone. What is it about dance that you love so much?
A: I think back to when I started dancing, which my Mom says was in the womb! As a little kid, I just enjoyed it and I learned discipline from adults other than my parents. As I got older, it just became such an outlet. It became a safe place for me to express myself through anything I was feeling. Whether I was sad about losing a pet or getting in a fight with my friend. At any age, no matter what I was going through, to be able to physically let it all out was so therapeutic. To me, it is more of a release than talking through things sometimes. And then there’s the fact that it’s just fun. It’s just this really fun way of expressing yourself, enjoying your time, and being physically fit and active. I just love it. And I love music too.
G: You are one of those folks that takes something you are passionate about and then creates a business around it and a platform to give it to other people. There are so many things though, that come with running a business that are not part of your passion, right? How do you deal with those challenges?
A: I would certainly say when I was going through the process of opening, I never thought twice that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I just had a vision. I credit my parents for that. They have always supported my passions and my dreams. When I first got the space, I had to learn how to be my own foreman. I had to figure out how to get the mirrors, and deal with the space. Because I was only 24 years old, I found that it wasn’t that well received, because there were a lot of things I didn’t know. I felt like I wasn’t being respected and so it was a little bit of a battle at first so that people would take me seriously and respect me. Because this was my vision and it wasn’t handed to me I had a deeper passion to do it directly and not let people walk all over me. Now I can set that example for my students as well. That I can have a dream. I can follow through with it. And I can make it happen. It took me a long time to get there, but a few years in I realized the impact I was having on these kids. I take it very seriously.
G: What would you say have been your biggest influences in your life?
A: My family. I have always been taught the importance of bonding and spending time with family. It’s the Old Italian way. It’s all about ideals and family values. The importance of family in my business has just meshed. Family first always.
G: This past June you put on a recital with more than 600 students. What was that moment like for you?
A: It’s hard to put it into words. There was a moment at the end where everyone that is in the show, everyone in the balconies, all the teachers, the parents, everyone just joins in. I got to look and just watch how this vision back in 2009 came together. It’s an overwhelming, joyous feeling. It was a lot to take in. The fact that all of these people came together to be a part of and believe in this thing I have created is just amazing.
For more info about Amber and Expressions Dance Studio, visit expressiondancestudio.com