Students and teachers at one of Schenectady’s longest-running dance schools will soon be stepping into Scotia.
The Orlando School of Dance has been a fixture on State Street for decades, but later this month, it will be moving into a new space with a larger studio and new fixtures on Mohawk Avenue Scotia.
It’s a new chapter for the family-run business, which has been keeping students heel-stepping, leaping and chasséing for 65 years. Founded in 1954 by Orlando and Eleanor Pigliavento, their daughters, Debra Ann and Michele, carry on the business today.
“It’ll be 60 years in the State Street address in Schenectady, which has been our home for Orlando School of Dance for 60 years in addition to our home that our parents raised all five of us in,” Debra said.
“There’s a lot of history,” Michele said, “So when [students] express any sadness about moving, we’re like ‘we understand, it’s bittersweet but we have a new chapter we’re starting and we’re focusing on all the positives. If you’re sad, just imagine how we feel because we grew up here.'”
The waiting room was once their living room. One of the studios doubled as their family room. They’d put their Christmas tree there and pull out a ping pong table to use as a large dining table for extended family members during the holidays.
“One year, we got bikes and we just rode our bikes around and around in a circle around the studio,” Michele said.
“We had the best of both worlds,” Debra said.
Dancing has long been a part of the family’s fabric. Capital Region natives, Orlando and Eleanor met when they were 16 at a dance class. Their love for the art form was inspired partly by cinema.
“I think it was the movies. You could sit mesmerized and watch Fred Astaire,” Orlando said.
When they were both in their early 20s, they went to New York City to perform in clubs and pursue their dreams of dancing. However, about a year later, the Korean War broke out and Orlando was drafted, which put a pause on their careers. Eleanor moved back to the Capital Region and Orlando joined her shortly after the war was over in 1953.
Under the GI bill, Orlando enrolled in college to study education, eventually landing a job as an elementary school teacher in Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake. The couple had no plans to stop dancing, so they established the Orlando School of Dance on State Street in 1954.
Their first location was on State Street, not too far from Proctors. A few years later, they moved and rented out a space that was just above a corset shop in Schenectady. Finally, they came to 1765 State Street, which doubled as their family home.
Beyond running the school, Orlando and Eleanor were also involved in local theater, participating in Schenectady Light Opera Company productions on a semi-regular basis.
Even though they were surrounded by dance, neither Michele nor Debra felt pressured to dance or to take over the family business.
“Our brothers have never danced,” Debra said.
“Not a step,” added Orlando.
But Michele and Debra caught the dancing bug at a young age and went onto have successful careers on Broadway and in teaching. After getting her degree from SUNY Geneseo, Michele went on to perform in seven Broadway shows, including “Woman of the Year,” “Mamie,” “Anything Goes,” “Gypsy,” “A Chorus Line,” and others.
Debra’s journey was more ballet-focused. After getting her degree from Indiana University School of Music, she toured with the Lexington Ballet Company. Then she performed in both the Broadway and touring productions of “Oh Dolly,” followed by the touring production of “A Chorus Line,” and “42nd Street,” among others.
“It makes me a better teacher, [having] real stories to share,” Debra said.
That Broadway experience is why choreographer Connor Gallagher started training at Orlando when he was a teenager. Growing up in Clifton Park, he participated in competitive gymnastics, but in eighth grade, he realized that he wanted to pursue a career in theater and choreography. He started taking classes there and continued all throughout high school, before graduating in 2002 and going on to have a successful career choreographing national touring productions of Broadway shows as well as “Beetlejuice,” which recently opened on Broadway.
He credits Debra and Michele for his success, both in terms of training and in professional guidance.
“Debbie and Michele were really the only contacts I had with individuals that had worked on Broadway. They were both dance captains for big Broadway shows for many years and I think a lot of dance schools now focus on competition dance and that was really not what Debbie was teaching. She was teaching hard work and a specific style that was more rooted in Broadway technique,” Gallagher said.
“Before I’d go [to audition] I’d talk to Debbie. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding this career when you’re a young kid,” Gallagher said, “To have somebody that really understood the business, had contacts and was able to clear a path for me was really valuable.”
In the last few years, he’s had several former Orlando students audition for shows he’s involved in and he’s been impressed with how easy it is to identify the techniques that the Pigliaventos have passed on.
“I’ve actually hired [students] from the Orlando School of Dance,” Gallagher said.
Between choreographing “Beetlejuice,” and a number of other shows, Gallagher is also a dance teacher.
“I really admire that Debbie and Michele have returned to teaching. I think that’s so valuable and it’s really inspired me to teach and I feel like I’m sort of passing on all the wisdom that I learned through them,” Gallagher said.
They’ve also inspired other former students to go on to teach.
“Debbie really made a difference and gave me self-confidence,” said Sheila Los.
The Schenectady graduate started taking dance at Orlando from a young age. She is now a dance teacher at Schenectady High School and she says Debra gave her the guidance and training she needed.
“She made it tangible and she helped me take my skills and feel confident [in them],” Los said.
When her schedule allows it, Los still dances at Orlando, taking their adult classes whenever she can.
Los is not alone.
“We have students who have been with us since they were 4 or 5 years old,” Orlando said, “who are [in their 60s] now.”
“They still tap with me,” Debra said. Some families have been attending dance classes there for three generations. “There’s a lot of continuity,” Michele said.
It’s part of the reason why they’re confident that most of their current students will follow them to their new location. Gabriella Pizzolo is one such student.
Pizzolo, a sophomore at Niskayuna High School, has performed in “Matilda the Musical,” “Fun Home,” and several other off-Broadway productions. She’s danced at Orlando for the last decade since she was in first grade.
“I took a ballet class with them just to try it out and I absolutely loved it. I signed up for more of their classes and I’ve been going ever since,” Pizzolo said.
She’s currently taking a full load of classes, including ballet, tap, jazz and pointe. Through the years, as she’s auditioned for and landed roles both on Broadway, in local productions and productions across the country, Pizzolo said she’s thought about the advice that the Pigliaventos have passed down to her.
“They are very driven on technique and work ethic, but they also provide a lot of life lessons and good advice for life, not just as a dancer,” Pizzolo said.
“The success of what we do is not just determined by those that leave us and then pursue the profession. We feel that the success of what we do is how we reach people, how it will affect their general lives. Our philosophy is that you can take life lessons from dance class that you can apply [across the board],” Debra said.
While Pizzolo said the school’s move to Scotia is bittersweet, it also means new opportunities, which is exactly why the Pigliaventos decided to move to 105 Mohawk Ave in the first place. Two years ago, Stewart’s approached them and asked if they might consider selling their property, which is next store to one of the convenience stores. At first, they said no, but as time went on, they realized it might not be such a bad idea.
“We knew we wanted some upgrades. We knew we wanted more parking, larger studios. In the old space, our studios were on top of one another, which is fine, we got used to that, but now they’re adjacent,” Debra said.
They started renovating the new space a few months ago, putting in new flooring, knocking out a wall and painting. One of the studios is larger than their Schenectady location and the amenities are newer.
The Pigliaventos plan to make the official move in July, a few weeks after their dance recital on Saturday at Proctors. It’s bittersweet, but the Pigliaventos are focusing more on the sweet than the bitter.