For Cara DeMeo, learning to dance is about much more than mastering a flawless pirouette or an illusion.
The teacher, dancer, choreographer and business owner, runs Dance Force in Rotterdam, where she aims to empower students through dance.
Since she opened the school in 1998, at the age of 17, she’s gone from having 60 students to more than 300; from having one location in Schenectady to a second in Amsterdam.
“Our slogan is ‘Dance: Where everybody’s a star.’ So I just feel that dance is important to learn and have fun. It’s not just about being the best,” DeMeo said. “It’s a self-esteem-builder . . . It’s learning through movement, expressing themselves, releasing that daily burden and just doing your personal best.”
Growing up in Rotterdam, DeMeo started taking dance classes at age 5 and learned every style of dance she could. She also spent 15 years competing at dance competitions.
She started assisting with classes at a young age. “I think I was just a little more mature than normal,” DeMeo said.
In the months following her graduation from Schalmont High School, she opened Dance Force on Broadway with help from her family members.
“We rented one side of the building and just started small and then right away I was lucky because people recognized my name from being in the community so they signed up right away,” DeMeo said. “I was just hoping that I had enough people to pay the bills. It was just me, a single teacher.”
She taught jazz, ballet, tap and other dance classes six days a week. She also formed a competition team, which the school still has today, traveling to compete all over the tri-state area.
“I think it helps team-build and then they have a good time doing it because they get to perform more. . . it’s not really about the competitive edge, it’s more like just seeing what’s out there and putting themselves out there too,” DeMeo said.
Over the years, DeMeo has been able to bring on a dozen teachers to offer more classes, including gymnastics and hip hop. With the added classes came more students, and a few years ago, DeMeo realized that the small space they’d started in on Broadway in Schenectady wasn’t going to cut it.
“We outgrew it. There’s really only on-street parking,” DeMeo said.
In 2019, she decided to take a chance on 590 Giffords Church Road in Rotterdam, which had once been Pine Grove Elementary School and more recently a daycare center, though the building had been vacant for some time before DeMeo bought it.
“It was in very bad shape. We had burst pipes, we had ceilings hanging. It sat here for three years without anybody touching it,” DeMeo said.
With help from the community, they replaced floors and mirrors and spent about six months renovating the space and they were finally able to open the doors to students in January 2020. Before that, they also had to get permission from the Town of Rotterdam to change the zoning to a commercial property. While Dance Force occupies 85% of the building, three other women-owned businesses have also set up shop, including Zen Den, Force Fitness and Skinfit.
Unfortunately, not too long after opening the new location, DeMeo had to close the doors because of the pandemic.
“We had to close for six months . . . That was rough, and we did Zoom classes just to stay afloat for a while,” DeMeo said.
They lost about a third of their students during that time, though since they reopened to in-person classes in September many have returned. The school-turned-dance studio is spacious, with several studio spaces on the second floor to accommodate different-sized classes and events.
There’s a large waiting area on the first floor, featuring a row of TVs so parents can monitor their kids as they take jazz, tap, ballet, gymnastics, etc.
Former students bring daughters
Jordan Massie is one such parent, though her experience with Dance Force dates back to the earliest days of the school. Massie was one of DeMeo’s first students and started tap dancing classes when she was 6 years old. She tapped for several years and remembers loving “getting to meet different people my own age that I didn’t go to school with but also learning technique, learning a synchronized dance and being able to do it in front of people because that’s stuff you do as a child, in your room you listen to music, you make up dances. So I always thought it was cool to be able to do it with other people,” Massie said.
For the last few years, Massie has brought her daughter Amaiah to classes at Dance Force.
“I always said if I ever had a daughter, I want her to dance,” Massie said.
The 11-year-old has done everything from jazz to acro to gymnastics and ballet, and also competes on the dance studio’s competition team.
Taking Amaiah to lessons at the Broadway location ushered in a flood of memories and a sense of nostalgia, however, Massie said. “Now that there’s a bigger studio, there’s so much more space. It’s so much more refreshing that everyone can come in at one time.”
Brittany Lanning, also one of DeMeo’s earliest students, has continued the dance tradition and started bringing her 4-year-old daughter to Dance Force.
“She loves it so much. She used to dance around our living room before and that’s how I knew she was going to enjoy dance, which is why I signed her up so early,” Lanning said.
She started dancing at Dance Force when she was around 10 years old and quickly became a dedicated student, taking dance classes four nights a week and competing on the competition team.
However, looking back, what sticks out the most isn’t any particular win or dance, it’s DeMeo’s encouragement and love of dance.
“The one thing I remember throughout all of it is how nurturing Cara was and how she just tried to take her love for dance and help you learn to love dance as well. She wasn’t just teaching; she was helping you learn to love to dance,” Lanning said.
DeMeo is passing that love on to her daughter Mia Jones, who dances at school as well.
With Dance Force, DeMeo wants to create an environment that is far from what people have seen on the intense reality television series “Dance Moms.”
“The persona of dance moms on the show is not really what it has to be. It can be, and there are places like that, but we’re not like that,” DeMeo said.
“It’s a family-run business. It’s very close-knit. My teachers are people that I danced with or people that I went to school with . . . It’s all a trusting cycle. It doesn’t have to be a certain way and it can just be for the fun and pure enjoyment.”
For more information on Dance Force, including classes and registration, visit Dance Force on Facebook or danceforceinc.com.
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