Diane Dragone (still) has the Dancer in Her Soul
by Sally Deering
In the 1920s, when Shirley Temple tapped into America’s hearts with her bouncing ringlets, ruffled crinolines and shiny black tap shoes, mothers from Canarsie to Kenosha trundled their daughters off to their local dance school dreaming of their baby girl’s name in lights. Nowadays, child stars go by first names like Britney, but the local dance school still thrives as the only training ground for kids who dream of a dancing career.
One local dance pioneer who has kept the stage lights burning in her neighborhood dance studio for the past 34 years is Diane Dragone, Artistic Director of The Kennedy Dancers, a professional dance company and dance school that stands in the wings of New York City. Through her school and with her years as a teacher and choreographer, Dragone has trained and enriched the lives of thousands of inner-city kids – some who became professional dancers — and she has brought modern and classical dance performances to the multi-cultural and economically-diverse Hudson community.
On Friday and Saturday, May 7 and 8, dance-lovers will have the opportunity to see Dragone’s dynamic troupe perform when The Kennedy Dancers take the stage at St. Joseph’s School for the Blind in their beautiful theater space on Summit Avenue in Jersey City. This Spring Dance Concert will feature contemporary choreographer Sean Curran’s “Force of Circumstance,” and three Dragone choreographies: “Caven Point” – about a Jersey City encampment during WWII; “La Dolce Vita,” Dragone’s valentine to her Italian heritage with songs by Rosemary Clooney, Dean Martin and Louis Prima; and the World Premiere of “My Obsession with Cats,” – a choreography that’s close to Dragone’s animal-activist heart.
A successful business-and-Renaissance woman, Dragone runs a dance company and school, choreographs , raises a family, performs community outreach and rescues stray animals – all in a day’s work. And at the heart of it all, she is a dancer teaching others the “language of dance” so that they may feel the thrill she has known twirling across the stage, leaping into the air and springing into a dance partner’s arms.
“Dancing is ageless, I believe that,” Dragone says, sitting at her desk while a teen ballet class is in progress in her studio on Central Avenue. “Everybody can dance; you have to break through those inhibitions. Dancing can be a healing process. It’s excellent for your body, mind and soul.”
FELINES AND THE REPERTOIRE
The Kennedy Dancers performances on May 7 and 8 in the theater at St. Joseph’s School for the Blind will feature the professional company and the Inner-City Youth teen company composed of students who have trained with Dragone since they were toddlers in tights and taps. One of the highlights of the program will be Dragone’s “My Obsession with Cats,” a choreography about the felines Dragone adores and rescues with the help of her husband, teacher and professional videographer Tom Horan and their children Gigi, 17, and Danny, 15.
“Cats are beautiful, their movement is beautiful and their personalities are all distinct. They’re a great source of inspiration for dance because they move in many ways,” Dragone says while her two studio cats Sylvester and Silvio are busy cat-napping near her desk. “There have always been cats in my life from the time I was little.”
Dragone has choreographed hundreds of dances and currently, The Kennedy Dancers perform about 30 dances from the repertoire in venues throughout the tri-state area. Committed to bringing dance to all members of the community, Dragone offers ballroom and exercise classes to seniors; ballet and tap to toddlers and adolescents; ballet, tap and hip-hop to teens and ‘tweens and Zumba and Yoga to adults. A certified dance teacher by the New Jersey Department of Education, Dragone has taught special education dance at Hudson County Schools of Technology and brought dance to children and adults with physical and learning disabilities at St. Joseph’s School for the Blind in Jersey City.
“They loved the dance classes,” Dragone says of the children with disabilities. “It was very emotional for our teachers because some of these children are encapsulated in their own world or they never really experienced creative movement before and you could see they loved dancing. If you can’t see very well and you’re afraid to move, this was a really freeing experience.”
That program lost its funding. So did the program teaching dance to incarcerated teenagers at the Hudson County Juvenile Detention Center in Secaucus, which was funded by the New Jersey Council on the Arts. Dragone hopes someone will come up with the funding to reinstate both programs. The students looked forward to it, she says.
“I think dance gave them something beautiful and challenging,” Dragone says.
A LOAN TO BUILD A DREAM ON
Creating beautiful and challenging dances was the most important thing to Dragone back when she first opened her studio in 1976 with money she saved and a loan from her parents Anne and Daniel. It was a tiny, bohemian studio on Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City that her dad helped her paint and where she used her training as a dancer and her certification as a teacher to teach ballet, tap and jazz to kids and teens.
“The dance students are the mainstay of a company,” Dragone says. “You’re developing young minds and bodies and your goal is to give them an aesthetic, enjoyment and a sense of physical accomplishment. The beauty of dance inspires children and adults to keep coming back to the dance studio.”
And if the students can’t come to the studio, then Dragone goes into their living rooms with the cable-TV show she hosts and produces with her husband, Tom. “Dance Vista,” features interviews and choreographies by contemporary dance artists and, after 13-years on the air, the show is now seen on cable stations throughout New Jersey and New York.
THE STUDENTS’ SUCCESS
Many of The Kennedy Dancers’ students go on to professional dance careers and Dragone is thrilled by their successes. One former student is performing in the musical “Buddy” in London’s West End; another is currently in a show at the La Mama theater in New York. One dancer joined the Miami Ballet, one is with the Martha Graham dance company and another is featured in the Julie Taymor film, “Across the Universe” – and those are just recent accomplishments.
“I’m thrilled for them and proud of them,” Dragone says. “I love it.”
Determined to bring The Kennedy Dancers to new heights, Dragone’s choreography “God Bless America,” was recently named a finalist in the NJN Hispanic Dance competition to be held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in May. And last year, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts gave Dragone and The Kennedy Dancers an Award for Excellence for their outstanding work and Dragone’s compelling choreography.
THE DANCER IN HER SOUL
So, how does a choreographer make dances? What comes first, the movement or the music?
“I see people walking down the street, kids dance around, the windshield wipers move;” Dragone says, “I sit in the car listening to the radio and someone walks by to the rhythm of the music – all things can inspire your dances.”
And that goes for cats, too.
The Kennedy Dancers present their Spring Dance Performances on Fri, May 7 and Sat, May 8 at St. Joseph‘s School for the Blind 761 Summit Ave, Jersey City.
Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door; $18 for students and seniors with ID.
Call 201-659-2190 for tickets and class information or visit www.kennedydancers.org.