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Making Dreams Come True

“When I grow up I want to be a dancer and a fashion designer for dancers, so I can dance while wearing the outfits.” Pint-size student Joelle Paccione from New Hyde Park is one of the many dancers at the American Theater Dance Workshop in New Hyde Park determined to have a career in dance.  Thirty years ago a small dance training facility “The American Dance Machine,” opened its doors to the public.  


Founded by Broadway dancer, director and choreographer, Lee Theodore, the school began a place to preserve the great Broadway numbers that had come to pass. Theodore led the American Dance Machine until her death in 1986. Theodore was a highly respected artist appearing as the character Anybodys, in the original production of West Side Story.


She also played the part of Tenderloin in the King and I. After Theodore’s passing, American Dance Machine became the American Theater Dance Workshop co-founded by Madeline Dempster and Sofia Semler. While Semler retired a few years ago, the American Theater Dance Workshop still remains under the direction of Madeline Dempster. 


With a background in education and a love for ballet, Dempster has led the workshop into its 30th anniversary. She says that the school’s goal was and has always been to create the “all-around dancer.”


A non-competition school, the program provides workshops that include, ballet, tap, jazz, modern dance and Broadway Theater dance. Many of the schools teachers and choreographers have experience on Broadway and have toured all over the country and abroad. Teacher Michelle Vivona met her dancer husband while working on the tour of West Side Story in Paris. The pair also worked together in the national tour of Guys and Dolls in both the United States and Tokyo.


Vivona’s parents were both dancers and found it only natural to go into the dance profession.


“I had a dream, and no one stopped me from doing it,” she said.


Her professional career as a dancer transformed into dance teacher when she started a family on Long Island. “My goal is to pass on styles of dance to future generations,” said Vivona.


She does so not only in her classes but also in her homework assignments. Vivona assigns the task of looking up various dance routines from movies, or plays in order to familiarize students with a famous dancer and or dance routine, opening up the dance world just a little bit more.


The schools teaching methods align with today’s current educational standards of teaching to the “whole child.” The “whole child” concept is used in classrooms in order to provide a learning experience tailored to all of the social, and emotional needs of students. The workshop does this by providing classes such as “Acting for Dancers.”


Dempster explains that a dancer not only needs to dance but also needs to know how to become a performer. The class teaches students how to use his/her voice and body to convey a message. They also practice skits that involve everyday life situations such as teasing and peer pressure. 


What sets the workshop a part from the many dance schools on Long Island, is not just its dedicated teachers and unique classes, it gives students the opportunity to work with world-renowned guest teachers who instruct the Master Classes. Among them include: Deidre Goodwin who played Shelia in the recent installment of A Chorus Line. Bill Hastings who has worked with the legendary Bob Fosse and Chet Walker. Stephen Reed who has worked with Sarah Jessica Parker in Once Upon a Mattress, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying among countless other Broadway performances.


Many of the teachers at the workshop were once students at the school. Lauren King and Katrina Heidelberge were both trained at the American Theater Dance Workshop. King is currently performing as a soloist in the New York City Ballet and Heidelberge remains one of the schools most sought after choreographers for Long Island theater companies.


Kathleen Tillis, a teacher in the summer program, was once a young ballet student in the school and now finds herself at the other side of the bar.


“I never imagined myself teaching alongside my very first ballet teacher from when I was six years old,”she said. “I have a certain standard to live up to. American Theater

Dance has a reputation for excellent dance training. I am working with some very talented and amazing people and I was so honored when “Maddy” Dempster asked me to teach at the school.”


This reputation includes giving birth to the successful careers of Oscar winner Natalie Portman and Screen Actors Guild award winner Jamie Lynn Sigler. Performer Aly Brier also started her career in the school and has starred in the Broadway musical, Billy Elliot and the national tour of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.


Lynn Glauber, teacher for the schools intensive summer program, states that the American Theater Dance Workshop is a place for students to “have their own haven away from home.”  “It gives them classes that will make a great dancer.”