It was a picture-perfect fall morning last week when I drove slowly through the parking lot at Mill River Plaza. Back and forth, reading the names of all the businesses, searching in vain for Nashoba Valley Dance Academy. It had to be there somewhere; I had an appointment to meet owner and artistic director, Caitlin Brandt. She’d recently relocated her dance studio to here from Willowdale Road, in Groton. Finally, I drove around back and see if there was anything there.
And then I saw them, these tiny little creatures, toes barely touching the ground; they really seemed to be floating, their hands holding onto regular mom-looking women’s hands, these little things in floating dance outfits – aha! And there it was, in the back, a door opened and a couple more of these teeny fairy creatures float out – of Nashoba Valley Dance Academy.
Inside the small, sparkling new waiting room, Caitlin Brandt, not substantially bigger than the three year olds leaving their morning class, introduces herself. She has a much firmer handshake than any of the little ones would and an unwavering gaze that gives one an indication of the sharpness of her focus.
Only a dancer knows what it takes to become a dance instructor, and Brandt, who grew up in Groton, began taking dance when she was young. “There were seven kids in my family and everyone played soccer, including myself. But, then I was doing cartwheels and pirouttes on the soccer field.” She explains that her mother signed her up for dance, “I started at a little studio in Shirley and then I went up to Nashua, to Granite State Ballet.”
Though one need to be a dancer in order to know how to teach dance, one must also have other skills to make a good teacher, including being well organized, and the ability to appreciate different learning styles, and developmental stages. Brandt acknowledges that “as a dancer you don’t really make much money, so then you need to do something else so that you can actually pay your bills, so a lot of dancers may do waitressing, but I went into teaching.”
“It started with Groton Rec., when there was a Groton Rec. We started classes at Squanacook Hall, and then we were there for about four or five years.” When the Groton Recreation program was eliminated by the town, Brandt had a dilemma, “I had all these students that wanted to take dance, so I just went for it. I was renting in a few different places over the years, and then we stuck with Willowdale for about 6 years.”
Until recently Brandt’s schedule consisted of teaching at the studio on Willowdale during the day, going home to spend time with her two children, ages 1 and 7, and then, “we’d put the kids to bed at seven and head over here to work,” she explained.
Brandt and her husband built the studio at the Mill Plaza themselves, with help from friends, colleagues and students. Her husband, an electrician who works in Bedford, called in friends who are licensed in construction, to help. Brandt states, “When we bought this, it still had a partial dirt floor, and there were just the exterior walls. That was it. There was no plumbing, no electricity. We bought a space. My husband and I poured the concrete. I had students here, painting. We had a big painting and pizza party one night.”
In addition to the waiting room, there are two dance studios. Both are infused with natural light, warm and inviting, with the requisite wall mirrors, bars and mats.
A positive relationship between the teacher and student is critical for instruction and for confidence building. Brandt culled from her teachers what worked for her, saying, “From my very first ballet teacher, I got her creativeness.” Brandt choreographs all of the performances, going to bookstores in search of material to use, explaining, “When we do our recitals at the end of the year, we do a big story, not necessarily a ballet story, like Cinderella. Last year we did Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; we’ve done the Lion King.”
She enjoys working with all age groups, “They all have their positives and negatives. And it’s always different. Something that will work for one class, especially the little ones, may not work with another class and you have to be ready to switch it up on a moment’s notice.”
In addition to ballet, they offer modern, jazz, hip hop, as well as Pilates for adults, and a separate conditioning class.
Brandt describes their Lyrical dance class as, “kind of a mix between ballet and modern/ contemporary. It’s a lot of feeling, more like acting out the words of a song, lots of emotion.” Students who are interested in musical theater find taking these classes to be of benefit.
There are classes for those who like to dance, but may not have much experience, or the desire to pursue it professionally, ”most of the kids come only once or twice a week” Brandt explains, although they also have the very dedicated. Some of her high school students will come around 4 every day after school and then stay until 8 or 8:30, taking a break to eat, do homework, then take another class.
It will be a few more years until Brandt has many students experienced enough to dance professionally. “I have one now that’s a junior; she started when it was Groton Rec. She’s now dancing with me in the company that I dance with. We carpool together,” she states with obvious pride.
That this is a very tight knit community is reflected in Brandt’s hiring practices, “All of my staff are friends that I have danced with. Even when I look for subs, it’s friends of friends. I have quite a few teachers this year. Especially with the older (students), they need to experience the different styles, even with ballet itself, so each time they come they have a different teacher. So, that if they go on to take classes somewhere else they won’t be totally lost. On Monday, they have Joanna, on Tuesday they have me, Thursday they have Amanda” and so on, she explains.
I had to ask: How many hours a night does she sleep? “Right now, not many, “ she admits, laughing. Usually I ask about future plans, but for Brandt it is clear, as she says that “I’m just excited to be here.”
Classes are ongoing and arrangements can be made to visit a class. For class descriptions and times, check out the website: nashobavalleydanceacademy.com. And, if anyone is interested in a particular type of class and doesn’t see it listed, be sure to contact Brandt and ask about it.
Nashoba Valley Dance Academy
493 Main Street, Unit G
Mill Run Plaza
Groton, Massachusetts 01450