Performing Arts Dance Academy directors, from left: Kerri Bernas Paufler, Sue Bernas Mall and Kristen Bernas Weigel.
HAMBURG — Performing Arts Dance Academy in Hamburg first opened its doors to 150 students 25 years ago, and today, nearly 500 take a wide range of classes at the professional dance school.
Sue Bernas Mall, founder and owner, started the school above the Fitness Factory at Lake and Main streets, where she stayed for four years. As her business began to outgrow the space, the former “Super Duper” at 206 Lake St. became available, and she was the first to inquire about the space.
“Because I was first, the owner said I could have whatever I wanted,” she said. “Which is how we ended up with what we have today.”
The studio opened in 2004 at the former “Super Duper” location at 206 Lake St., and underwent a major renovation in 1995 to include a second classroom and a small dance boutique. In 2004, the studio added a second floor, complete with a large dressing room where the girls “love to hang out. It’s their special space,” Bernas Mall said, as well as bathrooms, a music room for musical theater audition preparation and a observation mezzanine for parents.
In 2008, that boutique became a parents’ lounge, with closed-circuit television so they can watch their little ones dance from a safe and non-distracting distance, as well as free wireless internet and a coffee corner. To replace the boutique, a 1,600-square foot “Studio B Dancewear” was constructed in the next spot over. Bernas Mall designed that spot to look like a movie theater, complete with dressing counters for make-up and a big-screen TV in the shoe section.
Her husband, a former electrician and handy-man did most of the work himself, with help from a professional architecture firm.
“I’m so, so lucky to have him in my corner,” she said. “He’s the kind of person everyone who starts a business should have.” But it was not always that way.
She started the company in 1990, when her daughters were young and she was freshly divorced, as a means to support herself and her children as a single mother. A ballet dancer herself, she decided to use her talents to keep her little family afloat, while her girls went through school.
Today, her two daughters, Kerri Bernas Paufler and Kristen Bernas Weigel, teach full-time and act as artistic directors for the studio.
“It really is my miracle,” she said. “To have my two daughters working with me, it’s amazing. I raised my kids through my 20s and didn’t start dancing again until I was 29. They gave me the strength to do it. I’m so proud of this place, of what we’ve created.”
The studio’s main objective, Sue Bernas Mall said, is to train “strong technical dancers, by focusing on ballet, which is fundamental to all other dance disciplines.” For those who are serious about pursuing ballet professionally, pointe work is offered. Those classes are open to students who study ballet 3-4 hours per week, since a high level of technique and core strength is required, for that advanced style. There are also pre-school classes, tap, jazz, contemporary, hip-hop and musical theater. Many of the students, the owner noted, go on to dance in college or professionally.
“What I value most is providing a family environment for the students,” she said. She works hard to make sure costumes are the kind of outfits “I would want my daughters to wear,” she said. “We don’t show our stomachs. A lot of the costume companies, in recent years, are showing very sexy stuff, that’s what they float on. But when that stuff comes in, we just put it aside. We don’t even look at it.”
Although she said it can sometimes be difficult, especially with hip-hop songs, she uses clean or edited versions of songs, as well. “We don’t dance to dirty stuff,” she said. “That’s not what we’re about. That’s not what I’m about.”
The staff at the school is also of a high calibre, and able to bring those students up to that level with them, as noted on the studio’s website www.performingartz.com. Bernas Mall danced with the Buffalo City Ballet, as a soloist with the Royale Dance Theater.
Bernas Weigel is a graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo and is a member of the Zodiaque Dance Company. She is also trained to work with Parkinson’s Disease patients in dance therapy, as well.
Bernas Paufler attended Mercyhurst College and the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City and toured with Troika Entertainment in the Broadway musical CATS.
“We do not offer voice lessons, specifically,” Bernas Mall noted. “But if a student needs extra help getting ready for an audition, she works with them.”
One of the most rewarding parts of having the studio for so long, she added, is watching her students grow up and continue dancing in college and beyond and then come back and enroll their children.
To reflect that family atmosphere, Bernas Mall said Performing Arts Dance Academy will hold a reunion in 2015 for all of its graduates, with a slideshow and chance for former and current students alike to see what each other are doing, have done and can do, in the wide world of dance.
Performing Arts Dance Academy is holding open houses from 5-8 p.m. on Aug. 13, 20 and 27 but parents can register their children anytime. The class schedule can be found at www.performingartz.com