- June 26, 2019
The power was out, and patience was thin.
Alana Turner, founder of the Lakewood Ranch-based Art & Soul Dance Company, can still recall opening her doors right after Hurricane Irma struck Florida in 2017.
Turner, who had a background in social work and child protection prior to operating dance studios, knew exactly how she wanted to handle the adversity.
She wanted to help children, just as she’d done at every stage of her career. And she wanted to do it free of charge.
“If you think people are interested in dance classes when they don’t have electricity and water, no, they aren’t,” says Turner, now happily running a thriving enterprise. “But here’s what we did. Parents were able to go back to work after about a week, but the kids were still not back to school. So, we offered free camps for any of the kids whose parents had to work. If they gave a donation to the Irma relief fund, their kids came here for camp for free.”
It was that ability to integrate community action and philanthropy into her business model that pervades Art & Soul to this day. Five years later, Turner reaches 250 students from age 2 to adults in classes that include jazz, ballet, tap and hip hop.
Turner’s daughter Kiki, a dancer and multisport athlete, helps run the studio when she’s not working on her studies at State College of Florida, Mantatee-Sarasota.
Art & Soul has intense, skill-focused dance classes and brings students to regional competitions, but it also teaches kids at a more fundamental level.
“The whole purpose is to be inclusive as opposed to specific to a population,” says Turner about her students. “They all work together. They all hang out together, and it really breaks a lot of barriers.”
Turner opened her first dance studio in Toronto in 1990, but she missed her background in social work. So, she began offering scholarships to foster kids and could see the immediate, tangible gains they made in their lives.
“I saw with my own eyes how they began to feel confident,” she says. “They could be artistic and creative and all the things that they wouldn’t typically have a chance to do. When I moved here in 2014, I initially didn’t want to open another dance school. I thought, ‘I’ve done that already. I’ve been really successful. I’m going to do something else.’ But truthfully, I didn’t see the opportunity to serve the populations I wanted to serve in other dance studios. So, I just said, ‘I’m going to do it myself.’”
Five years later, she’s doing exactly that.
One of the projects closest to Turner’s heart are her weekly classes with ReImagine Dance, which brings a group of special needs children to work toward building skills and friendships.
The kids are prepping for a performance at Manatee Performing Arts Center in late May, but week to week, they’re surprising themselves and their parents with what they’ve learned.
Shannon Johnson and Melanie Simmons, parents with the ReImagine Dance program, said they can see the progress the kids are making not only in class but also at home.
“It’s amazing to see how much they have opened since we started,” says Johnson. “Truman wouldn’t do anything at first, and now he sings during the entire class and dances. When he goes home, he’ll sing and dance all night long.”
“We want them to learn dance,” adds Simmons. “We want them to be successful and show that they can be wonderful, just like everybody else. And they know that, but they don’t usually get the ability to express it. Sometimes, there’s just not that many opportunities for them. But most importantly for us, they get to build friendships here. At least for my daughter, she doesn’t have a lot of opportunities outside of school to meet people who are like her.”
That gets right to the heart of it for Turner, who believes dance can be transformative and life-changing for people no matter their age or ability.
Turner wants to empower more kids to feel confident about themselves and their futures, and she wants to spread the message that doing good in the community feels good, too.
“Our platform is dance,” she says. “But we’d be more than happy to work with anybody in the community who wants to offer these kinds of opportunities to kids with different challenges and abilities.”