By Matt Alderton
As you pass the Danza Viva Dance Studio in Oak Park you can feel the ground beneath you quaking. You hear clapping hands, laughing children and a heavy bass, beating like a pulse. Rebecca Huntman opened the studio at 46 Lake St. 10 months ago. Her vision was to have a place where everyone, old or young, boy or girl, could learn dance. "I set out to build a studio where everyone would feel welcome, a studio that would encourage everyone to find their own dance," she says. "Not all of the studios I’ve seen have given children an environment where they can safely explore who they are." Too often, she says, studios tell kids they are "not the right size or not the right shape to fit in." But at Danza Viva, she says, everyone can be a dancer—no experience, no skill, no toe shoes necessary. The school offers traditional classes in ballet and jazz but specializes in Latin and world dance. The name means "dance of life" and the school prides itself on embracing dances that Huntman says "bring out your spirit," including hip-hop and mambo classes for kids ages 5 to 12—classes that turn a Sunday afternoon into a high-energy dance marathon. "This is the best thing my daughter’s ever experienced," says Lynne Hannan of Oak Park, whose daughter, Chloe, dances in the studio’s company, the Children’s World Dance Theater. "It’s the most wonderful thing. I couldn’t be happier." "Our parents say their kids can’t wait to come back. They talk all week long about when the next class is," Huntman says. The re-enrollment rate has been 100 percent since Danza Viva opened, she says. Chloe and her friend, Nick, another member of the company, are both 10. During a recent Sunday Hip-Hop Kids class, they swarm around instructor Sidney McNeal, requesting amendments to the day’s dance routine and to the stereo’s play list. McNeal turns up the music volume and shouts, "Everybody say, ‘Work it!" "Work it!" the kids shout back. The class learns step-by-step how to spin, hop, turn and shake their way to the music. No one is left behind. "It doesn’t matter if you have the steps," Huntman tells the class, "but I want to see the energy. I want to see that you’re having fun." The kids are animated and full of attitude. "It’s a great workout and it’s really fun," Nick says, all smiles. Chloe says, "It’s different than a lot of the other dance studios." "A dance environment is disciplined," Huntman says. "Kids learn a real respect for being part of a group and for challenging themselves. They get to learn who they are, and show other people who they are, through dance." In this way, the classes build self-confidence and life values. By working on a dance routine that at first seems difficult, she says, kids are able to experience a real sense of accomplishment. And kids aren’t the only ones who benefit; some parents enroll after seeing how much their children enjoy it. Danza Viva offers teen and adult classes in belly and yoga dance, flamenco, swing and Afro-Caribbean. Children’s classes include ballet, creative movement, hip-hop and mambo. Spring session starts March 9 and includes three new kid’s classes: Carnivale Kids, Cuban and Brazilian percussion and dancing; MTV Kids, where kids dance like pop stars and make their own music video; and an African dance and live drumming class. Dancers can enroll for just one class or for an entire six- to eight-week session. Everyone is elgible to audition for the studio’s dance company, which performs two full-scale professional dance productions each year. "Whether they’re a child or an adult, anyone of any age can feel safe here," Huntman says. "I really believe that these dances transform your life. I can’t think of any greater gift to give a child or an adult." For information, call (708) 386-8681 or visit www.danza-viva.com.