By Talia Amorosano
Walking into the dance studio at the Huntington YMCA feels like walking into a family gathering full of distant relatives you’ve never met before. But the vibe is one of comfort and inclusion, especially if you’ve got a penchant for impromptu group renditions of Taylor Swift songs.
The friendly atmosphere inside the studio is natural, according to dance instructor Pam Christy-Allen, after students, teachers and parents have worked together for as long as they have.
“I have the same kids every year, so I build relationships with them,” Christy-Allen said in a recent interview. “As their sweet sixteens have come we’ve been invited to them and they include you like their family. It’s very rewarding.”
Last month, the YMCA’s dance program turned two decades old, a milestone that staff there celebrated. But there’s no resting on laurels — program leaders say they plan to stay on their toes.
In a recent visit to the program, students showed appreciation for their instructors. Thirteen-year-old hip hop, acro and ballet student Samantha Sluka began taking YMCA dance classes at age 3 and said that Debbie Smith, her ballet teacher, has kept her interested in dancing through the years. Sluka said YMCA classes have improved her self-confidence in addition to technical dance skills, and that in the future she “would love to dance on Broadway”.
Mary Dejana, a 17-year-old tap and jazz student, said that she likes lyrical and contemporary dance styles best because they help her express her feelings. She said that the YMCA program has taught her teamwork.
“Under the tutelage of my ballet, modern and pointe teacher Jo-Ann Hertzman and with the many opportunities the YMCA provided, I have come to understand not only more about dance but more about myself and the world around me,” wrote former student Mariah Anton in a letter to the staff at the YMCA. With plans to continue dancing at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Anton wrote that her “experiences at the YMCA have directed [her] to invest back into others through teaching, encouraging, and opening the world to the next generation in the same way that the YMCA invested in [her].”
Citing the Huntington YMCA as a “second home … during [her] childhood and early adulthood,” former student Melanie Carminati, now physical therapist and Pilates instructor in East Northport, called the dance program “a safe haven for artistic growth and creativity” in a written statement. She attributed the environment to the guidance of Edie Cafiero, cultural arts director.
Cafiero stressed the importance of allowing dancers to express their creativity from a young age. “We start with 3-year-olds,” he said. “We make it fun while still using terminology and introducing steps. We let them explore themselves at that age.” She said that classes become more serious as students age and advance, but that they have the option to either hone in on certain dance styles or further expand their horizons and learn new styles.
Among some of the less conventional dance classes offered at the YMCA are Irish step, hip hop, acro, lyrical, contemporary, modern and adult ballet.
When asked what factors have contributed most significantly to the success of the Huntington YMCA dance program, Cafiero pointed to the variety of classes offered and the welcome-all attitude of the staff.
She said she walked into a famous ballet school at age 15 “and they told me I was over the hill before seeing me dance. I never wanted a kid to feel like that. We don’t turn anyone away. If they have the passion to dance we want to nurture it.”
Anyone interested in the Huntington YMCA cultural and performing arts program is invited to contact Cafiero at 631-421-4242, ext. 132.