“Mama, papa, mama, papa, mama, papa, stomp,” Island Dance owner and dance teacher Charlene Brown calls out enthusiastically to her adult tap class.
The six students respond by executing the mama, papa dance step — tapping an extended foot against the floor and brushing it back while remaining on the same foot. They end the combination with a loud stomp. Brown repeats the sequence several more times, stopping to give corrections to each dancer.
Over the course of the next hour, Brown demonstrates a variety of tap moves. Although she is focused on helping each student improve, her jokes and contagious laugh keep things relaxed and fun. The class ends with Brown tapping passionately with the class to the lively rhythms of David Grusin.
Brown has been teaching the mama, papa step and providing a place for dance education on South Whidbey for decades. Thousands of dancers have been taught, tutored and nurtured under Char’s wings since she opened the doors to her studio in 1986.
“The thing that drives me is to watch the inspirations of the kids,” Brown said. “What they get out of it, how it makes them feel, and how it changes their lives.”
Brown’s own life of dance started young; she took her first classes in Bremerton at age 2. She continued her training at Miss Margaret Tapping’s School of Dance, and when she was 16 she joined Tacoma Performing Dance Company where she performed in shows and dance festivals. She also took classes from Seattle greats, such as Ray Buzzy and Anthony Peters.
To fund her dance education in Tacoma and Seattle, she taught a variety of classes to students of all ages in the basement of a church in Bremerton. Her class size grew rapidly and soon she was instructing more than she was attending class for herself. The result was a love for teaching.
She moved to Whidbey Island in 1985 and started teaching dance classes at the Island County Fairgrounds. Together with Linda Monte and Cindy Smith, she opened Island Dance and Aerobics. The dance school and gym offered jazz, tap, ballet and exercise classes.
Monte left the next year, so Smith and Brown hired dancer Jan Burrow to teach the ballet program. Together Brown and Burrow produced their first Nutcracker, which was initially performed at the Langley Middle School theater. The show will be in its 24th season this year.
Sports was a large part of the South Whidbey community, but dance arts were lacking at the time Brown opened her studio in the South Whidbey area. Although some island artists were experimenting with alternative dance, there wasn’t a studio working with specific disciplines such as tap, jazz, pointe or ballet.
Former South Whidbey High School drama director Jean Shaw met Brown when she first moved to the island. From 1986 to the demise of the drama program in 2009, Brown contributed choreography and dancers to high school productions such as “Grease,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” and “Guys and Dolls.”
“Her presence here in starting this theatre has impacted the whole South End of the island in such a wonderful way that we didn’t have before,” Shaw said.
Brown has seen her studio go through significant changes. The studio has been located at the fairgrounds, Freeland Hall, Boot’s Ranch, and Ken’s Korner Mall for 15 years. Now it resides in the two-story building at Langley Middle School. Island Dance started with just one teacher, which was Brown herself. She estimates she averaged 85 students a year until she moved to Ken’s Korner Mall. Currently the studio has close to 200 dancers and 12 teachers.
One of the biggest challenges she faced when she first opened her studio?
“They just didn’t think that it could stick,” she said. “And maybe that was something that the island has had problems with before.”
Although Brown has seen dancers come and go, a few things have remained constant throughout her Island Dance career. Brown’s tap assistant, Teddy Moulton, has danced with her since 1997. She didn’t have much tap experience back then, but now helps Brown teach her tap classes.
Lori Moore has been the receptionist at Island Dance for the last 25 years. Moore praises Brown for her ability to take ideas from others and her aptitude for making things work for everyone.
“Just her being there constantly, working with the kids, and doing whatever she can to help them to live their dream,” she said.
Many dancer alumnae have returned as staff members. Former Whidbey Island Dance Theatre company member and student Katelyn (Candelario) Lodell teaches dance at the studio and choreographed parts of this past Nutcracker. She moved to the island in 6th grade and began dancing at Island Dance. Her first memory of Brown, known to the dancers as Char, was when she drove Lodell and a group of dancers to get their first pairs of pointe shoes during a snowstorm.
“Just Char in the snow, all stressed out getting pointe shoes, it is just a really fun memory,” Lodell recalled.
She attributes her four-year dance scholarship at Arizona State University to Brown and her training at Island Dance. Even though Lodell has grown up and is on the other side of the training, being at Island Dance still brings back memories.
“When you go back to the studio or when you just hear Char’s voice you just feel like you are home,” she said.
Assistant Whidbey Island Dance Theatre Artistic Director Brittany Falso was Brown’s dance student when she was three years old. She cites Char as a constant in her life.
“Whenever I would doubt myself or stray away from what I was focusing on, she would bring me back to earth and remind me of the reasons I love dance,” she said.
Falso believes Brown is the reason many alumnae return to the studio.
“She is really open to letting us explore and pursue our dreams under her roof.”
Brown believes that dance instills confidence in her students, whether it be in public speaking, the work force, sports or stepping into the professional world of dance. On average, she estimates two students a year have gone into dance programs at a university or have tried dancing professionally.
She will continue to teach as long as students want to learn. Yet she believes there is a time in the future when she must step aside to let the younger generation of dancers have this opportunity.
“I’m not sad,” she said. “I am actually looking forward to when I get to step aside and see what they can do.”