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Wichita Dance Studio Celebrates Ruby Anniversary With Dance Show

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One of the oldest community dance studios in Wichita, Amira Dance Productions, will present a special 40th anniversary show this weekend at the historic Orpheum Theatre downtown.

To celebrate this milestone, nearly 90 performers will take the stage, and a slideshow will look back at the studio’s beginnings and its dedicated dancers.

KMUW’s Deborah Shaar recently visited the studio to watch a rehearsal.

It’s the rapid foot stomping you hear first when you enter the studio at Amira Dance Productions on west Douglas in downtown Wichita.

Then comes the hand clapping, which is just as fast.

In this dance style known as flamenco, the two women clapping to the side of the dancers are very important. They keep the background rhythm going in this festive Spanish-based genre.

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Credit Hugo Phan
Flamenco instructor Cherie Scillia and student Amy Geiszler-Jones.

Instructor Cherie Scillia does all the footwork and sings along with the music to encourage her students. The fast-paced dancing proves just as taxing as a cardio workout at a gym.

“Ok, whoo. Boy I’m out of breath," Scillia says. "That was good though. It was very good.”

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Credit http://www.amiradanceproductions.com
Flamenco dancing at Dance Magic 2014

Scillia has been teaching at the Amira dance studios for five years. She says flamenco is all about feeling the rhythm in the music, the song and the dance.

“If you can’t find the rhythm, it’s probably very hard to dance flamenco because flamenco is more than one rhythm," Scillia says. "There are different styles. If you look at the dances, there different types of dances depending on the mood, depending on the song and depending on the rhythm.”

The dancers are wearing long, black, flowing practice skirts, not the colorful long dresses you’d normally see in a flamenco performance, but it works. It reminds them that not all of the movement in flamenco is on the floor.

“We use our skirts to enhance the dance," Scillia says. "And, of course, the hands play a really big role in the dance and the foot stamping, the percussion.”

Flamenco is just one style of the dancing going on in the two Amira studios.

For more than 40 years, dozens of women have moved across the hardwood floors to the beats of Polynesian hula, Indian inspired Bollywood and Middle Eastern belly dancing.

Instructor Angie Cockburn is leading a group of seven women in a traditional Egyptian belly dance used at weddings.

Cockburn is like many of the women at Amira Dance Productions. First, a dedicated student, and then an instructor, and always a performer.

Passion keeps the dancers coming to the studios each week and sometimes more than once a week to learn and practice the 12 cultural dance styles offered.

Belly dancing, with its swaying hip moves and expressive hand gestures, is one of the more popular styles.

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Credit http://www.amiradanceproductions.com
Amira Dance Studio Director Patricia Baab during Dance Magic 2014

That’s what drew retired high school science teacher Patricia Baab to Amira decades ago.

“I like the grace of the belly dance, especially when using the grace in the hands," Baab says. "I like the high energy level of the Bollywood and the difficulty level of the Bollywood dancing. So those are my two favorites.”

Bollywood dancing is a mix of traditional and classical Indian dances with the influence of some jazz and modern dance.

Baab began her dance lessons in the mid-1970’s with the studio’s founder and namesake: "Amira," the stage name for Alice Castilow.

Castilow also co-founded the Metropolitan Ballet of Wichita, which is now known as Ballet Wichita.

She began her studio with ballet classes, and then added Middle Eastern belly dance after she studied under a famed choreographer in New York City.

Baab says Castilow was one of the first dance instructors in Wichita to offer belly dance.

“Her name and her capabilities were known throughout the Midwest during the time that she was able to teach and have her dance studio,” she says.

When Castilow died of cancer in 2004, Baab and another longtime student took over the studio to keep it going.

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Credit Hugo Phan
Amira Dance Studio Director Patricia Baab

As the studio director, Baab says it is important to continue another of Castilow’s traditions: holding an annual dance show to educate and entertain the community, something they’ve been doing since 1975.

“I was at the first one, which was up here in the studio with husbands and family members sitting on the floor and coming in and dancing right there in the studio," she says. "It was very low key. But it was our first annual event, and we were so excited! To know that it has gone from that, to being at the Orpheum.”

Baab says many women are interested in taking classes after seeing the annual show or after watching the dancers at community events and festivals.

A few of them sign up just to try dance as a new exercise, but Baab says she’s seen how one class can spark a new passion.

“Sometimes they don’t last because they realize how difficult it is, and it does require a dedication," she says. "Others just fall in love with it, and they want to take to heart the music, the culture, the dance itself. They began to realize it’s more than just movement on the floor, there’s a whole history behind it and there’s a whole reasoning behind why you do the moves you do.”

The dance students range in age from 14 to 72; all women.

Over the years, they have had a few men perform in the annual show, but generally the classes are geared toward women.

Baab says the beauty of these cultural dances is that body shape or age doesn’t really matter because it’s the moves and elaborate costumes that transform the women from being a student to a performer.

Many of the women have been involved with Amira Dance Productions for years, decades for some of them.

“It’s a huge sisterhood," Baab says. "We support one another not only in dance, but friendships are made here. People get together outside of class, and we watch people go through very traumatic as well as wonderful happenings. We usually have at least one pregnant lady in the show every year. So there’s just a tremendous amount of support.”

As the dancers finish up the dress rehearsals and costume fittings for Saturday night’s Orpheum show, Baab and the other instructors know there won’t be much of a break after they leave the stage.

Planning for next year’s show begins on Monday, and that’s okay.

“It feels so good, I will do it until I drop,” Baab says.

Dance Magic 2015 will take place on Saturday, March 7 at the Orpheum Theatre. The show begins at 7 pm and tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. 

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