The dancers came through the sliding door at the back of Betty Jo Schmitt’s Rosemount house and slipped downstairs to practice on the concrete floor, just six at a time.

That was in 1975, at the very beginning of what would become Betty Jo’s Dance Center.

“It was not a good floor for dancing,” Schmitt said. “That was the place that I could afford.”

Still, she had 39 students that first year, and her students stuck with her. This year, with more than 400 students, Betty Jo’s Dance Center celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Schmitt, 67, started dancing at age 3 and became an avid tap dancer. She taught elementary school for five years in her 20s. But as a new mom, she didn’t want to work full time. So she started the evening dance class in the basement.

Schmitt’s daughter Annie Ganot recalls a much more magical scene than her mother does. Ganot and her sister used to sneak downstairs to watch the dancers practicing.

“It was so much fun,” she said.

Over the years, the studio grew and moved to several locations in Rosemount before landing in its current spot in Apple Valley. Betty Jo’s Dance Center now has four studios with sprung floors designed for dance in a 6,700-square-foot space near the intersection of Pilot Knob Road and County Road 42.

“It has come a long way from the basement days,” said Elizabeth Ippolito O’Connell, who started teaching for Schmitt in 2006 and works as the school’s artistic director. O’Connell was a professional dancer in New York and taught at several studios in New Jersey and Minnesota before coming to Betty Jo’s Dance Center.

“When you work for her, it’s really not a job,” O’Connell said. “I would have retired a long time ago if it weren’t for the home she gave me there. I’ve worked very had to carve out my life to be there. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone as organized and thoughtful and prepared as Betty Jo.”

Tough and fun

Student Brenna McCarthy, 13, of Rosemount, dances at the studio about 12 hours a week. She said she threw fits as a beginning 3-year-old dancer because she didn’t want to come to class. But she soon grew to love it. In fourth grade, she took a tap dancing class taught by Schmitt.

“I remember it was the hardest class I’d ever taken,” Brenna said. “She didn’t move on to the next move until almost everyone in the room had gotten it.”

“She’s like a mom who gives it to you straightforward,” said Brenna’s sister Kennedy, 16, who has danced at the studio for 12 years and practices there four nights a week.

Although Schmitt pushes her students, she has a sense of humor and fun.

In the early years, with fewer students and fewer dances to perform, she would invite neighbors to come to recitals and do introductions and sometimes little skits.

“They were really funny and borderline ridiculous,” said Ganot, recalling that one time “there were rubber chickens involved.”

These days, the father-daughter dance is a tradition at the annual recital. This year’s act had a disco theme, and about 60 dads and daughters in 1970s garb crowded the stage to perform moves they had been rehearsing for eight weeks.

Growing studio

As the studio has grown, Schmitt has added more classes and instructors. A few years ago, the center started holding intensive summer classes with conditioning and sessions on topics including dance history and choreography. The instructors also started taking students on trips to New York to attend dance workshops and take in Broadway shows and backstage tours.

The students compete more these days than in the early years, Schmitt said, noting that they enjoy it and it helps prepare them for their recital. However, she said, “It’s not our main focus.”

Every year, dancers from the school volunteer to provide entertainment for a muscular dystrophy walk at the Mall of America, as Ganot’s son, Schmitt’s grandson, has muscular dystrophy.

“It’s lovely,” said Ganot. “It’s really nice.”

Kennedy McCarthy said she particularly loves the tradition at the last competition of the season when dancers go shopping and make it a girls weekend. “It’s my highlight weekend of April,” she said.

These days, Schmitt teaches only one section of tap dancing. She jokes that she’s been demoted to the front desk, where she takes care of administrative tasks.

“My greatest joy was working with the students,” Schmitt said.

 

Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer. Her e-mail is lizannrolfsmeier@gmail.com.