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Mary Beth Loewen

Mary Beth Loewen of Kodiak is a dancer whose studio is place for children to learn modern and traditional dance and to grow as human beings. Students can use movement to explore emotions.

    2017

  • Project Award
  • Choreography

Taking the Leap

Mary Beth Loewen’s pocket sounds like a wind chime in a Kodiak gale, a steady ping of texts from eleven staffers and 300 dancers. Her curly brown hair pulled back, a dancer’s posture hidden under a hooded sweatshirt, Loewen is usually in Xtratufs or trail running shoes, but she is just as comfortable performing in a 3-inch heel, or even 3-foot-high stilts, which she’s donned as Mother Ginger in several “Nutcrackers.”

No one else was willing to dance onstage on stilts wearing that enormous rainbow skirt with a mob of little dancers underneath. “That’s my personality — if I see a need I’m going to try and problem-solve it,” she explains. “A few years ago, we didn’t offer hip-hop on Kodiak and I thought that we needed it, so I found training and learned how to teach it.”

In order to open her Next Step Dance Studio in Kodiak back in 2016, she spent months working on a business plan, soliciting investors and applying for a small business loan. She cashed in leave and one retirement account from her years as a salmon research biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

These days, instead of traveling to Board of Fish meetings, trips off-island usually include a rental car trunk filled with sequined hairpieces, garlands, and yards of tulle.

“And I don’t even like glitter.”

Fish scales were the sparkliest part of her previous work, sampling smolt and collecting fin clips at remote field camps.

“Working for ADF&G, I felt I was doing good work for the state and our economy. Owning the studio, I’ve had to refocus on what I can do for Kodiak. To make it a place people enjoy living, to build things into the community that I love, like the arts, valuing education, inclusivity.”

Since starting the dance studio, she writes lists on poster-sized easel pads. Her husband jokes that it makes terrible living room wallpaper if you’re trying to relax. Loewen seems to thrive on the details — costumes, lighting, sets, music. Her parent handbook is 24-pages long. Last year she calculated that it takes about an hour of work per minute of choreography when she’s creating pieces for performances.

“There’s finding the music, listening to the same 4-to-10 second snippet incessantly, creating in my head and then writing it down, making sure it shows off the students’ skills and highlights what they can do.”

Loewen wants the studio to be a 3rd place, a sort of social environment where “kids can come on their own, without needing their parents around, and feel a sense of ownership. They know they’re going to be welcomed by people who are sincerely happy to see them. They know they’ll be accepted as they are.”

She says, “We talk a lot about using dance to teach these kids how to be good human beings. We could use anything, but our specialty happens to be dance because it’s a great mechanism for that. It’s hard work, art and physicality all together with music.”

Ballet student Krista Simpler says, “Dance forces me to be in the present. You have to focus on what you’re doing, and it makes you forget anything negative that’s happened during the day. You can let it all go.”

When she bought the building, Loewen repainted with the blue shades of tropical diving destinations, favorite adventure spots before her travel budget went to dance trainings and conventions. She remodeled to create a homework room and a waiting room full of children’s books. To encourage boys to enroll, she added hip-hop and tumbling classes to the roster of rhythm and movement, ballet, musical theatre, ballroom, tap, jazz and contemporary dance.

“It’s a very creative environment. It’s a place kids can go and be themselves and express themselves and spend time with their peers. It’s a great gift to the community,” says instructor Cory Rusch.

Dance is a structured, disciplined creativity, and that appeals to Loewen. It mirrors her personality — her high expectations for herself and others, a merging of art and intellect.

“Freedom comes from technique,” she tells her students. “Once you master a skill, it’s easier to dance and express artistry because you aren’t struggling with the steps.”

We are talking in the studio foyer when she spots two ballerinas goofing off in class and cracks the door just wide enough to whisper-yell, “PAY ATTENTION!” with a look that stops the girls immediately.

“We’re teaching responsibility and resilience, how to work at it and not get frustrated the first time you fail at something. My feeling is that kids don’t get that much anymore. You have to keep at it.”

Loewen was born in Kotzebue and grew up in the Kodiak Island village of Old Harbor. She came to dance late, signing up for classical ballet as a freshman at Kodiak High School. She loved the challenge of technical footwork, even though she struggled at first to catch up with students her age. “I left every class the first month in tears because I was frustrated and it was so hard.”

She wrote Peter Pan on the bottoms of her dance shoes to inspire herself to jump higher. A bookworm from kindergarten on, she found that dancing on stage offered her that same magic of everything falling away, losing herself in the focus and concentration and muscle memory of choreography.

Her coffee table now is stacked with more business management titles than novels.

“When I started the studio, I knew I could teach, but I didn’t know anything about running a business, so I was reading tons of business books and learning about finances and strategies. I kind of lost touch with the artistic part of it that makes it joyful and fun. I’m working on getting that back.”

“This is our happy place,” says the sign on the studio’s front door. That is truest for Loewen when she is speaking in jetés and passés, leading dancers across hardwood and mirrors, their movement silhouetted in the warm light of the studio windows on winter evenings.

“Teaching has taught me more about dance than I ever knew as a performer. For those hours when I’m teaching, everything else is gone. I can go in the worst mood, and when I come out, I’m in the best mood.”

“A lot of times, our passions don’t pay. It’s a privilege to be a mentor and role model and use my body every single day. To listen to beautiful music. To see kids accomplish things and instill them with confidence.”

Sara Loewen is the author of “Gaining Daylight: Life on Two Islands,” winner of the Willa Award for creative nonfiction, and a commercial salmon fisherman in Kodiak, Alaska. She also is Mary Beth’s sister.

Image credits - Gallery image 1 by Sara Loewen, image 2 by Lisa Hupp, images 3-6 by Sara Loewen. Artist portrait courtesy of the artist. Writer portrait courtesy of the writer.