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Dancers tap to Whitestone’s beat

By Cynthia Koons

Jean Leavey always knew she wanted to open a dance studio. But she never realized how young she would be when she did it.

At 20, after attending Nassau County College and abandoning her dream of dancing professionally, Leavey shopped around Whitestone to find the perfect space to create her school.

It has been 20 years since then, and the Dance Project, at 150-41 24th Ave. in Whitestone, is still growing strong.

“This is a very personal studio. We like them to feel like they’re part of a family, part of a team,” Leavey said while sitting at the front desk of her dance school. The desk is her least favorite place to be. Normally she can be found teaching tap and jazz, or choreographing for their annual show.

She fosters an environment where hard work and enthusiasm is valued over sheer natural ability.

“I do not believe in competition,” she said. “I feel that females in life have to compete so much more than males, anyway.” In her classes, it’s the most dedicated students who take center stage, not just the more talented ones.

“I describe us as a necklace,” Leavey said. “A necklace of beads and we, the teachers, are in that necklace.”

Diva-hood is discouraged, she said, because it throws off the balance of teamwork and cooperation that the school prides itself on.

“You have girls in all shapes, in awkward parts of their lives,” she said. “I would like them all to feel good about themselves, not just the ones who are underweight.”

A mother of two girls, ages 13 and 9, Leavey understands the female experience in all its complexities. She said jokingly that she would love to write a book someday about a woman’s journey, from every age group’s perspective.

“Hairstyles have changed, but a girl is just a girl,” she said. “I get such an insight into what makes a 10-year-old happy or what happens when it’s prom time. I have parents, adults who dance and I hear who’s angry at their husband.”

With a sticker on her wall, “Always remember you’re unique, just like everybody else,” Leavey said her mission is to teach everyone self-acceptance.

Through ballet and modern dance, taught by Carolyn Lanfredi and Stacie Owen, and tap, jazz and hip-hop classes taught by Gina Garibaldi and Leavey, young dancers can develop in any style they like.

“I encourage the students here to take ballet. They have an extra grace,” she said of her ballet dancers. Some of her students are also on pointe and some do modern dance, which was not offered when Leavey was growing up.

“The world out there for a dancer is very different than when I started,” she said.

Her dream of becoming a professional dancer when she was younger ended after she realized how much she would have to give up for her art.

“I learned that there were people who were 10 times better than me and others who were 10 times better than those people, all who wanted to do nothing other than dance,” she said.

Having a family was a priority and she accomplished that goal while completing her college degree and running the studio.

“After I had children, it became so much more intense for me, just the precious life of a child coming into me,” she said.

Now teaching dance and reinventing her school like she does through creating programs such as the all-boys hip-hop dance class that will start this fall keeps her invigorated.

“Kids really want to be here,” she said. “I’m the luckiest person.”

Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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