Brenda Froehlich, the founder, longtime ballet teacher and director of the Wilton Dance Studio, has announced the dance school is closing.
Froehlich cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a key reason for the decision to close in the announcement on the studio’s Facebook page.
“It is with great sadness that we share with you the closing of Wilton Dance Studio. We gave it a valiant effort but unfortunately COVID won. Thank you so very much for all the love, kindness and support you have shown us over the past 31 years. It has been a wonderful fun ride.”
The post was followed by dozens of comments from longtime supporters, parents of dancers, or the dancers themselves, offering heartfelt thanks and expressions of surprise and dismay.
Froehlich, who first began teaching ballet in Wilton for the Walter Schalk School of Dance, looked back with GOOD Morning Wilton at her three decades of working with thousands of dancers. She recounted the memories she’ll cherish, from her unassumming start through knowing the impact she’s had on so many young Wiltonians through the years.
A Humble Beginning
“I had taken a little break from teaching to begin our family. Once our [second] child was born, I was drawn to start teaching again,” Froehlich explained.
“My husband, Mark Froehlich, knew before I even did that I needed to start my own school. He pushed and prodded me until we had found a space.”
The right space turned out to be at Pilgrim Hall, a flexible space available at the Wilton Congregational Church. The program launched with just a few classes offered one day a week.
“We were such a small school at the start that we really couldn’t afford the costs involved with renting a theater for the spring performance,” Froehlich recalled. “So… we set bleachers up right in Pilgrim Hall so that the parents could have a perfect view.”
Froehlich made most of the costumes herself and fondly recalls that first performance as “magical.” It was a performance of “The Carousel Waltz,” an instrumental piece from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel.
Carousel was personally meaningful to Froehlich, who says she had performed the role of Louise in The Wilton Playshop’s production of the show several years earlier.
Froehlich vividly remembers the emotions of the early days of the studio, especially after the first performance, which she described as “kind of like after you have given birth: happy, elated, anxious, scared, exhausted but so very excited and filled with anticipation for what [is] to come.”
Soon after, the studio moved to its permanent home at 941 Danbury Rd., and added jazz and tap classes to the roster of creative movement, pre-ballet and ballet classes.
“The dance studio really was a family affair,” Froehlich noted. “My father installed the dance floor and barres, my mom helped by watching our son and daughter, and my husband well, he was the wind beneath my wings.”
As a child, Froehlich’s son was a student as well. He rejoined the studio as a teen, giving other dancers the opportunity to practice with a male partner.
By the 1990s, the studio had become advanced enough to undertake its performance of “The Nutcracker,” which would become an annual event. The school would eventually grow to produce two major productions held at the Clune Center for the Arts each year.
The COVID Factor
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began to put a strain on the business. After classes were closed for some time, students returned to the studio wearing masks and with 6-foot squares marked in tape on the floor to make sure dancers stayed distanced from one another.
“But both students and parents were nervous” about returning to the studio, Froehlich said.
She believes during that critical time, some students simply moved on to other interests. Ultimately, the business was unsustainable.
“I tried, I really tried, marketing classes, social media, etc… but in the end, COVID hit us hard, really hard,” Froehlich lamented.
At the same time, Froehlich did not feel the right opportunity to sell the business had come along.
“Alas, the passing of the torch was not to come to fruition,” she said. “[Closing] was one of the hardest decisions my husband and I have ever made. I am beyond sad.”
Froehlich thanked the studio’s many teachers over the years, notably last year’s teachers, including Peter Nevin, who taught ballet and danced the role of the nutcracker for over ten years of the studio’s performances; Mickey Longsdale, who taught, ballet, jazz, contemporary, hip hop and Acro; and Pam Lisa, who taught ballet and was “an all-round volunteer extraordinaire.”
A Deeply Rewarding Experience
For Froehlich, the rewards of teaching have been far more than about students mastering techniques.
“I have been told by many of our recent and not-so-recent dance families that they credit us with the successes, strength, perseverance and confidence that their child has experienced in life,” she said.
Froehlich beams with pride when it comes to what her students throught the years have accomplished, both while studying with her and in the years after.
“Our very first student who performed the role of the nutcracker is now the brand stylist, visual communicator and art director for Robert Verdi [a celebrity stylist and television personality] in New York City,” Froehlich reported. “Many of our students and performers have gone on to have professional careers in the performing and fine arts. One even has a lifetime contract with the Paris Opera Ballet company.”
Froehlich emphasized, “I am just as proud of those who have joined the armed services, or become doctors, teachers, financial professionals, mothers, fathers, writers and more.”
She is fulfilled by knowing the impact she made.
“I couldn’t be more pleased. This is what I was here on this earth to do: help people, particularly children, become better, improved versions of themselves,” Froehlich reflected. “It didn’t matter to me if it was getting an eight-year-old to eat her vegetables or to be at the beginning of a child’s dream of become a professional ballerina. They were all [as meaningful] to me.”
Froehlich’s advice to current and future dance students?
“Follow your dreams and passions,” she said. “If you love what you do, then your job is not work. I have often thought of my job as an avocation, not a vocation.”
Despite her sadness, Froehlich said she’s is taking an optimistic attitude.
“Just as everyone needs oxygen to survive, I needed dance. I didn’t choose the time for Wilton Dance Studio to end, but I am still breathing. I am excited for what lies ahead.”
Froehlich’s Parting Words to Dancers
As the studio’s dancers move on, Froehlich has a special message to them: a poem she saw circulating online (by an unknown author) which she adapted and would read to the graduating class each year.
The poem is about butterflies. (Froehlich told GMW that she has been raising monarch butterflies for the past four years. This year, she said she and her granddaughter released over 300.)
“We all start as caterpillars
but slowly grow until one day we are butterflies.
As I have watched you grow
I have seen you turn into fine people
and beautiful young women.
Be strong, be intelligent, smile.
Know that beauty has everything
to do with how you feel about yourself
and nothing to do with looks
or other people’s opinions.
Never do anything just because everyone else is.
Always be true to yourself.
Expect the best from life
and that’s what you’ll get.
Love and trust and be compassionate.
Make faces, play in mud puddles and take bubble baths
really long hot ones.
Turn off all the light and watch thunder and lightning storms.
Dance, laugh, cry and sing when you want to.
Read everything you can get your hands on.
Stand up for what is right
especially if you stand alone.
Don’t allow yourself or people around you
to tolerate prejudice of any kind.
Don’t be afraid to try something new.
Run through snow drifts, spin in circles and roll down hills.
Pet puppies and hold kittens and talk to babies.
Stay up and watch a sunrise.
Never apologize for being a woman or for being yourself.
Never forget that I love you
no matter how far apart we are.
You will always be my Wilton Dance Studio
Dancing Daughters [and Sons]”