‘Dance is a universal voice:’ Port studio offers free classes to underserved communities

‘Dance is a universal voice:’ Port studio offers free classes to underserved communities
Dance for Joy students learning the basics of ballet in a private 10-week class. (Photo courtesy of Olga Berest)

When Olga Berest walks into a class at her dance studio, she sees a perfect world of children from diverse backgrounds coming together through dance.

This has been made possible through her studio’s Dance for Joy Program, a 10-week ballet program that provides free classes for students ages 8-12 from underserved communities.

Director Olga Berest opened the dance studio bearing her name in 1976. Housed in a Dutch colonial home at 12 South Washington St. since 1996, the Berest Dance Studio offers a diverse range of classes from ballet to African dance for toddlers through adults.

In 2021, the dance studio started the Dance for Joy Program, the first of its kind in the studio’s history.

Dance for Joy was started by one of Berest’s dancers who asked if she could organize a 10-week class led by students and taught to underserved kids in the community.

Berest said she was more than happy to go forward with her student’s idea.

“And it’s just snowballed,” Berest said.

The fall Dance for Joy program is designed to be an introductory class. It teaches students the basics of ballet in order to bring them to the level of their age group.

The 10-week program has now expanded into a year-long program, allowing the Dance for Joy students to integrate into the studio’s other classes in November after they finish the intro program.

Berest said the program has been flourishing.

In 2021, 10 students participated in the Dance for Joy program. In 2022, two students continued and 10 new students joined.

This fall, 10 more students will enter the program.

Berest said yearly tuition at her studio costs about $1,000 per student and estimated another $500 in expenses for attire, shoes and tickets.

Dance for Joy offers a full year of tuition at the Berest Dance Studio for free to its participants. Berest said this also encompasses free dance attire, costumes and tickets for their families to attend their end-of-the-year showcase.

The Dance for Joy students participate in the studio’s end-of-the-year showcase, which was held the weekend of June 17-18. Berest said free tickets are part of the program, and she handed out more than $1,000 worth this year.

“This is just becoming an incredible opportunity for children who could not otherwise afford to dance,” Berest said.

When the program started, the first 10 weeks of the program were funded by HEARTS Port Washington, but individual donors, many of whom are families involved with the dance studio, funded the students’ remaining 26 weeks for the remainder of the year.

Berest said the goal of Dance for Joy is to provide free classes to children regardless of their financial circumstances.

“What started as a young teen dancer’s desire to make a difference has blossomed into what I hope will become a full dance outreach program,” Berest said.

Berest said there is no program comparable that is being offered for aspiring, underserved dancers in Port Washington.

“I feel there is such a gap in our community and having resources that will provide for the underserved,” Berest said. “There’s a tremendous gap in our community and we are very artistically oriented in the Port Washington area.”

Berest said the program predominantly serves Latino students, many of which have parents who are immigrants. Because many of the families speak Spanish, she said they have a translator to provide letters and information in Spanish.

She said the Dance for Joy families have expressed an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the program, saying that it has been life-changing.

“We see these kids coming in every week, and the joy on their faces is just heartwarming,” Berest said.

She said it has been life-changing for the Dance for Joy students because they have been fully accepted by the rest of the studio.

“They have been embraced by these kids,” Berest said.

Berest recalled a memory on bun day, a day when students wear their hair in ballet buns, where she saw the Dance for Joy students integrating with the other students, sitting on the floor and helping one another with their hair.

“I saw children being children, loving each other for who they were and the passion to dance,” Berest said. “This is what Dance for Joy is all about: the acceptance, the acknowledgment that we are the same within a dance atmosphere.”

Berest said many of the Dance for Joy students come into the studio very shy but it doesn’t take long for them to become deeply integrated in their classes.

“Dance is a universal voice,” Berest said. “So it doesn’t matter if English isn’t their first language, because dance is an unspoken word.”

This upcoming fall’s program will be the third year, but Berest said she is panicking. As of now, she does not have the funds to support all 10 students coming into the program and is seeking financial support.

The studio accepts donations on its website.

Berest said the studio will be hosting a dance-a-thon in September that will raise money for the Dance for Joy program. Her goal is to raise $5,000 in order to continue her program.

“I see students where only dance matters. I see children supporting each other, a class where there are no differences at all, there’s just dance,” Berest said. “I would love everyone to be able to experience that going forward.”

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