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Fabulous Feet: ‘We’re just dancing for the love of dance right now’

By on November 24, 2020 in Arts with 0 Comments
Melissa Miller-Port: “The kids who’ve returned are excited to be here — they appreciate the whole experience of the rigor, the music, the exercise.” Photo by Mike Irwin

Editor’s note: At our deadline, COVID-19 restrictions were reinstated and the studio is again temporarily closed.

By Susan Lagsdin

Nobody needs to remind veteran Wenatchee dance instructor Melissa Miller-Port that Pandemic 2020 meant her Fabulous Feet studio was shuttered for seven months, class attendance plummeted, and annual stage shows were all canceled. 

Or that she’s sometimes in pain only weeks past a full knee replacement. 

She’s aware of all that and says with a smile, “I couldn’t wish for my life to turn out any differently than it has.”

This year, she’s gained a new appreciation of “we’re in this together.” 

Parents of her dancers and her teachers have pitched in to make things close to normal at the studio, and daughter Trisha has stepped up to teach fulltime. Her husband, Real Homes builder Jon Port and the owner of her multi-building dance facility, generously carried the beloved business over the summer.

Now multiple small classes in groups of 10, not 30, meet COVID standards though it means juggling spaces and 12 instructors’ schedules. It’s totally worth it, said Melissa. 

The sense of family that dancers experience is strong and, “The kids who’ve returned are excited to be here — they appreciate the whole experience of the rigor, the music, the exercise.”

And they’ll keep coming back. Often “grand students” return to the studio, the stage and the audience. Melissa’s also proud that her closest dance friends over the years have stayed working in the profession in some capacity, a few with her, and their relationships have stayed strong.

Friendships, socializing and multigenerational memories are all part of the studio experience, but the singular thrill of dancing on stage is hard to duplicate. Acknowledging her current students’ disappointment over losing live performances in the (would-be-upcoming) 2020 Nutcracker and Holiday Spice productions, she said, “We’re just dancing for the love of dance right now.” 

That’s all Melissa’s mother anticipated 50 years ago when she took on a crossing-guard job to pay for her two daughters’ dance lessons. Little did she know that choosing the highly regarded David DeMarie dance studio near their hometown in Buffalo, New York would lead to the youngest’s lifelong career.

At 18, Melissa, who had become proficient in jazz, tap and ballet, was hired by Seattle’s Greg Thompson productions and enjoyed a carefree, glamorous life on tour, traveling the country with a team of performers and stage crew, meeting celebrities and dancing for big dinner theaters and major casinos. Reviews called the Las Vegas style shows “razzle dazzle… high-stepping spectacles.”

The inevitable desire to slow down a bit and nest, and to share her wealth of experience, lead Melissa to Wenatchee and the longest phase of her career.

Her roots in the area are happily tangled. By her first marriage she’s “Kind of one of the ‘Miller girls,’ ”she said, alluding to that big local family and former Thompson alum and sister-in-law, the entertainer Julie Miller. In 2000 when Melissa married Jon Port, they formed a blended family of five — all of whom in one way or another have appeared in Fabulous Feet stage productions.

The constant in Melissa’s 32 years here has been her dance studio, now fills a warren of spaces at the North Wenatchee Avenue site. The largest mirrored teaching space features a distinctive checkerboard tile surface (“It’s really helpful for spacing,” she said) with a big balcony and ceiling space for aerobatics; there’s also a ballet room with a rubberized Marley floor. Hip hop, tumbling, weightless class, trapeze and aerial silks enliven the conventional dance curriculum.

Melissa has purchased and displays vintage stage props and sets (like the West Side Story Sharks wall) from decommissioned dance studios; sentimental favorites, many, many trees from Nutcracker and myriad costumes and accessories are stored for future productions.

A key player in Wenatchee’s arts scene, Melissa was honored at the PAC last December with a Stanley Lifetime Achievement Award for her enthusiastic community collaborations over the years.

At 56, she is realistic about continuing to teach classes all day. But she has no doubt that Fabulous Feet will continue, saying, “It’s bound to diversify, but whether we have career-oriented dancers or people who dance for exercise and recreation, I’d like to see this studio live past me.”

Since she works equally well as a choreographer and with musicians, actors and singers, she said, “I think if I weren’t teaching dance I’d become a producer — I love putting all the pieces of a show together.” 

Another opening of another show? That’s been Melissa’s life and her lifelong dream.

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