May 6, 2011 3:21:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
A staccato chorus of tap, tap tapping reverberates from the wooden floor of the dance studio. Up to the high ceiling it swirls and back down, flooding the bright space with percussive sound. A portable player in a corner robustly belts out "Money," from the Broadway show "Cabaret," while a cadre of young dancers in black leotards rehearse their routine, monitoring themselves in the mirrored wall.
On a long bench sit girls in similar outfits, soaking it all in, waiting to practice their own number. Also closely watching each shuffle step and kick is the mother-daughter duo of Betty Lott and Deborah Lott Guist, just as they''ve done so many times before.
Since founding the English School of Dance in Columbus in 1961, Lott has introduced thousands of aspiring youngsters to the world of dance. The passion was passed on to her daughter, who got involved in the business in the early 1970s and became her mother''s partner in ''79. Now, Guist oversees the dance school, while its founder takes life a bit easier.
With bright eyes framed by a chic pixie haircut, Lott, at 86, she still exudes a gamine charm.
From her home in the County of Essex, near London, England, she first traveled to the United States as a young woman to literally "join the circus." And yes, she rode elephants.
"I danced professionally since I was 12," the octogenarian said, adding, in a playful whisper, "I had a bit of a stage mum." She sat in the dance school office, across a desk from her daughter. Guist, in the throes of intense preparation for the school''s annual recital only days away, collated and stapled programs. Sounds of the lively class in progress were slightly muffled by the closed door.
"Back then, in England you could leave school by the time you were 14," Lott continued. For the younger dancers, who had their own governess, numerous rules about the number of work hours and shows permitted were in place.
"In 1948, 20 of us were brought over (to America) to perform with the Cole Bros Circus. We lived on an old train, cramped two girls to a bunk," she recalled, evoking vivid images for anyone who has seen the recent 20th Century Fox release, "Water for Elephants." But whatever the circumstances, performing and dance were in her blood. "I loved it even then."
Lott returned to Europe, where she would later meet an American serviceman and marry in Greece in 1951. A decade later, an assignment to Columbus Air Force Base brought the family, including 8-year-old Deborah, to Mississippi. The talented Englishwoman opened the doors of her very own dance studio in Columbus in 1962.
"Mother couldn''t take up crocheting or needlepoint," Guist said teasingly, her laugh full-bodied. "She likes the stage."
Ups and downs
While Lott''s son, Jamie, veered toward sports, even as a child Deborah was destined to dance.
"Back in those days, I suppose I took it for granted because I''d never known life without it," she explained. It wasn''t always easy being the daughter of the teacher, she admits, something any parent and child who have been in similar circumstances can attest to.
"I remember when, growing up, I loved tap and jazz and wanted to drop ballet, but Mother was adamant I stick with it. I realize now just how important it was, because ballet is the backbone and foundation of just about any form of dance," said the instructor, who is married to veterinarian Dr. Steven Guist.
In the five decades since the school began, Lott, and then her daughter, have choreographed more routines, calmed more stage jitters, held more hands, and inspired more dreams than can be counted.
"There''s not much that can be thrown at us that we haven''t seen before," Guist smiled.
Perhaps the biggest challenge came in 2003, when the school''s founder was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
"Mother wasn''t actually teaching then, but she was still actively involved in the studio. All throughout her chemotherapy -- which was grueling -- she rarely missed a day coming (here) with me," Deborah said somberly. "We had an extra room in the back of the studio where we had a little bed so she could go rest if she got tired during the day. This coming November will mark eight years cancer-free."
Passing it on
The legacy of the English School of Dance is visible in its roster of students. There are two third-generation dancers in the program, Allie Grace Farrell and Michaela Rixie.
Allie Grace''s mother, Angela Moody Farrell, studied there and her grandmother, Carol Doane, now of Texas, was in the very first recital 49 years ago. Michaela''s mother, Angela Dahlem Rixie, and grandmother, Linda Wright Dahlem, danced in their own share of recitals. The list of second-generation dancers is long. Guist''s own daughter, Carley, danced for 13 years.
"I love the business," said Deborah, praising the help of the school''s artistic director, Lyndsey Lamas Miller, who is also an assistant professor in Mississippi State University''s Interior Design Program, and office manager Tracey Traweek in running a busy program of ballet, tap, jazz and gymnastics training.
For her mother, the hectic days of juggling business and classes have calmed. The physical body may have slowed, but movement and music are still elemental to her -- as is the dance family.
"I can''t do much now ... but I have to come down; I''ve got to be around people," said Lott, who misses the days when "music was music" and tries never to miss "The Lawrence Welk Show" on Saturday nights.
"She just comes alive when she''s around here," her daughter agreed.
When curtains opened on the annual recital Saturday evening in Joe Cook Auditorium, the performers backstage, from the "tiny mites" to the 22-year-old , probably weren''t thinking of their place in the school''s near half-century tradition. But, nevertheless, they are part of it. And, as always, mother and daughter stood in the wings, to shepherd and encourage, to instill a love of dance in the next generations.
"I wouldn''t take anything for it; it''s been very meaningful to me," said Guist of the life experience she and her mother have shared. "You know, I guess it''s in the genes."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.