WALLINGFORD — When Natalie Cruz was one-year-old, her mother was a dance student at the Academy of Dance and Music, a school Cruz was enrolled in soon after.
In September, the school celebrated its 65th anniversary, continuing its tradition of seeing multiple generations of the same family attend the school.
Cruz, who is now 26, is a dance instructor and assistant director of the school. Her younger brother is also a student at the Wallingford-based academy.
As part of the anniversary celebration, the school has been involved with the community. This weekend, the dancers performed at Celebrate Wallingford. After the festival, the school had a demonstration class which was open to the public.
Judyth Parks opened the school in 1957 at age 17 at a hall in Wallingford.
“She just knew that she wanted to be a dance teacher that young and she had the support of my grandmother who also played the piano for all the classes and made the costumes,” said Courtney Billings, owner and director of the school.
Billings noted that the school grew over the years, becoming a “huge part of the community.”
The school was later moved to a building in Simpson Court and in the late 1980s moved to its current location, 245 Center St.
Billings started teaching when she was 12 years old. She attended Curry College in Massachusetts and ran its dance department for some time.
She said she took over the operations of the Academy of Dance in the late 1980s.
The school teaches dance as well as private music lessons focusing on voice and piano.
Billings’ daughter, Sydney Billings, is a senior teacher at the academy. She studied marketing and dance at Central Connecticut State University and would like to take over the operations of the school when her mom retires. In addition, she said she would like to incorporate more dances, including ballroom, which includes some Latin rhythms.
Billings enjoys seeing various generations of the same family attend the school. She said they take students at an early age but people over 60 take part in their dance program also.Students
Cruz’s mother was a student at the academy starting at age three and also took classes as an adult.
Cruz has Puerto Rican roots and although she doesn’t speak Spanish, she enjoys dancing to Latin rhythms, she said.
At one point she danced a mix of Spanish and modern music and performed at a Latino show with a dancer she met in college.
She said being a Latina has helped her flow naturally into the dancing world. When she was younger, her family brought her to salsa conventions, she said.
Cruz’s brother, Danny Cruz also dances at the academy. He is a junior at Maloney High School.
He said he grew up seeing his mother, sisters and other family members dance. They always encouraged him to go to dance school but he was skeptical because he didn’t know if dancing was for boys.
Five years ago, he decided to join the academy, automatically falling in love with dance, he said.
Being a dancer and having his sister as a teacher gives him a closer bond to his family, he said.
His favorite part of the academy is that the teachers make students feel comfortable and at the same time, they are good about getting students out of their comfort zone.
Cruz dances mainly hip hop and contemporary music. However, he said because of his family, he gets to hear a lot of Spanish music, which he freestyles at home and during family gatherings.
When Adilene Garcia was four years old, she used to visit the academy because her mother was a student. She said she used to stand at the classroom door to dance along. One day, one of the instructors invited her to the dance floor, and she has attended the school ever since. Today, Garcia is 25. She attends the dance classes with her sister as a way of spending more time together.
She said she enjoys the community feeling at the academy and has made valuable friendships over the years.
Garcia has also danced at the Spanish Community of Wallingford where she connects to her roots by dancing traditional Mexican music. She enjoys both dancing schools as they help her be more open to music and history, she said.
For more information about the Academy of Dance and Music, visit http://www.academyofdance1.com/.