New Center Dance Studio in Amherst incorporates literature to inspire students

Last modified: Sunday, October 04, 2015

AMHERST — Pretending to stroll through an invisible meadow, hop over a large butterfly and share a piece of a rainbow, several preschool children were prompted to use their imaginations while acting out scenes from an Eric Carle picture-book story.

During their movements across the room, the young children, part of the Spring Street Preschool, learned a bit about dancing, such as how to arc the colorful scarves and walk to the beat of music, and have fun ringing hand-held bells.

Using literature, such as Carle’s recently published “Friends,” to teach aspiring dancers is an emphasis at a new dance studio in Amherst center.

“It’s sort of innovative, but to us it feels intuitive,” said Ashley Carlisle, who co-owns The Center Dance Studio and Perch: A Playspace with her younger sister, Caddy Carlisle. “We’re very confident that what we’re offering is different and special and wonderful.”

Their business is at 321 Main St., appropriately across the street from the Emily Dickinson Museum. The teachers incorporate all forms of writing, including poems, classic stories and picture books, as well as their own scripts, to build dances that will be used in the creative movement classes and choreography lab they teach.

The siblings, who grew up in Amherst and as youngsters attended Pioneer Valley Ballet, have launched what they believe is an inventive approach to teaching dance and ballet that allows children to be more creative, while still getting an understanding of classical and modern dance techniques.

“I think we offer an alternative to other models for dance in the area,” said Ashley Carlisle, 34.

Caddy Carlisle, 31, agrees with her sister’s assessment. “A lot of what’s out there for dance students is the traditional dance model,” she said.

Both had taught at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Public Charter School in South Hadley in recent years, and had Ann Biddle, co-founder Dance Education Laboratory at the Harkness Dance Center’s 92nd Street Y in New York, as a colleague. Ashley Carlisle trained with American Ballet Theater in Pennsylvania and the Martha Graham Academy, while Caddy was at Concordia, a dance program in Montreal, and taught at the former Academy of Ballet Arts.

“We feel we have really solid training,” Ashley Carlisle said.

“Both of us have had a rich training in contemporary and technique ballet,” her sister added.

After thinking about ways of linking performing arts to literature, the sisters began teaching classes a year ago at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Amherst center and Second Chances consignment shop in the Pomeroy Village section of South Amherst, before deciding to make this their full-time occupation.

“We really wanted to have our own space and grow the school,” Ashley Carlisle said.

Former cafe

They transformed the space formerly used by Wheatberry Cafe by removing kitchen equipment, installing a 440-square-foot wooden dance floor and mirrors on the walls and brightening other walls with yellow paint. They kept intact some of the wooden cabinets that give definition to the interior and offer a place to serve coffee and pastries for the adults who visit the studio.

Near the dance floor is a bookshelf filled with numerous books, including many children’s books focused on friendship.

Children ages 3 to 5 years old in the Spring Street Preschool are among those experiencing how the dance instruction will be different. As Caddy Carlisle reads that the meadow “grass was dewy, damp and cool,” Ashley Carlisle encourages the children to stroll.

“We tend to do movement stories with the younger children,” Caddy Carlisle said.

With the youngest students, Caddy Carlisle said the movements are explained so children understand what “strolling” and “arcing” mean.

The children seemed to enjoy the instruction.

“My favorite part was ringing the bells,” said 4-year-old Ruth Robison of Amherst.

It was both dancing and then the jumping over the butterfly sticker attached to the dance floor that most appealed to Ellie Barlow, 4, also of Amherst.

Older students will use literature as the stepping-off point for creating dances. This means more interactive and what they call “guided discovery” for their students and what they hope is a warm environment.

“We really want to develop a connection with our students that is inspiring and loving,” Caddy Carlisle said.

This will allow children to feel good about themselves and “feel empowered,” Ashley Carlisle said.

This is part of the holistic approach to dance instruction that reduces the anxiety and negative feelings about children’s own bodies, as the Carlisles tell their students that dancers come in all shapes and sizes.

Classes are divided by age and technique. Older students learn classical ballet, hip-hop and contemporary dance.

The “choreography lab” and “creative movement” classes all come with literary references and puns, starting with the “Garden of Verses” creative movement for children ages 2 and 3, where the Carlisles put dot decals on the floor and encourage them to “march, march to another spot.”

“They’re soft and wiggly and the movement’s a little different” Caddy Carlisle said.

“Word Play” is the class for children 4 and 5 years old, featuring narrative dance, and the older children move on to “Turning Pages,” “Spinning Yarns,” “Story Arc” and “Theme and Variation.”

Using literature to inspire dance is appealing to many natural dancers, Ashley Carlisle said.

Parents whose children are taking classes with the Carlisles say they appreciate their work.

Kerry Alisa Young of Leverett has two teenage daughters in classes, observing they can walk to the studio from the public schools

“From the parental perspective, I personally find the Center to be a wonderful balance of challenging and fun,” Young said.

Older students are already asking if there will be a recital and eventually a dance company, which Ashley Carlisle said is something they would love to happen. “We really hope to create a company of dancers here,” she said.

Play space

In addition to the classes, which take place mostly in the afternoons and evenings, Perch is the name the Carlisles have given to the play space for infants and toddlers and their caregivers. Each week there will be a movement story and art to accompany these three-hour drop-ins.

“The play space is so parents or caregivers can come with children and drop in,” Caddy Carlisle said. “They basically come in and play. It’s very much about community.”

“It will be a cozy little place to come and rest and recharge,” Ashley said.

The area includes dress-up clothing as well as art projects, such as a friendship garden featuring the children’s hand prints one recent morning.

Perch is open daily from 9 a.m. to noon, except Mondays, when the schedule is pushed back 75 minutes.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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