Dance studio-turned-school in Warrenton finds freshman success

May 2 – WARRENTON – As the echoes of students practicing Spanish play out of one classroom, the click of others refining their tap dancing comes out of another.

Integrating dance and academics has been Denele Sweet’s vision since turning her dance studio into a performing arts school during the coronavirus pandemic. Encore Academy, which serves about 50 students from preschool through high school, is about to complete its first year.

Sweet teamed up with several teachers to get the program up and running. Among the group is Courtney Bangs, the academic director of the program, who is also Clatsop County Commissioner. A longtime dance teacher at Encore, Bangs is now also a math and science teacher.

“We are so happy to be able to serve our community in a different way, because public school is not for everyone and some children need to move. Some need music every day to succeed in their school life. “Sweet said.

Apart from traditional classes like math, science, social studies, and language arts, the academy offers classes in tap, ballet, jazz, tumbling, and several other dance forms. All students over 50 attend dance classes inside the building along Harbor Drive.

The program’s education does not deviate from the traditional public school curriculum, Bangs said, but rather differs in atmosphere and sense of community.

Last month, the school was recommended for accreditation, a hurdle that Bangs and Sweet were thrilled to overcome. Sweet called the process of opening the eyes.

“It took us the whole year to get through. It was pretty rigorous and they go deep into our teaching processes, our continuous improvement plans,” Sweet said. “It was pretty substantial…it reinforced what we do here.”

Bangs, who has three children in the program, said it was important to get accreditation so graduating students can have options as they head to college.

“It really validates what we’re doing here. It gives kids the opportunity to be flexible, but it’s also a sign of approval that you’ve achieved legitimacy,” Bangs said. “It’s a tough narrative to face when you’ve been in a dance studio for 26 years.”

A former teacher at Knappa High School, Bangs highlighted research on the correlation between movement and learning, while emphasizing the school’s embrace of individuality.

“I really feel like we’ve developed a safe space here…it’s something I’m really proud of,” she said.

Sweet first opened Encore Dance Studio in Seaside in 1996 and later launched a second location in Warrenton.

In 2012, it branched out into academics, adding a preschool program.

With the onset of the pandemic, Sweet closed the Seaside store to focus more on its studio in Warrenton. In doing so, she replaced her hall furniture with desks, providing a workspace for students who were homeschooling.

As many sports and activities were put on hiatus during the pandemic, Sweet noticed that children needed an outlet for the activity, which ultimately inspired the combination of dance and academics at Encore.

“It’s a dream come true. For me, growing up, if I could have gone to school in my dance studio, out of town, that would have been amazing,” she said.

Looking ahead, Sweet and Bangs are already considering expansion, but are sticking to “quality over quantity” for now.

Among the considerations is child care, an area where the county has run out of options.

“Child care is not on the table, we just don’t have the square footage to serve them right now,” Sweet said. “If it’s meant to be, then we’ll go that route.”

The duo are also looking to add activities — like yoga or conditioning — for students who are looking for movement in their daily school schedule but aren’t interested in dancing.

Additionally, Bangs wants all fourth graders and up to take the Spanish course.

“So they can do a beat step and speak Spanish,” Sweet said, playing the tap dance move.

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