A CNN “Great Big Story” film crew is set up inside the First State Dance Academy in Milford, Delaware. Michele Xiques-Arnold, once a professional dancer herself, marvels at the cameras rotating throughout the space she took over almost 20 years ago — and the places it has taken both herself and her students.
For Xiques-Arnold it all started as a child falling in love with ballet in South Carolina and finding out her father, who was in the Air Force at the time, had been transferred to Dover, Delaware. Her mother hunted around and discovered the Marion Tracy Dance studio, a connection that would unknowingly set the rest of her life in motion.
“I started training at Marion Tracy in Dover when I was 12,” she recalls. “Then it was on to North Carolina School of the Arts, Joffrey Ballet School in New York City and then my first professional work came in Pittsburgh at Civic Light Opera.”
She found herself working with Meredith Baxter (from the TV show “Family Ties”) and aiming toward a Broadway career. “I soon found that I would make it through the dance auditions, but once I sang, they were like, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’” Following her struggle to make it on Broadway, Xiques-Arnold then did a season at the Shea Theater for Empire State Ballet in Buffalo and was later offered a contract to dance with the Atlanta Ballet.
An ankle injury brought Xiques-Arnold back home to Delaware in 2001. A string of occupations ranging from firefighter to EMT to nursing student pushed her further and further away from the magic that had driven her since childhood.
Out of the blue, friend Maria Fry, who also danced at Marion Tracy Dance Studio, made an offer that would change her life. Fry was running a studio in Milford called A Dance Class and offered to hand it over to Xiques-Arnold, even though she had no business experience at all and was afraid to fail at something Fry had worked so hard to create. But Fry offered to mentor Xiques-Arnold for a year as well as help teach — and First State Dance Academy was born.
“Next year will be my 20th year in business.” Xiques-Arnold estimates there have been around 1800 students who have spun through her studio at that time. “The opportunities we have made for the kids, and their parents— some of the kids have taken their parents to places they would never have gone, out of the country for performances or on tours. Often these are people who don’t like to leave their state or home, who have to go outside of their comfort zone to support their kids. And they were able to share something they would have never have.”
When asked about the challenge of going from dancer to instructor, Xiques-Arnold is clear. “When you are directing, and not on the other end anymore, it’s hard not to miss it. It’s almost like a drug, a healthy drug being on the stage, doing something you’ve strived for. It takes years to get over, the performance high and the rollover coaster of it. But I am really happy to have done it, and to have kids who I can work with to produce what is in my mind on a stage.”
“It’s my dream to have access to a performance arts center in or near Milford that has all that is required to put on a proper ballet.”
“Next year will be my 20th year in business,” Xiques-Arnold notes, estimating there have been around 1,800 students who have spun through her studio in the last two decades. “The opportunities we have made for the kids and their parents — some of the kids have taken their parents to places they would never have gone, out of the country for performances or on tours. Often these are people who don’t like to leave their state or home, who have to go outside of their comfort zone to support their kids. And they were able to share something they never would have.”
When asked about the challenge of going from dancer to instructor, Xiques-Arnold is clear.
“When you are directing, and not on the other end anymore, it’s hard not to miss it,” she says. “It’s almost like a drug, a healthy drug, being on the stage, doing something you’ve strived for. It takes years to get over, the performance high and the rollercoaster of it. But I am really happy to have done it and to have kids who I can work with to produce what is in my mind on a stage.”
Xiques-Arnold has many student highlights, but one of the most memorable is Anna Edmondson.
“I saw something in her and let her parents know she might want to consider going somewhere year-round,” Xiques-Arnold recalls. “She was that rare combination of the right body type for ballet and had boundless passion. Sure enough, she was accepted into the Kirov Academy of Ballet in D.C., where she studied for four years and then ended up at the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was the only American at the time, and she came from Delaware!”
Another student of Xiques-Arnold’s, Jayna Ledford, is featured in the CNN “Great Big Story” documentary (https://youtu.be/fD_3lUpCTM0) recently filmed at the studio. Ledford is a transgender woman who was at Kirov Academy before coming out as female and came back to train with Xiques-Arnold afterward.
“It’s created some amazing conversations,” Xiques-Arnold says. “This a public dance school, and it’s open for anyone and everyone.”
The business challenges of running a dance studio have pushed Xiques-Arnold to innovate. She’s currently working on Wizarding World of Ballet — the first ballet built around a Harry Potter theme. This is part of a series of ballets that she has coined as Cinemaballet (https://www.facebook.com/cinemaballet/).
“I wanted to create something with a hook outside of ballet to entice people to check out a show,” she says. “I started with ‘Twilight,’ which was a huge success. Then ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ‘Annie the Ballet,’ ‘Alice In Wonderland’ and ‘Duke Ellington’s Jazz Nutcracker’ at the Schwartz Center in Dover.
“I am always working on the business, right up until I go to sleep.”
Xiques-Arnold says the largest challenges are production costs and having to rely so much on volunteers, both things that having a proper venue locally would fix.
“It’s my dream to have access to a performance arts center in or near Milford that has all that is required to put on a proper ballet,” she says. “It would be a bigger draw for us. Something with professional lighting, sound, dressing rooms and location support.”
“It’s actually a real opportunity for a growing state, and I think it would be embraced. It would also mean is more professionals coming out of Delaware, more Delaware students getting scholarships and opportunities that they would not have otherwise. And that’s just for what we do. Imagine the ability to bring in larger music acts, comedians, etc. to the area. It would be a great draw for whatever town is able to have the vision.”
Xiques-Arnold was Delaware Division of the Arts (DDOA) Individual Artist Fellowship winner as an Emerging Artist in 2014. She recently received a 2020 DDOA Fellowship, this time as an Established Professional.
“There have been so many challenges, and you can take that in a number of directions,” she says. “I like to think it has driven me to make this better and reinvent.”