At 81 years “and still counting,” Pittsburgh dance icon Larry Cervi saw his name come down this month from the last marquee of what was once his network of six studios.
With his wife Donna, Mr. Cervi is a longtime resident of Churchill, where they raised four children. He has seen an array of dance trends appear, such as the rise of contemporary choreography in a lyrical vein, which he incorporated in his teaching, and competitive dancing, which he did not.
Also, he said, the growing popularity of girls sports was a factor affecting his studios in Point Breeze, North Hills, Robinson, Imperial and Penn Hills. One by one, they closed as more girls opted for volleyball or basketball. However, Broadway veteran and Cervi protege Kim Meyers Merge — of “Tap Dance Kid” fame — will continue operating Mr. Cervi’s Monroeville studio with Jennifer Probola under the name Premiere Performing Arts.
The studio honored this local legend in the midst of the current recital season with alumni from one of his pet projects, the East End Kids, a teenage song-and-dance ensemble. About 100 showed up at two Gateway High School recitals to sing a song by songwriter Jim Brickman called “Thank You,” all arranged by Mr. Cervi’s daughter Amy, who is the only one of her siblings to dance and who still works with her dad.
Mr. Cervi recalled that his career in dance began when, as a 9year old in Ambridge, he “fell off a cliff and broke both arms.” A doctor recommended that to rebuild strength and flexibility the boy should practice “twisting a stick.’’
The advice would prove to be a twist of fate.
A friend told Mr. Cervi he wasn’t doing it right and and began instructing him in baton twirling. That led to a scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh, where he became drum major for the band. Mr. Cervi earned a bachelor’s degree in English, a master’s degree in theater and an abiding interest in dance and theater.
He taught English in Swissvale schools and then in the former Churchill School District, where
he began staging award-winning musicals. He soon became a multitasker, working with twirlers at both his alma mater and and at Penn State University. He established the Golden Triangles baton group and founded the East End Kids company.
“I can’t believe my life,” he said. “I was planning to work at J&L [steel mill].’’
Over a career that spanned decades, Mr. Cervi said he tried to go “above and beyond.” He spent extra money to raise the floors at his studios so young dancers wouldn’t jump on concrete that could cause injuries. He focused on group choreography, rather than private lessons that could drive up student costs and take recital time away from the others.
In addition to Ms. Meyers Merge, hundreds of his students went into the dance and musical theater profession. Periodically, they gathered to celebrate him at a picnic or nominate him for the Tony Awards’ Excellence in Theater Education Award.
That is starkly different from what fans see on popular TV shows such as Abby Lee Miller’s “Dance Moms,” a show rife with drama and endless competition that originated in Pittsburgh.
Some local studios do participate in competitions, such as The Thomas Dance Studio, with locations in Bridgeville and Oakdale, dancers from which are national champions through the Federation of Dance. Others, such as Sewickley’s Wexford Dance Academy, may go to just one, a fully immersive experience in New York City that combines a competition with master classes.
These dance professionals agree that a solid, wellrounded technique is the foundation of a good studio. Wexford Dance Academy is one of a number of places with a Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre connection. Co-owner ElizabethMackin Karas was a soloist with the company and is one of a number of PBT dancers who turned to teaching aftera final bow on stage.
Others include Allegro Ballet Academy (Nurlan and Aygul Abougaliev) in the North Hills, Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh (Lindsay and Steven Piper) in Castle Shannon, Pittsburgh Dance House (Kwang Suk Choi) in Cranberry, Pittsburgh Youth Ballet (Jean Gedeon) in McMurray, and West Point Ballet (Cynthia Castillo and Damien Martinez Coro) in Coraopolis.
Some of those compete, mostly through the Youth American Grand Prix, the largest international student dance competition, which concentrates on ballet and contemporary dance. Regionals take place at Upper St. Clair High School with finals in New York City.
But Ms. Karas, of Fox Chapel, along with business partner Beth Robertshaw, of South Park, said that dance is not the only focus at Wexford Dance Academy. The school’s students attend regular high schools because home schooling and shortened school days do not provide what the women call a “real-world picture.”
And they focus on developing not only a wellrounded young artist but a well-rounded individual. Current student Chloe Rae Kehm of Imperial, one of 300 students at the academy, was named Best Actress this year at the Gene Kelly Awards for her performance in the title role of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at West Allegheny High School.
“Kids are having a hard time listening and processing these days,” Ms. Karas noted. So, she said, her school has gone back to traditional values, with activities like Simon Says, taking turns and sitting quietly for 20 seconds to “regroup.”
They also introduce improvisation early on to spur creativity. Young students might imitate an animal, but even the most advanced students this year “became the animal” in a dance project headed by Ms. Robertshaw in which the students create the choreography.
The Wexford Dance Academy instructors said they work on discipline to “create self-esteem — how to push through, how to keep on going even though it doesn’t feel right.” That can guide the students through life, whether it be dance or keeping dance a part of it, like Ms. Robertshaw’s daughter, Elie, who will attend Case Western University in Cleveland in the fall with a double major in biologyand dance.
In many ways, the Thomas studio may seem different. Many of its teachers are graduates of Point Park University or Slippery Rock University, such as Point Park graduate and artistic director Jessica Spencer, daughter of founder Linda Spencer, of Carnegie. The connection has stayed strong, even as far as bringing in Point Park faculty members Kiesha Lalama and Jason McDole to connect with the students.
The studio, a fixture since 1967, also features a 75-member competitive company. With that, Jessica Spencer, an award-winning choreographer herself, has observed the latest national trends. She has found highly athletic moves “like headsprings and handstands” in choreography that seems to be “a blend between hip-hop, contemporary, gymnastics and martial arts. It’s exciting to watch, but dangerous for the dancer if they aren’tproperly trained.’’
Like the Wexford Dance Academy, the Thomas studio maintains a belief that “we are training the whole person — not just a dancer or an artist, but a human.” It also strives to lay down a foundation for a well-rounded technique.
“Good technique never goes out of style” is one of Ms. Spencer’s favorite mantras. Underscoring that, it can also lay claim to New York City Ballet member Emily Kikta, daughter of faculty member PattiKikta.
Ideally, the studio’s goal, however,is not to be known as a competitive studio or a recreational studio. Ms. Spencer “despises” the term “recreational.” All students, whether competitive or recreational, “should receive the same great training and loving teachers because their timeis just as valuable.”
She wants “a dancer’s studio — a studio for kids who want to dance one day a week or the obsessed, passionate dancer who eats, breathes and sleeps it. I hope that is our contribution to the current dance trends.”
While dance may be escalating in popularity, it seems that traditional values, spanning several generations, will never cease to be important, especially for the ageless Mr. Cervi. This Benjamin Buttonlike man, who has inspired hundreds of performers, will keep on dancing as he continues to direct high school musicals at Gateway and Upper St. Clairschools.
Persistence and discipline seem to be key to success for these business owners. Ms. Karas, who is fond of quotes, came up with one by Pittsburgh native and Tony Award-winner Billy Porter: “If you think you’ve got what it takes, keep chiseling away.”