Former students surprise Kochert

Deborah Kochert has no idea how it was all pulled off.

During a recent 25th anniversary Dance by Deborah recital at Crawfordsville High School, dozens of former students threw a surprise performance of their old routines, bringing together alumni from across the country.

“I could not even physically contain my excitement, that’s how cool it was to see these people do this,” she said.

Plans for the tribute began at least three months before the recital, when a number of former dancers said they wanted to reunite for the anniversary.

Ashley Schinker, who now teaches alongside Kochert, put together a 20-minute video of well-wishes from alumni across the globe. 

The students then dug out their old dance tapes. Mallory (Bannon) Kessler, Kathryn (Denhart) Foland and Morgan (Reese) Morris also helped organize the act. Foland and Morris are teaching assistants at Dance by Deborah.

The group re-learned the routines and posted clips on a private Facebook group for out-of-state dancers. They held a team practice at the Athena Center.

“It was a really cool feeling when we all did the dance the first time, and everyone knew where to stand,” said Schinker, a fourth-year pharmacy student at Purdue University.

On recital night, the dancers sneaked backstage, as Kochert rounded up current students for the opening number.

Once the younger dancers left the stage and Kochert had made announcements, one of the former students took the microphone. 

Kochert was asked to sit in the front row, next to her younger sister, Lisa, and mother, Gloria, as the tribute video played.

Then the curtain opened, revealing more than 30 dance alums on the stage.

“How no one actually leaked it to me is a miracle,” Kochert later said, “because a lot of these people actually talk to me, and I do keep in touch with former students and… know what’s going on in their lives.”

The alums also bought customized Nike shoes for Deborah and Lisa,  and gave Grace a special pendant.

Kochert wants to bring together former students again, this time away from the stage. Thousands of dancers, young and old, have taken her classes.

It all began with a pair of dance shoes.

Kochert needed them for a childhood gig with the Sugar Creek Players, and when the play was over, Grace suggested taking dance lessons until the shoes wore out.

By high school, she was teaching dance at the Park and Rec.

After graduation and bound for Purdue — where she didn’t know what to study — Kochert spent a summer as choreographer and backup dancer for an inspirational singer she met in the PRIDE program.

Gloria recommended making a living out of dance and going back to school if it went bust.

By 1992, she was balancing dance classes with choreographing school musicals and show choirs. She was active in Vanity Theater.

When a place on North Green Street came up for rent, she decided to start her own studio.

Friends helped her renovate the building, which opened with less than 100 students and a single dance room.

In the mid-to-late-90s, Kochert borrowed a minivan and drove children to their first dance convention in Cincinnati. On the way over, a window wouldn’t roll up, and coming back they had to rope closed a broken sliding door.

The whole experience was a key moment for the studio’s early days.

“They were learning all about this big world of dance, but so was I,” she said, sitting in the lobby of her studio. “I was learning how to run something.”

A few years later, more than 60 children and their families went to a nationals competition in Florida.

The studio moved to the former Dellekamp’s Department Store at 131 E. Main in 2002. Kochert and her instructors now teach roughly 225 students ages two and up.

Classes are offered in jazz, tap, ballet, pointe, tumbling, hip-hop and cheerleading.

The business is a family affair. Lisa has taught since the beginning, while Gloria orders supplies and keeps the books.

Marcie Morgan, Hannah Rich and Kaitlyn Nordenbrock are the other instructors.

Kochert has thought about expanding the studio so more of her former students can teach. But her 6-year-old son, Sebastian, 9-year-old daughter, Gianna, and 11-year-old nephew, Brenden, seem to have the future mapped out. 

The kids have already picked out which rooms they will teach in, leaving Deborah to run the business side.

“They’ve got it all done,” Kochert said with a laugh. “So I guess I can rest easy.”