She’s known as a dancer and a dance teacher, a producer and a kind of Santa Claus for Ahwatukee, but what some people may not know Kimberly Lewis as is a business woman.
Lewis is marking the 25th anniversary of her Ahwatukee business, now called Dance Studio 111, in recognition of the suite number of her massive school in a strip mall at 4910 E. Chandler Blvd.
The mother of three didn’t start out as a conventional businesswoman when she moved here in 1990 from Los Angeles with her then husband William “Bill” Lewis, a center for the Raiders who had been traded to the Arizona Cardinals.
“There wasn’t a lot of work for me,” Lewis recalled. “I had been living in LA, and I was a dancer and a choreographer and I had a lot of work there. But here, there wasn’t a lot of work so I kind of had to come up with my own career.”
Then, while watching the LA Lakers play the Phoenix Suns on TV in her hotel room, she had an idea.
“I said to myself, ‘Yyou know what, I need to make my own career,’” Lewis said. “So. I’m going to start a dance team for the Phoenix Suns. This was back before social media and cell phones. And I was in the hotel and I got the Yellow Pages out and looked up Phoenix Suns organization.
“And I called and I said, ‘I just moved here and I would like to start a dance team.’ And basically, they said, ‘Well we’re not interested’ and kind of hung up on me.”
But with the same persistence she has demonstrated throughout her career, Lewis wasn’t letting a cold shoulder dissuade her.
“I just kept calling and asking for different people and marketing and PR and finally got through to a guy and I said, ‘Listen, just don’t hang up on me and just hear me out.’”
Then, she offered to teach the Suns Gorilla how to dance, surround him with other dancers and work up some routines in the styles that dominated pop dancing back in the early 90s – mainly the steps pioneered by John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” and by MC Hammer on stage.
She rounded up some girls, worked with them and the gorilla – and got to debut her act at the Suns’ first home game.
The next day, Suns owner Jerry Colangelo called and offered her a contract.
For a while, she buzzed around the country with her dance team and the Suns, but after a few years, “I decided to start my own studio.”
:ike her experience with the Suns, that didn’t come easy.
“I’ll never forget going to the bank and looking at that note and knowing that, okay, I’m going to be divorced and I’m going to be a single mom and I’m going to be doing this completely on my own. But, I just took a leap of faith,” she said. “It was really scary to do.”
With a small faculty comprising her Suns dancers, she found a location on Ray Road and began promoting her school in the only way she could come up with in the pre-Digital Age: On roller blades.
“I took my children – at the time, they were little. They loved to roller blade and I took my brother and some of my friends and we all put on rollerblades and we would roller blade around Ahwatukee putting flyers on the doors,” she explained. “I think I was the second studio open in this area so I wanted everyone to know what I was offering.”
Slowly but steadily, parents started bringing their children and today, Dance Studio 111 has morphed into an expansive, multi-tiered school that’s no longer a typical dance studio.
Her classes span a range of ages and dance styles. “We have little babies, 2 to 3-year-olds,” she said. “And then we had like 4 to 5, 7-9, 10-12 and then high school age.”
“We currently have 80 classes a week to choose from. It’s a wide variety of classes – every style, tap, jazz, ballet, lyrical, hip hop, acrobats, musical theater. So, we offer every form of dance.”
Lewis feels that “depending on the age, depending on the level, you have to offer a wide variety. So, every child, whether they’re beginner dancer, intermediate dancer or advanced dancer ,has a class that’s going to fit them at their level, their style and their age.”
The studio also has a second dimension through a partnership with RLS Music Studio: It offers lessons in piano, drums, voice.
And atop that, her business also is home to the 111 Theater Company, which produces a musical in the summer,
“The business has gone to what you might call the triple threat – acting, singing and dance. We’re not just a dance studio – we’re a full performing arts studio.”
“Hundreds” of students have passed through the guidance and instruction of Lewis’ staff of about 20 people, some of whom have been with her since the beginning.
“What’s really surreal now is that girls that grew up dancing here now have their children are dancing, so that’s pretty neat to see the next generation and all the new memories,” Lewis said, adding:
“But you know, people think of a dance studio as just a dance studio where you come to learn to dance and it’s much more than that. Yes, we teach them how to dance, but we’re also preparing them for life, you know, their life skills, teamwork, working together, getting along well with others, being able to win awards, but then take rejection when they don’t.”
“It’s not just coming to dance, but I’ll tell you, you come here to dance and we’re going to teach you how to dance really, really well because I have an amazing team.”
Even within some of the classes, the students fall into one of two categories.
“We also have the competition side where you go as a team and you go and compete against other dance studios around the Valley because dance has become one of the number one competitive sport right now in our country,” she explained.
“So, you go and you compete, you win trophies, prizes, cash award, scholarships. A lot of scholarships are given. What I love about our studio, though, is that it’s also for the people that just want to come and learn how to dance and not have pressure to be on a competition team. We have a whole part of the studio that just focuses on getting them training and learning how to dance.”
Those students often find careers as a result of their work at Dance Studio 111.
“I’ve had a lot that have gone on and work professionally now. There’s so many to even keep up with. They got onto Disney. They work at Disneyland or Disney world. They’re dancing on Broadway. They’re dancing in LA. They’re doing commercials.”
Her student body is predominantly female, though she says boys – like her son, who plays for the Baltimore Ravens – can benefit, especially from ballet.
“They’ll want to take hip hop and jazz and lyrical or contemporary. They think, ‘Oh, ballet, I have to wear the tights and my hair in a bun and the leotard and then there’s the hours at the bar and the stretching.’ But without ballet, you’re not going to be a really strong well-trained dancer because ballet is your foundation of every other form of dance. To be really great technically well-trained dancer, you have to have that foundation.”
One thing that is not really part of her business is what she calls “my gift to the community´– The Ahwatukee Nutcracker, which she will present for the 19th consecutive year in December at Desert Vista High School. Tickets go on sale Sept. 15 for a show that routinely sells out all three performances.
Also starting in September are a whole new series of classes and parents can still sign up their children. Information: dancestudio111.com.
Lewis plans to make her 25th year a big one for her students and the community, including a reunion of her graduates.
But given her business’ longevity, her studio already is like a continuing reunion.
“So many friendships parents have been made in 25 years, lifelong friendships,” she said. “Parents come together and they don’t know each other and they meet here at this dance studio and they become the best and dearest of friends.”
“I was reflecting on our 25th anniversary, and I thought, ‘I still get excited to wake up and get dressed and go down to my studio and to start a new day and to see the children and the parents and to connect with them.’ It’s very rewarding to be able to still love what you do and look forward to the new. Like we’ve just started the new dance year and I’m excited.”