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Denise Gulbranson's passion for dance has not diminished over time, her students embracing the tutelage meeting individual needs. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

A lifetime of dance

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The young dancers move with a graceful elegance, their faces a study in concentration.

Before them stands their instructor, of gentle voice and regal posture, her decades of experience on the dance floor evident...

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Denise DeCeault Gulbranson, instructor at Northland Studio of Dance in Park Rapids, began dancing at the age of 4 in Chicago. Four times a week, she headed to "reputable studios," where she became well versed in tap, jazz, ballet, contemporary, Afro-Cuban and dance theatre.

Attending a private school in Lemont, she remembers, as a freshman, riding the bus home to Chicago on a Friday afternoon. Dropped at a metro bus stop, she boarded another bus and headed downtown for ballet classes. At the conclusion of that class, she walked to another studio for tap and Afro-Cuban classes.

By 10 p.m. she was back at the bus stop, in a not-so-reputable part of the city.

"That was just Friday; I was back on Saturday."

At 13, she would earn an apprenticeship. Tested in the disciplines of dance, she was awarded a Certificate of Dance and began teaching classes. "Teaching was my love. I knew teaching was my purpose."

She began performing professionally in local theaters through the United Artist Dance Company at 16.

Gulbranson would take a break from teaching dance while raising children and pursuing a non-related career, but she continued to take classes, to maintain her "passion."

"I love learning, the creative process."

And she enjoys watching "the spark" in a child, especially those initially arriving "tripping on their feet."

Gulbranson grins when she recalls Tareyn Stomberg's entry into the world of dance, one of her first students. At age 3, she couldn't begin to disembark from the studio's 14-inch platform. "She was still toddling," she said of legs not yet meeting brain directives.

"To see her progress, it was like watching your own children grow and develop," she said.

Stars to be born

Gulbranson moved to Park Rapids in 1989. Working as a coding supervisor at the clinic, she determined she wasn't going to go back into teaching, but wanted to continue taking classes.

The closest class she found was in Akeley, being offered through Community Education.

Instructor Jo Hill had a background in ballet, but not other forms of dance.

That "ignited the spark in me," she said of her affinity for combination classes - tap, jazz and ballet, with hip hop and dance theatre thrown in for good measure.

"I was frustrated; I wanted to move on."

Fellow dance enthusiast and ballet student Jennifer Gytri asked if she and her husband were to buy a building, would she be willing to rent it and teach. The Gytris' two daughters received dance instruction prior to the move to Park Rapids; they wanted that to continue.

And Gulbranson's daughter Leah was also yearning for tutelage.

The galaxies were aligning; stars were about to be born.

"I remember that moment in time. I knew instantly that's what I was supposed to do," Gulbranson recalled. She felt herself moving to the music coming over the intercom in the clinic's break room and determined, "I have to do this.

"Once you surround yourself with your passion, it's in your bones, your muscle memory.

"I have always thought of her as my angel," she said of Jennifer Gytri.

That moment would send her through the next two decades teaching girls and boys to engage their bodies to perform through grace and precision of movement.

At the time of the studio's inception, located in a former church on Monico and Lake, Gulbranson was still working at the clinic. Her first-year student roster in 1993 numbered 18 students. "It was very part time."

Those numbers would grow to 130 to 140 students annually at the studio's height, with 110-120 students - ranging in age from 4 years to adults - currently arriving for "class."

And the June recitals have gained legendary status.

A leap over alligators

"Dance taps into creative processes," Gulbranson said of its allure.

A poster in the studio details the "whole array" of benefits:

Musicality

Coordination

Flexibility

Creativity

Imagination

Self-discipline

Self-respect

Self-confidence

Improved learning skills

Self-expression

Appreciation for art, and

Physical, cognitive, social, emotional and language development....

"It's another means of self-expression. It's so vital to the development of children," Gulbranson said.

Dance - creative movement -is so much more than simply moving the body, she maintains of the sequences and patterns (found to enhance math skills) and listening skills that are engaged.

"I look at every individual child and adjust my teaching method so they can learn," she of using innate "mother's intuition." "It's not simply talking, or watching feet."

Classic example of two-faceted jeté instruction: The majority of students in a class of 10 will embrace the technical definition of a leap - first throw your leg out and push off with back leg.

But a couple of students may require metaphorical instruction: "Jump over a swamp with alligators!"

"They usually get up higher," she said of leaping leotards.

Ballet is foundation

Classes are structured.

At the age of 4 (the youngest accepted) students must gain listening skills and learn to focus. "For some, it's the first time they have been presented with the challenge of listening in a social group.

"Repetition," she said, "helps learning. Kids love that. They know what to expect.

"But every six weeks, I spring a surprise. Tap first rather than ballet, improv dancing with props...

"It throws them a curve" - and grabs their imagination.

Classes for older students begin with a series of Pilates, working at the ballet barre to instill tradition, structure and technique.

"Ballet is the foundation of dance," Gulbranson said of gaining an understanding of the body's center, posture and balance. "Ballet principles are applied to every other discipline of dance."

Students who master turns in ballet use the same principals to execute turns in jazz and tap. "Ballet is a harsh discipline."

But this is not a competitive dance studio. Most of her students are also involved in sports and other activities.

And because of time and monetary limitations, Northland Studio offers combination classes - tap, jazz and ballet, "to provide a taste of all three."

"I want what will benefit 99 percent of the students," she said. "I feel comfortable with them getting sound fundamentals."

"Very few want to compete," she said of the one percent exception. "But they all love to perform.

"They fill their competitive need in sports."

The classes that form generally move forward together. "It motivates kids to keep up with their peers."

And after high school graduation, her protégés often find classes in college.

"I know I can't do this forever," she reflected. "I want what's best for the students and will always want a program to continue that involves multiple disciplines of dance.

"That's my hope."

Her class of 8- and 9-year-olds shares their mentor's aspirations, that dancing will transcend time.

"I'll be doing this 'til I get a cane!" Jaime Brann quipped.

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