‘You Can Finally Breathe Again’
Amber Hemmer and her students at AHA! Dance in Cedar Grove, NJ, are celebrating a return to normal as they prepare for a mask-free recital — with new costumes!
Amber Hemmer has been running a dance studio for 17 years, and spring is always an exciting — if slightly stressful — time for her and her students.
This year feels a little more intense.
When new recital costumes arrived at AHA! Dance in Cedar Grove, NJ, a few weeks ago, Amber sensed even more emotion than usual in her students’ reactions. Their joy was palpable.
In fact, Amber could actually see the enthusiasm on their faces, thanks to New Jersey’s recent decision to lift mask mandates.
“We’re back to actually seeing kids’ faces and facial expressions again, which is what it’s all about,” says Amber, who’s planning a June recital with the theme, “Come Dance With Me,” in honor of a more open and socially-connected post-COVID world.
Amber chose Costume Gallery’s “Girl Party” 2-in-1 dance costume for her youngest students, whom she calls her “littles.” She intends to mix and match the costume’s versatile pieces for the ballet, tap, jazz and tumbling segments of the recital.
“I have a class of about 10 students, kindergarten through second grade, and they are beyond excited,” Amber says. “They got to try on the costumes last week for the first time, and they’re just super excited. That is where the excitement surrounding the recital really starts to build.
“I feel like the spring for dance studios is super stressful, because you’re worried about the costumes coming in on time, you’re worried about getting the choreography done, and there’s a million things going on at the end of the school year that we contend with all the way around. But the weather is getting warmer and the recital is coming up, and everything is starting to get put into place. After all the hard work from the fall and the winter and the struggle of all the past couple of years, it’s like you can finally breathe again.”
Like studio owners all over the world, Amber had to get extra creative and hustle extra hard to keep her business running through the pandemic. She successfully shifted to virtual classes in 2020 and was able to pull off an online recital (theme: “Into The Unknown.”) After moving back to in-person class and adjusting to dancing/teaching in masks, Amber still couldn’t secure her usual venue — or afford new costumes — for last year’s recital.
AHA! held its 2021 performance in a local fire hall (theme: “The Impossible Dream”) and stretched a tight wardrobe budget by recycling CG’s “A Star is Born” 2-in-1 costume from the 2020 show.
“We love it when you give us costumes that we can use [for different dance numbers], because it’s less changing backstage,” Amber says. “It’s much quicker and fewer things for the parents to remember. I add a lot [to the costumes] in terms of accessories, but we love those transition costumes, so keep ‘em coming!”
Although AHA! lost several students amid all the COVID chaos, bringing total enrollment down to less than 50, Amber says her small studio is coming back to life in 2022. New students are arriving and expanding class sizes. The June recital is returning to the Verona High School auditorium, where it was held for many years prior to COVID. Dancers are experiencing the thrill of brand new costumes and looking forward to performing on a real stage.
And, without those masks, it seems as if feelings are really flowing through the studio once again.
“I think especially in the creative arts, so much is about expression and connection between you and your audience, and wearing masks, it’s very difficult to show any expression,” Amber says. “You see the eyes, and the kids have very expressive eyes, which is great, but you miss the smiles and just being able to see if a student is being a little bit shy or embarrassed — that was all kind of shielded with the mask. So, it’s really just so much better to see their little faces and see their reactions and see if they are giggling or see if they are frowning or confused. Masks were a real challenge, and it’s just nice to not have that struggle anymore.”
Even before COVID hit, Amber was a hustler, holding down a number of different jobs in addition to running her studio. Her success in staying open for 17 years has been no accident.
A native of Bloomfield, NJ, Amber was well-trained by her late mentor, the renowned dance teacher Roseanna Smith, to teach a variety of dance genres and interact effectively with a number of different age groups. Amber’s business philosophy was inspired by her uncle: Instead of advertising, cultivate good word of mouth. So, although she did have to become more savvy with technology and social media to get through COVID, Amber’s main marketing “strategy” has been to establish strong relationships.
“I’ve had students that I taught 17 years ago that I’m now teaching their children, and that’s what kind of keeps you going, once you get a good core group of people that you like dealing with,” Amber says. “I love all my students and parents. I don't have many headaches. So, I think that was a really good piece of advice, and I always come back to my uncle’s words.”
As 2022 gets fully underway, allowing Amber and her students to take a big breath of fresh air and get back to what they love doing the most, Amber feels called to pursue a longtime passion project. She’s working on a book and developing a line of dolls called “Boogie Buds,” aimed at teaching young dancers about inclusiveness and how to be good friends. She hopes to fully launch her brand this year.
“The idea behind [Boogie Buds] is we are all different flowers from the same garden,” says Amber, who studied psychology at Desales University. “I want to promote accepting one another’s differences.”
Although she has branched out from her role as a dance teacher to include “author” and “entrepreneur” on her resume, Amber’s heart remains at AHA! with her students. Owning a dance studio was her dream ever since she was a little girl, and the determination it took to reach that goal has propelled Amber and her business through difficult times to brighter days.
“I kept on saying all through COVID, and one of our mantras at the studio was, ‘Keep on Dancing,’ and that’s what you’ve got to do,” she says.
All photos courtesy of Amber Hemmer. Amber Hemmer’s Academy of Dance (AHA!) can be found online at www.ahadance.com and on Instagram at @aha_dance. For more information about Amber and her Boogie Buds line of dolls, visit www.boogiebudbunch.com.
Costume Gallery thanks you for visiting our blog. Stay tuned throughout the season for more inspiring stories from the world of dance, and find inspiration for your next big performance by browsing our selection of in-stock dance recital costumes!