By Kyla Hurt
(Click on picture for slideshow)
Dance icon Eleanor Stevens is retiring after 51 years in business and 46 recitals, having been the area’s quintessential presence for dance education. She is the woman behind Stevens School of Dance & Gymnastics.
Along with her husband, Dr. Tom Stevens, the two built Stevens in 1981, creating a place where dancers and gymnasts both could hone their dance skills … a place where she could instruct and guide them to a place of self-confidence and talent.
Born and raised in Menomonie, Wisconsin, Eleanor Eighmy (pronounced like Amy and the namesake for daughter Amy later in life), is a twin. She and her brother, Alan, were six months old when their mother was killed in a car accident. Their father’s parents took in Alan, while Eleanor initially stayed with her father, saying, “I had some stepmothers that weren’t nice – one tied me to the clothesline. I was put up for adoption – the lady got pregnant and sent me back. I mean, until my grandmother took me – she said they’d take me once I was school age. Then, it wasn’t so hard. Luckily, she lived kitty-corner to the school. Then, things were good.”
Her proximity to the school and the fact that every school in town had a skating rink was a start into dance-type movements. “I was a skater. We ice skated every day. I mean, every school … every grade school had a skating rink. So, there were a lot of talented people on the ice those days, and I was really good at skating. Of course, when you do it every day, you’d be good it,” Stevens says.
Ice skating was a start in the movements and feel of dance. She was also on the tumbling team from seventh grade through her senior year of high school. Also a cheerleader, Stevens was able to do various gymnastic jumps at this point. “I had a lot of confidence after I got to the seventh grade. Before that, I was an insecure child. By seventh grade, I could do everything. I was a cheerleader. I was homecoming queen. I just did it all, because then finally in seventh grade I was secure.”
Stevens credits her ability to dance, tumble and cheer at that age for giving her confidence. Stevens also began competing in baton twirling. “Baton twirling was big. Someone made my costumes back then, so that was a big deal. You didn’t have companies you ordered from. You had someone make your costumes. We had sparkly costumes – something that was really shiny … So, twirling was a thing that I also practiced every day.”
She continued living with her grandparents, who were Norwegian, through high school. Stevens recalls how her grandmother, Ragna, would speak in Norwegian. Now, she makes sure all of her grandchildren know the Norwegian prayer, sharing an anecdote, “I said it to Calla and Claire [Kaufmann, her granddaughters] … they were going to the Catholic school Okay, you have to memorize this. I’ll give you $25 if you memorize this. They taught it to all the kids in the program. They made it into a cheer.”
Stevens begins a heartfelt holler of the cheer as she started to laugh. “Their whole playground knew it.”
After graduating from Menomonie High School in 1956, she met Tom Stevens and the two were married. He had a teaching degree in math and the two moved to Chetek, Wisconsin, where he taught. “While he was in Chetek, I taught tumbling and I taught twirling there … and would go to camps and pick up ballet classes at camps, so then we’d go to camps in the summertime at Wisconsin Dells … pick up dance classes.”
Eleanor and Tom Stevens had three children, Shelly Stevens (Bob Groesch) and Tony (Leisa) Stevens, and Amy Stevens Kaufmann (Tom). Tom Stevens continued with his education, earning his bachelor’s degree in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and after, they moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he received his Master’s Degree and notes Eleanor Stevens, “That was the only time I didn’t do anything dance-wise was when we went to Columbus … and I was strictly a mom for that period of time. Otherwise, I’ve taught all the time.”
Next was a few years back in Wisconsin before moving to the Chicago area. While her husband was getting his doctorate, she took dance at the school of a woman she remembers, Viviene Chamara. “She taught all the forms of dance. Anything that we taught here [Stevens School of Dance & Gymnastics], she taught. Well, we didn’t do hip hop back then, but we did ballet, jazz, tap [etcetera].”
Dr. Tom Stevens took a position as the head of the deaf education program at MacMurray, bringing the family to Jacksonville in 1969. “I had thought about [starting a school], but we were coming to Jacksonville and my husband’s a professor and the professors’ wives could take any classes they want … I took all the PE classes, and in the PE classes, there was trampoline and there was throwing the javelin … there was all these fun PE classes and I was in such good shape and then became pregnant with Tom E. (Megan).”
While in Jacksonville, their daughter Shelly had started with the local dance teacher and came back saying that she wouldn’t continue with the month of classes there, telling her mother, “They don’t know any of the French words, Mom. I’m not going back. It’s a waste of my time and you should do something.”
That was 1971 when Eleanor Stevens started teaching in the basement of their home on Cardinal Drive. “Tom put up bars and so Shelly and the neighborhood kids came over and I started doing a little dance class. Then, they started inviting their friends. I mean, we had the Ware kids and the Schroeder kids, they were right in the neighborhood … so, we were getting quite a few kids.”
That went on until a neighbor complained, saying that the home wasn’t zoned for business. Stevens finally found a space at Capps Clothing. “They had a room like this [motioning to the front room at Stevens School] and so we put bars up there and we rented there for eight years on the second floor.”
That was great except for a few things. “Tom Armstrong owned the building and he was a great guy … I’d say to him, ‘Do you think that at like four o’clock, you can stop the inloaders?’ All my ballerinas would be standing at the bar going plié and thinking the ceiling is going to fall in.”
After pinching pennies in those eight years, there was enough saved to build. In 1981, Stevens School of Dance & Gymnastics was constructed at 1321 Tendick St. in Jacksonville. Along with her daughter Shelly helping with all the classes, Eleanor Stevens began in her own space. In 1992, “We put on a second addition, which was an absolute must.”
Stevens laughs recalling that the carpenters did not understand her that she wanted a “hole in [her] ceiling,” which she would use for rings. The front room floor is a salvaged wood slat basketball floor.
It wasn’t only Shelly being involved, explains Stevens. Claire and Calla Kaufmann practically grew up in the studio, too. “The thing is, it really was a family thing. At Capps Clothing, Tony spotted girls on their back handsprings or back tucks … Dr. Tom spotted. I mean, it was the whole family. Everyone did something … girls were bigger than I am, so lifting … Tony came and he did it. Dr. Tom did it. Amy was in high school then and she would walk down and help. The whole family had to help. I really didn’t have coaches to draw from.”
At the new building, they became the “premier place for girls and boys to learn a variety of dance styles, including tap, ballet, jazz, pointe, modern, pom-pom, lyrical, contemporary and hip hop. In addition, baton, belly dancing, ballroom dancing and break dancing have been offered over the years. In addition to the dance studio, Stevens has offered recreational gymnastics, recreational cheer, competitive gymnastics teams, competitive tumbling, trampoline and double mini teams, competitive dance teams and competitive cheerleading squads. It is a unique opportunity to find this variety of skills being offered at one studio. The Stevens family, under the leadership of Dr. Tom and Mrs. Stevens, has created a place where opportunities are plentiful, and the goal has always been to build confidence in all students,” says Kristan Becker Hoffman.
First State Champion was in 1986 for the All-Around; Kristan Becker is the name on the pennant flag still displayed on a wall with other following champions. Notably, Kristan Becker Hoffman started with Eleanor Stevens back when she taught in her basement. Stevens says, “I didn’t take them unless they were three and potty-trained … Kristan was probably two … I can still see her standing on the stairs looking at me, saying, ‘Where are MY tap shoes?’”
One of the best parts about Stevens School of Dance & Gymnastics is how Eleanor Stevens would work directly with someone, pushing them to learn and believe in themselves. The family was in most every day working alongside her. Two secretaries have been with her all these years, Mary Mumford and Kim Ross, and Stevens jokes that she would have had to retire earlier without them. Otherwise, it’s been family. They’ve never had another person teaching in the dance studio, she says.
“Before COVID, I was teaching all day Monday, Tuesdays I was here with the team and then two rec classes …Wednesdays was our easy day of tap and gym … Thursday I had rec classes … Friday was our day off. Then, we did classes all day Saturday and had team kids on Saturday, too. Sunday, we took kids to competition.”
Such a rigorous schedule, but it seems to have kept her youthful. She says that the belly dancing class was the most fun of all, adding, “I was in the best shape of my life. We had a little troupe that would do stuff [events around town].”
“We even taught disco. That was fun … we taught that at Capps Clothing. Couples dance classes were always rewarding … wives would drag their husbands in here (she laughs). But, the disco, it really helped me pay for this building … a lot of young kids did that … it was a big saver of money.”
The presence of Eleanor Stevens has impacted other lives. Llaina Groves and Sara Roegge were her students and now have their own schools, Llaina’s Dance and Gym and Sara’s Studio of Dance, respectively.
Without hesitation, Stevens says her favorite part of it all is the kids. “It’s so fun to watch them learn things. They do a cartwheel and land on their feet and it’s like, WOW, did you see me do that?.”
As students age, some of them become afraid to do something, she adds. “So, once you can get them over the fear of doing something is an accomplishment, too.’
“The thing that I wanted the kids to get out of this building is to get a lot of confidence,” she states. Just like the little seventh grader Eleanor Eighmy, confidence is key. …
With her retirement, the business is being taken over by Amy Stevens Kaufmann, Claire Kaufmann and Calla Kaufman and will be renamed as Legacy Dance & Tumbling Complex. “The girls will take over this dance season,” she says, explaining further that dance season usually starts September 1, but should start sometime in September this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Maybe if they can’t find any help, they’ll have to hire me as an hourly worker sometime (she smiled).”
Her daughter, Amy (Stevens) Kaufmann says starting with a chuckle, “Anyone who is a part of a family business knows that makes life more interesting! But, seriously it has been a pleasure working with my parents over all these years. They put 110% into everything they do and have taught me that hard work truly does pay off.”
Granddaughter Calla Kaufmann remarks, “51 years! Wow. 51 years of hard work, laughs, tears, determination, defeat and victory. My grandparents have created an amazing legacy and I am both inspired and motivated to continue in their footsteps. They were both parents and grandparents to many more children than just my immediate family. The relationships and memories made inside that building hold a very special place in my heart.”
It is precisely that. Eleanor Stevens is the face of the family that has created a legacy in this area. Her name is known. Her talent and love for what she has done is clear. Eleanor Stevens and Stevens School of Dance & Gymnastics retire gracefully, allowing the legacy to continue with Legacy Dance & Tumbling Complex. Congratulations, curtsies and bows to you, Eleanor and Dr. Tom Stevens.