AVON PARK -For the past year, Avon Park native Brandee Rae Shattenberg has been giving the gift of dance to children between the ages of 3 and 17 through the non-profit dance troupe she founded, "Union's Rhythm."
The free after-school lessons, which were held on Monday and Tuesday nights at Union Church of Avon Park, have given up to 150 kids at a time the opportunity to enjoy jazz, ballet, tap, hip-hop and dance technique classes.
"Music and dance are my passion. I don't think I could go a day without dancing or wanting to choreograph something," said Shattenberg. "I care about kids. I wanted them to be able to have the full dance studio experience."
And they have - performing; making appearances in Christmas parades in Avon Park and Wauchula; holding fundraisers and sponsorship drives to cover the cost of events and costumes; and participating in the summer camp held for the troop's four competition dance teams.
Now, "Union's Rhythm" has outgrown the facility made available by the church, so the dance troupe, under the shortened name "Rhythm," is moving to a studio where they will hold a variety of dancing, singing and performing arts classes Monday through Thursday evenings.
"It's gotten really big, and the church only had two nights available for the program, so we are renting a place on U.S. 27, across from the old Publix," explained Shattenberg.
"Our goal is to be open by January 1. We will be able to run four days a week now, with Kelsie Jahna teaching some of the classes," she said.
"We started off wanting to offer an alternative to people in the community. Now, I've fallen in love with so many of these kids," said Ann Schwartz, a former Hardee County Realtor, who took over the administrative duties of the organization in June.
"Ann has been great," noted Shattenberg of her friend's organizational skills and business sense.
A graduate of Valencia Community College who earned her degree in communications from the University of South Florida in 2003, Shattenberg originally wanted to be a television broadcaster.
But after an internship with Channel 2 News, station WESH, in Orlando she returned to her hometown.
Shattenberg works as the office manager of Bagwell Lumber, an Avon Park business owned and operated for the past 58 years by her parents, Gary and Betsy Bagwell.
Dancing since she was 18 months old, Shattenberg reminisced about her mother taking her for her first lesson.
She said: "The minute she put me in class I leapt across the stage."
She started her own children, Mason and Baylee, in classes at "Dance Unlimited."
After seeing the community response to free classes for children and adults offered by "Happy Feet Dance Ministry" at Grace Bible Church in Sebring, Shattenberg decided there was a need for a similar program in Avon Park.
She found her students, many who come from needy families, through Facebook and by posting flyers.
Shattenberg said it is the enthusiasm of her current 80 to 90 students that has made all the time and effort devoted to this project worthwhile.
Approximately 55 kids showed up to dance in the Avon Park Christmas parade, 42 for the Wauchula parade, and over 50 people ate pizza, decorated cookies and visited with Santa during "Rhythm's" Dec. 16 Christmas party.
Now, the work of preparing the building and raising funds for the new performing arts theater has begun.
Fees at the new studio will be based on the national criteria for poverty level, but with fundraisers and grant requests written by Schwartz, the non-profit is hoping to provide a lot of scholarships.
"Union's Rhythm" has started a "Memory Wall Fundraiser" that will give people in the community who have experienced the tragic loss of a child the opportunity to have a wall mural done as a memorial.
Shattenberg explained that several of her young students have had brothers and sisters die, so she decided to dedicate the facility to "young kids who have lost their lives too early."
"It's been very difficult for some of the students that have lost their siblings," said Schwartz, whose first painting will honor 11-year-old Carmella Guzman, who died of pneumonia March 1, 2011. "They've told us their stories, and it touched our hearts."