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The DANCE TEACHER



Toni Szparaga

True Crew dancers surround Toni Szparaga after The Grinch Who Stole Crew-mas, performed at Kane Center’s Frances Langford Theatre and Auditorium. LORI VAN DIEN

BY LORI VAN DIEN

The word Believe is gleaming everywhere upon entering Toni Szparaga’s dance studio in Port St. Lucie. But it’s not just believe-themed banners, plaques and trophies lining the the walls — it’s the very life force that drives her to teach children.

“This has been an undertaking but every single second has been worth it,” Szparaga said. “The most enjoyable part is seeing these children succeed, overcome obstacles, learn how to believe in themselves and the biggest thing is just seeing them happy.

“To see a child come here introverted and after working with us, they believe in themselves and get out there and shine,” she said. “Everyone has a different way of learning. No matter what, everybody has something special to give to a performance — we just have to find it. That’s my job. To make sure they feel that someone believes in them, and we accomplish getting them to believe in themselves so they can go out and defeat any obstacle.”

An only child from New Jersey, Szparaga’s parents enrolled her in dance class at age 2. She recalled always wanting to teach dance. Trying out for The Rockettes, she got through an audition wearing heels but in the second round she was asked how tall she was without heels. “I was too short by their standards,” Szparaga said.

Szparaga was a paralegal in New Jersey by day while operating her dance studio for seven years. She had to close that studio when she moved to Port St. Lucie to be near her parents. It was so painful she swore never to open another or have anything more to do with dance.

“That lasted about six months. It was in my blood; I couldn’t be without it,” Szparaga said. “My parents wanted me to have a real job because in dance you can get injured, so I became an elementary school teacher.”

She taught at Windmill Point Elementary from 2004 to 2011. While there, she voluntarily launched an early morning dance team with 120 children, which helped families save money on before-school care.

“Windmill Point only had a chorus program back then, which didn’t appeal to most boys,” Szparaga said. “When I brought in hip-hop, the boys loved it.”

Szparaga was honored with the Jefferson Award in 2010 for her work with the dance program. The award is issued by WPTV News Channel 5 for “contributing to your community and improving the lives of others.” When the station called regarding the award, she thought someone was pulling her leg. She had no idea her name was submitted, so winning was a complete surprise.

Shortly after moving here, Szparaga moonlighted at a local dance studio. And when she eventually decided to leave, several parents urged her to continue teaching out of their homes. “Those children told friends and suddenly I had 25 students wanting to dance, so I rented a room at the Port St. Lucie Community Center in 2005,” she said. “The name True Crew is because all the parents that asked me to stay and teach their sons and daughters were my true family. Back then, everyone wanted to be a crew so we ended up with the name True Crew. They were the people who stayed true, stuck close and kept telling me, ‘You can do this, and we want you to do this for our kids,’ — and I did.”

As in life, students move on, but, they keep coming back to the True Crew.

“Last year, we did a sequel to an older production and 15 of my original students joined us on stage with their babies that I am now teaching,” she said. “It’s hard when they leave, but so rewarding when they return later on — or to see success stories, I’ve had three students get full dance scholarships.”

“We’ve been with True Crew since a year after this studio opened,” said Dicey Jones, the mother of two students. “My daughter Mikayla won a full dance scholarship this year at IRSC because of the technique she learned here. She is already training with second-year students. My son Matthew has been here since he was around 6. The boys get medals every year — they won fifth place in the 2017 World Dance Championships.”

This year has been the most incredible year ever, according to Szparaga. True Crew performed for judges and three groups qualified to compete at the 2017 World Dance Championships. The entire 47-person team ages 4 to 18 flew to New Jersey.

“All three groups placed in the worlds,” she said. “Our boys hip-hop group won third, our Junior Jazz group placed fifth. Our Jungle production won fourth overall, which also earned me the Best Choreographer award. I was so shocked and visibly shaking accepting the award. It was amazing. True Crew reigns as regional, state, national and now the world championships. I’m so proud of my team.”

Another unique feature of her studio is integrating special-needs children into its programs.

“I have a little girl who started out in a wheelchair,” she said. “They told her mom she would never walk or talk. Not only does she walk and talk — she runs, jumps and dances. She can do it.

“My younger students enjoy working with her. I get emotional every time,” she said. “I teach every age, from when they are in pullups to age 18. Children can learn anything as long as you work with them and give them the time.”

The studio has expanded from 1,000 to more than 4,000 sq. ft. with 180 students since opening in 2006. Szparaga hired teachers beginning with Leah Paige for modern, contemporary acrobatics and Kyle Coleman for hip-hop and acrobatics. Recently, she has added MaryAnne Asdal for tap, Joyce Hurly for ballet technique and Maddie McIntosh, who teaches musical
theater.
“Once I decided to go into the studio full time, things just exploded,” Szparaga said. “I have the most incredible staff, kids and parents — we’re family. I’m fully certified and understand anatomy to avoid injuries. The parents are entrusting me. I do this for the love of the children.

I’m right where I wanted to be back when I was 17 but now I’m 50 so — it’s the circle of life.”



TONI SZPARAGA

Age: 50
Lives in: Port St. Lucie
Occupation: Dance studio owner, teacher, director
Family: Sons AJ Pressimone, 23, Michael Szparaga, 15, stepson Jon Szparaga, 25, husband Casey Szparaga
Education: Bachelor of Arts in Education, grades K-6, Physical Education grades K-12; ESOL endorsed; works professionally with special needs students; an associate degree in business, certified paralegal. Dance/theater certifications through DEA — continues performing arts training through Dance Teachers Summit annually in NYC. Continued Dance Education Certification through Dance Teacher’s University in association with UNLV.
Who/What inspires me: “Seeing students begin to believe in themselves and succeed — the smile and excitement is something you will never forget, no matter the age.”
Something most people don’t know about me: “I don’t like public speaking”