Changing the World through Dance
Sergey Gordeev for Dancer Magazine (published in November 2001 issue)
Throughout history, people have used dance as an important means of communication, self-expression, a tool for influence, and sometimes even as an instrument for societal change. For young students of dance at Robin Horneff’s Performing Arts Center in Waldwick, New Jersey, using the power of dance to make a difference is an integral part of their education – a part that is almost as important as dance training itself.
Opening the studio with her husband, Van, in 1977, Robin Horneff was not new to the world of dance. By that time, she had already performed in the Broadway show, Sugar, appeared on the Dean Martin and the Jonathan Winters shows with the famous tap dance ensemble, Golddiggers, and collaborated as assistant choreographer with the legendary Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire on the motion picture, That’s Entertainment, Part 2. She had also worked with the National Foundation for Excellence, where she developed a Gene Kelly college scholarship award for talented young performers, and collaborated with Gene Kelly on other projects.
Growing up in the family of Danny and Betty Hoctor – dance educators who pioneered the concept of dance conventions in America with their famous Dance Caravan – taught young Robin a lot about the world of dance and show business. But the most important lesson for her was that dance can be used to better the lives of people around her – and she took that lesson to heart.
“Since the very beginning of the studio, I wanted my students to understand that dance is more than merely a performance – it is a powerful way to influence lives and people, and with that comes a great responsibility,” says Horneff. “I have always tried to involve my kids in charity programs and events, because I believe that it is a very important part of their dance education. By using their art to help others, they will grow up to be conscientious citizens of our society.”
“We started with small things,” remembers Horneff, talking about some of her students’ first performances for charitable causes. “In the late 80s, we began by performing at events like the benefit concert for Tomorrow’s Children Foundation based at the Hackensack Hospital and others like it. Also around the same time we started performing at the Ronald McDonald House in New York City for families with kids who are undergoing cancer treatment – which we still do.”
“I felt that performances like those at the Ronald McDonald House were especially important for our kids to experience, because they were for their peers who are much less fortunate. Our dancing gave those children with cancer something positive to look forward to after a day of chemotherapy and being hooked up to hospital equipment. It is a very important educational message for our students about compassion and sharing.”
In the early 90s, RHPAC students began raising not only spirits, but also money for charitable causes. Their first financial contribution was by participating at a benefit for the Make a Wish Foundation, which started with a poignant idea to make terminally ill children’s wishes come true. Performing alongside guest star, Ben Verene, young dancers from RHPAC knew exactly what they were dancing for, and they danced with unmatched artistry and dedication.
It was the artistry and the high level of training of students from RHPAC made the studio well known in the 90s and resulted in prestigious invitations to major events, where often RHPAC was the only or the first dance studio from Northeast United States selected to perform. Among others, these events included the famous Orange Bowl half-time show in 1995, televised performances at the 1996 (Atlanta) and the 2000 (Sydney) Olympics, and performances for the Greek Children’s Fund, which over the years has raised over 5 million dollars to help treat over 5,000 cancer patients worldwide. But, perhaps, the most remarkable of these opportunities was the performance at the celebrated Princess Grace Awards in 1999, when RHPAC became the first dance school in the history of the awards to perform at the gala evening.
Horneff recalls, “For many years, the Princess Grace Foundation raised money to support young talent in the areas of playwriting, filmmaking, and dance. Usually, some of the winners would perform and there would be no concert for the audience. In 1999, my husband Van and I introduced the idea of a rehearsed performance as part of the evening, and we were brought in as the executive producers for the show.”
“Since the Foundation is so well known for its support of young artistic talent,” Horneff continues, “We thought it would be a great idea to present a dance piece that showed the development of an artist. The piece presented by RHPAC featured at first the 7 year-olds at the ballet barre, then our advanced ballet students with 6 o’clock extensions and dazzling turns, and finally that year’s recipient of the Princess Grace Award for achievement in dance – American Ballet Theatre’s Michele Wiles, partnered by ABT’s Gennadi Saveliev, who often appears at our studio as a guest master teacher.”
Honored by the Princess Grace Foundation board’s decision to invite RHPAC students to perform, Horneff smiles as she talks about performing in front of the venerable Crown Prince Albert of Monaco. “Our girls were very excited and a little nervous that evening – it’s not every day that you get to perform in front of royalty!”
Now an established arts education center with several studios in New Jersey, RHPAC continues to be well known for its support of charitable causes – with their most impressive effort just behind them. Raising almost $12,000 for AIDS research and treatment, RHPAC won a national fundraising contest for Dancers Responding to Aids. As the winners of the “Studio of the Year” title, RHPAC students performed at Lincoln Center on April 23, 2001.
Denise Roberts Hurlin, the Founding Director of Dancers Responding to AIDS, fondly remembers RHPAC students from another performance at the Remember Project, organized by Dancers Responding to Aids in 2000 at St. Mark’s church. “They are exuberant, talented young people who show a lot of conviction in supporting a cause that is important to the dance community nationwide,” says Hurlin about RHPAC students. “They are terrific and full of life.”
Opening her studio doors for the Fall 2001 semester, Horneff is already busy with planning the school’s next charity project – this time for the Nicholas Jonas Foundation, which raises money to build shelters for homeless people in New York City and other people in need. The Benefit Concert will feature kids from Broadway shows and the students from RHPAC, taking place at New York City’s Marriott Marquis Hotel on November 11, 2001.
“I am very proud of the many generations of dance students who went through our school and learned the value of compassion and giving while performing with our school at various charity events,” says Horneff, who has brought up her four children – Samantha, John, Vanessa and William – with the same values as those she has been sharing with her dance students. The oldest, 22 year-old William, is an accomplished actor who has appeared in several motion pictures, including a feature role in “Born to Be Wild” and, most recently, “Cash Crop” alongside Dawson’s Creek’s James Vanderbeek. Currently continuing his studies at Columbia University, William is in the middle of producing a documentary film about orphans in Russia – continuing his family’s good tradition of using the power of the arts to make this world a better place.