Beloved and respected, the Academy of Movement and Music has taught children an appreciation of dance and other forms of performance arts since its creation in 1971. Now, those children and their families are showing their gratitude by making donations to save the academy from its final curtain call.
“It makes me feel really hopeful that the school will go on and continue to be a part of the community,” said Stephanie Clemens, its owner and founder.
COVID-19 has presented profound operational and financial difficulties for the academy, from limited class sizes and canceled performances to continuing to pay the high overhead expenses for the large, old building off Lake Street where lessons are taught.
Despite receiving loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster program, the academy’s financial situation became an “emergency,” according to Clemens.
“It’s always been hard for me to put my hand out and beg, but I’m responsible for the people that work for me,” said Clemens. “It was hard to say, ‘Look, this is getting down to the wire.'”
At the urging of students’ parents, Clemens launched a GoFundMe campaign Oct. 13 to save the academy from permanent closure. And donations have come pouring in. In its first six days, the campaign amassed just over $49,000, roughly 82 percent of its goal.
“The fact that the GoFundMe is as successful as it is in the first few days leads me to believe I can pay the mortgage and the taxes,” said Clemens.
The Academy of Movement and Music began in Clemens’s Oak Park living room. Kids in the neighborhood and Clemens’s sons became the academy’s inaugural students.
“I rolled up the rug and had two little neighborhood girls come to start,” said Clemens. “I had a toddler and a baby walking around in diapers at the time.”
By the time the academy held its first recital in 1977, 77 children were learning to dance under the tutelage of Clemens, a Julliard-trained dancer.
The academy is something of an institution, teaching ballet and jazz, as well as the techniques of famed choreographers, including Martha Graham. One of Clemens’s sons now serves as the school’s ballet master. Upon retiring, Clemens plans to have him take over the academy.
Outside of dance, the academy offers piano, guitar and voice lessons and preschool classes that nurture creativity and curiosity through art, music and movement. It also hosts creative movement workshops for people with disabilities and without.
“I’ve put my life’s work into this,” said Clemens.
Housed in the remaining portion of the old Bishop Quarter Junior Military Academy, the academy is at 605 Lake St. in Oak Park.
Thousands of students have taken lessons at the academy. Many have gone on to get college degrees in dance and returned to teach. Through the years, Clemens has been able to keep in touch with about 1,000 former students and she “dearly loves” seeing them and their families. Many children of former students have become students.
“It’s a very large family, but it’s a family and to see that go down because of COVID, it was terrifying and terribly depressing,” said Clemens.
If the $60,000 GoFundMe goal is met or surpassed, Clemens believes the academy will be able to continue at least until next fall.
“The goal will get us through August of 2021,” said Clemens. “And we’ll hope that there are vaccines and that we can function more normally.”
In addition to what has already been raised, the academy will receive $5,000 from the Pinnacle Foundation through a matching grant.
The GoFundMe page has no single large donor, but a long list of people who have made donations in amounts starting at $5. The largest individual donation on the list rings in at $2,500.
Young kids are breaking into their piggybanks and sending Clemens their allowance money. Other students have committed to sending money out of each paycheck, including one former student who completed a college degree in dance.
“I don’t know exactly where he is working, but he sent me $100 and he said, ‘I am going to keep donating this much out of every paycheck I get,'” said Clemens.
Another student, Max Gorgol, now a graphic designer, revamped the academy’s website free of charge. Gorgol was an academy preschooler, as well as one of its dance students.
Clemens is filled with appreciation for the support and love the academy has received.
“And to hear how much it’s meant to people over the years – thankful is not a big enough word. It’s profound gratitude.”