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Photograph: Spooner Baumann PhotographyStudents at Maywood Fine Arts' dance school, Stairway of the Stars

Maywood dance school Stairway of the Stars faces uphill battle

Capital campaigns are tricky when your business model is providing lessons to anyone and everyone who needs them.

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Demolition will begin within days at 20 North 5th Avenue in west-suburban Maywood, of a three-story building destroyed over a year ago. Fire broke out in a thrift shop on its ground floor on March 12, 2010, spreading to an apartment and the dance studios of Maywood Fine Arts, the rest of whose classes—in drama, music and gymnastics—are held across the street in a former bank at 22 North 5th Avenue.

Stairway of the Stars, as the dance school is known, has been continuing its programs ever since in the nearby First Congregational Church of Maywood, and although the lost building’s owner, Walther Lutheran High School, donated the property to Maywood Fine Arts, academy founders Ernie and Lois Baumann need funds they don’t have to build new studios on the soon-to-be-vacant lot.

Demolition was scheduled to begin June 1; fences have gone up around the property, “but we haven’t seen any action yet,” Lois Baumann tells me by phone.

“If you want to talk about bad luck,” Baumann, 64, continues, “we were in negotiations with Walther for over a year to purchase the building as-is. Our plans were to renovate it, and we were days away from getting the title to the building,” when the fire consumed it, she explains. The couple rented the building’s third floor for more than three decades.

Maywood Fine Arts and Stairway of the Stars students will perform June 11 and 12 at [node:7554491 link=Proviso East High School Auditorium;] but proceeds from ticket sales ($15, kids and seniors $10) won’t make a dent in the amount the Baumanns need to raise: about $3 million. That’s because each of Maywood Fine Arts’ 700-some students, roughly half of whom take dance classes, is on scholarship, paying only 40 percent of the cost of tuition, sometimes less. “I had one of the little girls come up to me the other day, said, ‘Mrs. Baumann, this is gonna be my last show.’ I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ and she says her mom lost her job. I told her that this won’t be her last show, let me see your mom and we’ll let you keep taking your dance and tumbling classes.”

Maywood Fine Arts also runs a program called GOTS (Get Off The Street) that builds leadership skills, offering pay for assistance in teaching classes. Around 15 kids at a time, ages 13–18, have participated in GOTS over the eight years since its introduction.

Stairway of the Stars’ most famous alumnus is Craig Hall, a New York City Ballet soloist who grew up in the building and began training there at the age of four. “If my parents didn’t know where I was,” he tells me by phone, “they could find me there.” Baumann says she and Hall talk regularly, and mentions he’s also got a show this weekend, about which he’s a little nervous.

On Sunday, Hall will perform the title role in George Balanchine’s Apollo at Lincoln Center. The 1928 ballet, set to Stravinsky and once costumed by Coco Chanel, is considered by many to be Balanchine’s first masterpiece. Hall says “there would be no me” were it not for the Baumanns and their school, where he took classes until he was 18. Of his debut as Apollo, never before danced by a black member of the company Balanchine founded—including retired NYCB stars Albert Evans and Arthur Mitchell, regularly given leads in other ballets—Hall states calmly, “It’s huge.”

Says Baumann: “I grew up in Maywood and knew from the time I was 12 years old, ‘I’m gonna grow up and have a really nice dancing school, and that’s what Stairway of the Stars was. It was safe, it was clean, nothing high-tech or anything, but it was all those things that, oftentimes, we just don’t have around here.… My cause is the African-American child, underserved, and so I built all of this on that.… It’s just…” She trails off.

“Look, you’ve gotta be able to bring your child to a dancing class, is what my husband and I think. Even if you can’t afford it.”

See the next Maywood Fine Arts and Stairway of the Stars student recital, “Go Toys Go!,” at Proviso East High School Auditorium (807 S 1st Ave, Maywood; 708-344-7000) on June 11 at 7pm and June 12 at 3pm.

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