WARRENTON — As echoes of students practicing Spanish play out of a classroom, the clicking of others honing their tap dancing comes out of another.
The integration of dance and academics has been the vision for Denele Sweet since she turned her dance studio into a performing arts school during the coronavirus pandemic. Encore Academy, which serves around 50 students from preschool to high school, is nearing completion of its inaugural year.
Sweet teamed with several teachers to get the program up and running. Among the bunch is Courtney Bangs, the academic director for the program, who also serves as a Clatsop County commissioner. A longtime dance instructor at Encore, Bangs now also serves as a math and science teacher.
“We’re so happy to be able to serve our community in a different way, because public school isn’t for everyone and some kids need to wiggle. Some need music daily to make their academic life successful,” Sweet said.
Outside of traditional classes like math, science, social studies and language arts, the academy offers classes in tap, ballet, jazz, tumbling and several other forms of dancing. All 50-plus students participate in the dancing courses inside the building along Harbor Drive.
The program’s education does not deviate from traditional public school curriculum, Bangs said, but instead differs in atmosphere and sense of community.
Last month, the school was recommended for accreditation, a hurdle which Bangs and Sweet were thrilled to get over. Sweet called the process eye-opening.
“It took us all year long to get through. It was pretty rigorous and they dig deep into our teaching processes, continuous improvement plans,” Sweet said. “It was pretty substantial … it strengthened what we do here.”
Bangs, who has three children in the program, said reaching accreditation was important so graduating students could have options as they look toward college.
“It really validates what we’re doing here. It gives the kids the ability to be flexible, but it’s also a stamp of approval that you’ve reached legitimacy,” Bangs said. “It’s a difficult narrative to wiggle against when you’ve been a dance studio for 26 years.”
A former teacher at Knappa High School, Bangs pointed to research on the correlation between movement and learning, while also emphasizing the school’s embrace of individuality.
“I really feel like we have developed a safe space here … it’s something that I’m really proud of,” she said.
Sweet first opened Encore Dance Studio in Seaside in 1996 and later launched a second location in Warrenton.
In 2012, she branched into academics, adding a preschool program.
With the arrival of the pandemic, Sweet closed the Seaside location to put more focus on her studio in Warrenton. In doing so, she replaced her lobby furniture with desks, offering a work space for students who were doing school remotely.
As many sports and activities were paused during the pandemic, Sweet noticed that the kids needed an outlet for activity, which eventually inspired the combination of dance and academics at Encore.
“This has been a dream come true. For me, growing up, if I could have gone to school at my dance studio, get out of town, that would have been amazing,” she said.
Looking ahead, Sweet and Bangs have already eyed expansion, but are sticking to “quality over quantity” for the moment.
Among the considerations is child care, an area where the county has lacked options.
“Child care, it’s not off the table, we just don’t have the square footage to serve them right now,” Sweet said. “If it’s meant to be, then we’ll go down that road.”
The duo is also looking to add activities — like yoga or conditioning — for students who seek movement in their daily school schedule but don’t have an interest in dancing.
Additionally, Bangs wants to have all students fourth grade and higher taking the Spanish course.
“So they can do a time step and speak Spanish,” Sweet said, acting out the tap dance move.