After a final arabesque, the lithe woman wipes her brow and steps off the indoor stage during a rehearsal on a cold winter morning.
The dancers still on stage watch their leader step barefoot off the stage and pull on a pair of warm shoes.
“I just can’t resist getting out there and dancing once in a while,” says Erin Novak-Lustig. She’s clearly in her element on stage, her confident, graceful movements and flawless timing setting an example for the younger dancers she has welcomed to her troupe.
Taking a break from the rehearsal to talk about being awarded the 2013 Humanitarian of the Year by the Federation of Dance Competitions, Lustig watches with concern as one dancer pops an Advil and another bandages a foot.
“I think of myself as an artist, not a humanitarian,” says the founder and artistic director of Seamless Dance Theatre. “It’s just what I’m meant to do.”
Later at the H Block City Stage Theater in Union Station, 10 dancers of her troupe are gathered for a performance of “Solstice.” Adjusting gold and black bodiced costumes, they banter lightheartedly. One complains her hair requires too much fussing; another confesses an affair ... with Christmas cookies.
Above the chatter, the group pauses now and then to take direction from Lustig, who has settled for a moment into the audience seating to better appraise the scene.
“There’s a sense of camaraderie here that you won’t find in a competitive ballet company,” says Lustig, who owns Starstruck Performing Arts Center in Overland Park. “They are all friends, and they take care of each other.”
Moreover, as a group, they take care of corners of the population often ignored, like women and children in area domestic violence shelters, and children with special needs.
It was for her dedication in raising the awareness of dance to under-served populations that Lustig was named the Humanitarian of the Year by the federation, a nonprofit organization with a mission of raising money for scholarships and supporting the dance competition industry.
It’s an honor the entire nonprofit company deserves, says Lustig. Many dancers have been with the troupe since its founding in 2005; most make a living teaching at their own studios; a handful work at Starstruck.
Take Project Access, which pairs Seamless instructors with the University of Kansas Medical Center occupational therapy department. Becky Nicholson, clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy education at KU Medical Center, first approached Lustig about starting the class for special-needs children after hearing of a similar program, and the artistic director was quick to respond.
Today, several students and teachers volunteer, along with Nicholson’s daughter, Kelsey. Lustig calls Kristen Loeb, a longtime Seamless dancer, over to talk about the program.
“The kids enjoy every minute of it,” says Loeb, detailing the care she takes in working with children with limited mobility. “Every class is a gift for them and an even bigger gift for us.”
Nicholson agrees: “The special-needs dance classes that Seamless Dance Theatre have supported have been such a joy. I feel blessed to be part of the project.”
Through another project, Healing Hearts Through the Arts, Loeb and Lustig reach out to relieve the stress of women and children in domestic violence shelters.
“We had a lot more impact than I thought we would,” Lustig says. “I would do a stretch and relaxation class, and talk to them about nutrition. The difference in their confidence and self-image was dramatically improved after we worked with them.”
Essential to working with these populations, Lustig says, is the willingness to listen and come prepared to help women express the details of their difficult lives.
And that’s key to the hold dance has had on her since she was a child, Lustig says.
“I have a 2-year-old, and I run a business, so it can be hard, juggling it all,” says Lustig, gesturing to the dancers warming up on stage. “But I show up at night to practice with this group, and suddenly, it all falls away, and I’m just so happy to be with them.”
She also feels blessed that she can spend much of the daytime with her daughter at her family’s Olathe home while her husband, a doctor, is at work. He cares for the child many evenings.
“He’s supportive and understanding,” says Lustig, 32. “He understands that it’s dance that makes me ‘go.’
Dance has helped her spin the tapestry of her life since she dabbled in choreography as a child. She started Starstruck right out of high school in 2000, teaching in the evenings and attending the University of Missouri-Kansas City during the day.
“It’s what you do when you’re 18,” Lustig says with a laugh. “You start a business and go to school. You do it all.”
In college, she was drawn to the work of modern dance masters and fell in love with the concert dance setting. “From the performance and artistic side, I want to bring a different style and flair to concert dance,” she says. “I want people to leave our shows with something. So many things we do tell stories and reflect life. People relate to it.”
Lustig’s talent as a choreographer, and her deep respect for each word and note in the music, is reflected in her dancers’ every movement. Though she says modern and jazz are the two disciplines she focuses on, ballet touches several of the dances.
Most importantly, she says, is that she wants to open up the word of dance to children who might not have the opportunity to see professional dancers. Seamless puts on two free performances for schoolchildren every year, as part of its SPARK idea.
Recently, her dancers shared the stage with performers from Lucia Aerial Performing Arts at Union Station before one audience. Giggling and fidgeting ceased as the dancers leaped, whirled and wove around the aerial dance troupe, who spun and posed dramatically from ropes.
Even the most boisterous of children fell silent as the dancers performed to “Snow by Sleeping at Last,” which speaks of the joy and pain of family gatherings around the holidays.
The troupe embraced then gracefully parted, hands to hearts at the lyric:
“Like the petals in our pockets;
May we remember who we are;
Unconditionally cared for;
By those who share our broken hearts.”
The song ended to silence in the audience, broken only by a young girl who cried out, “Ohhh.” The mournful call seemed to trigger applause, and soon after, it was time for a question-and-answer session.
Lustig predicted most of the questions would be aimed at the aerialists who were so spectacularly spinning and bending overhead, but children of all ages tossed questions to members of both Seamless and Lucia.
“Do you get dizzy spinning up there?” one young girl asked. Affirmative, said an aerialist, demonstrating some of the techniques to stop the “dizzies.”
How old are the members of Seamless? another asked. They range in age from 16 to 30, though most are in their mid-20s, Lustig said.
“Why do you dance?” another voice called out.
Dancer Shanna Colbern of Seamless fielded that question. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to express myself in words or writing,” she said. “Dance is my form of expression.”
It’s an answer that reflects her mentor’s belief in the power of dance to communicate and express joys and burdens.
Lustig’s shared that gift with many students at her school over the years, says Susan Lally, whose two daughters have taken classes over the years at Starstruck.
“She’s given my daughters the chance to be a part of something, and to learn to be motivated and work hard,” says Lally, who nominated Lustig for the Humanitarian of the Year award.
“I’ve seen her give kids who might not make a dance team somewhere else a chance to prove themselves. She sees passion and drive in those kids, and she knows how to motivate them to do great work.”
The caliber of Lustig’s choreography could have landed her at an auspicious company in a city like New York, Lally believes.
“But she’s chosen to stay ... and promote youth,” she says. “She’s given that gift to these children at the expense of her own personal fame. If that’s not a humanitarian effort, I don’t know what is.”
At the rehearsal, Lustig pauses to answer a question of one of the men in charge of the curtains and lighting.
“We did a dance that showed a timeline of a couple who meet and get married, then come to a place where they don’t really know each other; then one dies,” Lustig says.
“People walked out in tears, saying, ‘I wonder where we are in our relationship in this timeline.’
Lustig looks back at the empty auditorium as if imagining a packed house, and a slight smile lights her face.
“That’s what dance does,” she says. “Some people say, ‘It took me back to something in my life and made me understand it. Others say, ‘It changes the way I look at things.’ I want people to understand that we are all connected, that they are not alone in their journey through life.
“I love it when people who say they don’t understand dance leave saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before, and I want more.’”