After 28 years of bringing the joy of dance to children and teens, Phyllis Balagna is retiring.
The owner of Steppin’ Out the Studio is turning her business over to her daughter, who left New York City to come home to Lee’s Summit.
Phyllis Balagna has plenty of trophies the studio has earned over the years. But her best moment, she said, was when her students were invited to perform at the Fred & Adele Astaire awards in New York City.
“I sat there in the audience with tears in my eyes and watched my kids on a Broadway stage,” Balagna said. “My story has been the opportunities I brought to the kids. Those kids are my real trophies.”
Jennifer Balagna will move the studio to Southside Plaza, at 838 S.W. Blue Parkway in Lee’s Summit. The business will be called the Kansas City Dance Company.
But her mom’s long history in the community will not be forgotten. Phyllis Balagna, a graduate of Lee’s Summit High School and the University of Central Missouri, opened her business in 1989. She’s on the Lee’s Summit Board of Education and is a longtime participant in Lee’s Summit Chamber of Commerce, Lee’s Summit Cares and other organizations.
She said other highlights of her career include being the choreographer for Kansas City’s 150th founding celebration at Arrowhead Stadium and being featured on the “Good Morning America” television show in 2006.
A student’s parents had contacted the television show about the benefits of one of her programs, Dads Dancing with Daughters, and the show came to film 60 dads and daughters tap-dancing together.
“It was the most amazing thing,” she said.
In her office, she’s packing years of memorabilia, including business of the year awards, letters of recognition and a 2014 “Ed See Outstanding Theatre Alumnus Award” from the University of Central Missouri.
Phyllis Balagna studied theater and voice at UCM and ballet at University of Missouri Kansas City. She started teaching in high schools, but after having two daughters decided to open her studio.
Generations of Lee’s Summit students have taken lessons at Steppin Out.
“I tried once to add them up. It’s 10,000 or more,” she said.
Holly Hassell, who grew up in Lee’s Summit, took voice lessons from Phyllis Balagna and now has a son taking classes at Steppin’ Out.
“We just love her. She was really tough; stern but loving,” said Hassell, adding that she still uses what she learned in her role as a director for Pleasant Hill Community Theater.
Megan Bishop, a graduate of Blue Springs South High School and Lee’s Summit resident, said she studied at the studio for nine years. This fall she’s headed to the prestigious Pace University dance program in New York City. Another former student tours with Justin Bieber; others perform in cruise ship shows, or have opened their own dance studios.
Phyllis Balagna said her daughter is almost over-qualified, but has adjusted to teaching young, inexperienced dancers.
“She’s awesome,” Phyllis Balagna said. “The next generation is in good hands.”
Jennifer Balagna started out dancing in her mom’s studio, but as a young adult moved to New York to study at Fordham University. She continued to study dance while she earned degrees in economics and fashion merchandising.
She carved out a career in Broadway shows with luminaries like Dolly Parton and Anthony Blankenbuehler, who won a 2016 Tony for his choreography of “Hamilton.” She ran dance conventions across the nation, and was a dance assistant at the New York City Dance Alliance. She taught classes at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York. She returned to Lee’s Summit 2 1/2 years ago.
“Ironically, I wanted slow down and pass my knowledge to a new generation,” said Jennifer Balagna, adding that she realizes running the small business will also take time and effort.
“My mom’s a legend; they’re tough shoes to fill. I want to modernize the studio, give it new edge and make it more my own.”
Jennifer Balagna’s goal is to work with smaller groups, guiding students who have strength, artistry and the drive to be professionals.
She said she tries to instill in dancers a work ethic and the ability to win or lose with grace and humility. Her philosophy is the word “can’t” isn’t allowed.
Bishop said Jennifer Balagna is a masterful teacher.
“She’s kind of like an older sister figure to me,” Bishop said. “They make sure you learn all the aspects of dancing and how to make it look good to an audience.”
Phyllis Balagna said she’s going to continue giving private voice lessons and is open to taking a new job where she could put her people skills to use.
“I’ve had a wonderful career, working with so many wonderful people and having a blast working with the children,” Phyllis Balagna said.
“I’ve been working in sweatpants and T-shirts for 28 years. I’d like to see what it’s like to work in the corporate or non-profit world.”