Beloved Miami dance instructor, Lee Dell Mustain, will choreograph and direct her very last student dance recital May 19 and 20.
MIAMI – Twirling, leaping, pirouettes, music, costumes, leotards, ballet slippers and tap shoes will create a magically choreographed recital one last time. Beloved Miami dance instructor, Lee Dell Mustain, has touched the lives of many in Miami teaching dance for years. This weekend, May 19 and 20, she will choreograph and direct her very last student dance recital.
So much of what Mustain's students learned on the dance floor has left a lasting impression on the hearts of her students and their parents long after the curtain closed on the performances.
“The children I will miss, and I’ll miss the creative side of it too, of course,” Mustain said. Miami is such a wonderful community for the arts.”
For the past 21 years, her intense love for dance has carried through to her support of her students as she guided them through each step, teaching them to enjoy the journey and revel in their moments on the stage. Her retirement is bittersweet but much deserved.
“My daughters kept saying,’ Mom you’ll know when it’s the right time,’ as I started getting older, but I when I decided it was because I wanted to do it on my own terms. I wanted to feel like I had given the kids my all right up to the end,” Mustain said. “I thought now is the time. I thought that when I took it over, life was too short not to do what you love to do when that opportunity was presented to me.”
The sudden loss of her sister and encouragement from her late husband Jerry inspired her to take the leap and begin teaching dance at 'That’s Dancing!'.
“My husband said, ‘How many people are so lucky to go to work every day and do the thing that they are so passionate about,’” she said. “All these years later I want to end at the right time but also give them my all right up to the end and still be young enough, in spirit, I can still give to my family as well,”
Mustain's dance studio has a long history here in Miami. Former owner Ruth Ann Hudspeth with her sister Liz Williams operated Liz & Ruth Ann's School of Dance, from 1981-1996 at the location.
“Liz and Ruth Ann retired from dance teaching in 1996 and turned the business over to Mom, where it was renamed 'That's Dancing!,” Mustain's daughter Lauren Martin said. “Ruth Ann was a fellow student with Mom under Mom's dance teacher/mentor, Virginia Lee Wilson.”
Wilson and her husband Tom founded Wilson Dance Studio in Miami in the 1940s, and she taught dance in Miami over 50 years.
“Virginia Lee retired in 1981 and turned the business over to Liz & Ruth Ann. Thus, the studio has not closed since Virginia Lee and Tom opened it way back then,” Martin said.
"I worked as Virginia’s assistant when I came back here in 1975 from Kansas City after college. The year she died I even put a tribute to her in my program,” Mustain said.
Mustain waited to take on ownership of the studio once her two daughters, Lauren and Betina, were in their teens.
“I put that on hold and never regretted that of course,” she said.
Mustain’s last recital is being performed this weekend at the Coleman Theatre where she first danced on stage at the age of three.
“So, it was kind of right to be full circle and come back to the Coleman,” Mustain said. “I love the art of dance, first of all, and I love to perform, but in teaching, I feel like I probably receive more than I all hope to have given to my kids. To me it’s more about their love of dance, teaching them self-confidence, and giving them the strength. I figure if they can get out on a stage in front of hundreds of people and do either a complicated dance or a simple little dance, with children it makes them a little stronger. It helps them develop that self-confidence that the performing arts does.”
Mustain said she usually performs a dance at the end of her student recitals with her senior students and will be doing this one last time on stage at the Coleman Friday and Saturday nights.
“Saturday will be a little harder because it will be the last one. I wrote a little letter and put it on the back of my program because I decided probably by the end of the show my emotions would probably get the best of me, and I won’t be able to say everything that I feel,” Mustain said. “All these years, students past and present, it’s amazing how many connections you make and what beautiful people you meet and touch my hearts that I might not have known had it not been for this…If I’ve even touched them in half the way they’ve touched me I will feel good.
"I don’t like to use the word blessed because I don’t feel like I’m more blessed by God than anyone else, but I do feel that life has taken me on a journey that was certainly the right time when I took it over, and I do know that it’s the right time now as well, and I thank God for all of that. ”
Mary Susan Whaley worked with Liz and Ruth helping to edit music for their performances.
“One of the groups that they featured was their adult class, 'The Dancing Mom's,'" Whaley said. “I enjoyed watching all of these ladies dance, but my eye was drawn to a smiling face belonging to a talented dancer, Lee Dell Mustain. I noticed the love of dancing that she demonstrated with every step. In a later conversation with my husband, Ron, I recommended that he and our friends at Miami Little Theatre talk to Lee Dell about sharing her love of dance with MLT. The show, directed by Maria Nichols, the result of that conversation was "My Fair Lady, " and Lee Dell began choreographing for MLT. Within a year or two, the Nichols invited Lee Dell to choreograph a show at the college, and thus she began choreographing for our musicals at the college.”
Whaley went on to work with Lee Dell on 'That’s Dancing!' productions.
“By then our friendship had been strengthened through several musical theater collaborations, and I received the privilege of becoming her ‘music director,’ the person who gets to help edit the tons of music that she works with in the studio, “ Whaley said. “In those early years, we worked with analog tapes. It was much more difficult to cut and splice. Occasionally, we even slowed down the speed of a song. We would work in my office at the college late at night after she finished teaching.
"In order to make the cuts at exactly the right second, Lee Dell would dance along with the music. I would mark the spot to cut then we would forward to the spot to pick up the music. Each cut was worked over and over until it was as smooth as we could get it and Lee Dell's feet could dance it without a stutter. As years progressed and technology improved we have moved to computer editing, and she very rarely has to dance a song out since we can see the sound wave and figure out the edits with it. Once in a while, we have a reminder of the "old" days, and she assumes the position to dance the song out.”
Passing the mantle
Former student, Kjersti King, current Assistant Teacher at 'That's Dancing!', will take over the business from Mustain beginning this summer/fall season.
“When I first came to dance with Lee Dell I was 15, and my life was changed forever,” King said. “She probably didn't know that I felt that way at the time because I wouldn't ever go into classes without either the other girl I was coming with or my mom. Lee Dell likes to joke that I thought she was some mean old monster that I didn't want to be alone with! That, of course, couldn't be further from the truth.
"From the moment I met her, I knew that she represented everything good in this world. She genuinely cares about others, and she readily gives of herself to help others learn, she continually makes everyone feel loved ... she is a beautiful, wonderful soul that I have been so blessed to get to know.”
“To me, Kjersti was my answered prayer,” Mustain said. “It was breaking my heart to think I might have to close it and not have anybody take it over, and I told her to think about this some long and hard because I wanted her to do this not because of her love for me, but because of her love for what’s right for her and what she wants to achieve. She has the passion and shares my philosophy of teaching in that we want the kids to have fun and their creative side to come out.”
King looks forward to carrying on the legacy created by Mustain.
“Lee Dell and I have grown close over the years and have built a dear friendship and close bond. I have so much love for her, and she's exactly what I aspire to be like,” King said. “ She's full of wisdom and life lessons, but she's also full of patience and encouragement. Since coming into my life, she has lifted me up and helped me shine the best way I can- as she does with every one of her students.
"When she approached me with taking over the studio I felt extremely honored that she trusted me enough to carry on what she has so beautifully built. It is truly a privilege to follow in her footsteps and carry on her legacy. I hope the students I'm gaining from Lee Dell can find in me at least half the wonderful qualities that we all find in her ... I know I have some very big shoes to fill. I can honestly say that it has been a dream come true to take this journey with her.”
Mustain said her goal for her students is to see them improve each time they came into her class – “I always tell my students, and it’s not an original quote, it’s by Michel Baryshnikov actually, that says, ‘I don’t try to dance better than anyone else. I just try to dance better than myself.’”
Love and praise from the community
Throughout the years Mustain has gained many friends in the community who are wishing her the best in her retirement.
“I love Miss Lee Dell, when we first moved to town, sending my two-year-old daughter to her dance class was one of the first things we did,” Pam Hayes said. “Lee Dell has a way with the little ones. She is kind, loving and oh so patient. She ALWAYS has a smile, no matter what. Not only loving but talented too. I always appreciated the music she picked out specifically for each class. They each had their own personality, and she matched it perfectly, as well as including positive, Godly songs.
"Lee Dell was always a good influence on the kids in her class, and such a wonderful role model. That first class was over 21 years ago now, and she has become a friend over the years. She is an amazing woman who has overcome much, but still knows and loves each one of her students that she ever had in her dance studio. Even though she is not teaching any of my children anymore, she will be greatly missed in the studio. I have been blessed by her and her leadership with my daughter. Good luck to her new endeavors!”
“Lee Dell teaches and loves all her students as she would her own children,” Chuck and Neal said. “ She becomes a part of your family and is an integral part of each student’s dance education as well as life lessons. All of us consider ourselves blessed by Lee Dell and we love her as we would a close member of our family, a favorite aunt or dear sister.”
"Lee Dell has played a primary role in raising hundreds of children in Miami and the surrounding area,” Donna Hale said. “I can't even imagine how many young ladies have a stronger self-esteem because of her. Her gentle spirit and positive attitude are contagious. As a mom, I am so thankful for the love and attention that she has poured into my daughter."
“I started dancing with Mrs. Lee Dell when I was three years, and now, 18 years later, I still dance, at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Jersey,” Charlotte Stout said. “ Mrs. Lee Dell taught me how to love dance, and without that, I would never be where I am today.”
"I’ve been fortunate enough to know Lee Dell most of my life. Long before she was my dance teacher, she was my best friend’s mom. She’s been there in many seasons of my life, and I can truly say she is one of the most kind, compassionate, and patient women I know. She loves to dance and loves to see the joy it brings to her students and their families. If I know Lee Dell, she’ll continue to spread that same love and joy in this next season of her life. She can’t help it- her gentle, caring spirit is evident in everything she does," Jennifer Ellis McAffrey said.
Fiona Stout (French horn student at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY) said, “I started dance lessons with Lee Dell at age two, and that experience allowed me to grow stage presence and a sense of confidence that has helped me pursue a career as a classical musician.”
“Our daughters started dancing with Lee Dell in 1997; for twenty years now, we have watched her teach grace and poise and love for the arts, both in the studio and on the stage of life. Thank you, Miss Lee Dell for the unforgettable impact you have made on your students and the way you conduct yourself as a strong, loving, graceful, beautiful woman is a legacy that will continue,” the Bryan and Leslie Swan family.
“I first met Lee Dell in the fall of 1991 as a performing arts student at NEO,” Michael Ford said. “Lee Dell was the choreographer for our productions, and as a very nervous incoming freshman in college she was a gentle and reassuring person to meet. Fast forward to 2008, I am now back in Miami after being gone for years and have a family now. I decided to try out for my first play with Miami Little Theatre. I manage to get the part of Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast then realize there is a fair amount of dancing I have to do. Terrified again just like a freshman but then find out Lee Dell will be helping me and I had that same reassuring feeling that I did as a freshman. She had her work cut out for her but was up to the challenge. Since that time I have been privileged to do many more shows together with her along with my children.”
"My girls, Kayla and Ashlyn, have been taking dance from Lee Dell since they were little. Kayla is graduating this year, and this will be her last recital with Miss Lee Dell. Lee Dell is a very special person to our family. She is so patient and caring when she is teaching and instructing but more than that she is invested in the lives of those she teaches. She truly cares about people she is involved with. We love Miss Lee Dell as if she were family and really she is. We wish her nothing but the very best as she moves on to the next chapter of life. Love you Miss Lee Dell!!!”
Into the future
Mustain plans to continue with Miami Little Theatre and working at Chapters Book Store and says her retirement will allow her more time with her daughters and three-year-old granddaughter, Emma.
“Emma is taking her first dance lessons, and Lauren is taking a job as the assistant community executive director of the Joffrey Ballet,” Mustain said. “Retiring will be very bittersweet, and I want everybody to keep dancing and having fun! It’s been an absolute joy, and my heart is full for sure!”
Editor's Note: An edited version of this article was originally published in the May 19, 2017, print edition of the Miami News-Record, which omitted some of the community quotes found in the online version due to space constraints.
Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.