As a teenager in the early 1970s, Doreen Keith pumped gas at a filling station outside Worcester, Mass., for a $1.35 an hour.
Her parents were divorced, and her father had dropped out of the picture. Keith’s mother worked two waitressing jobs to support herself and three children.
Under the circumstances, Keith didn’t think it was right to ask her mom for money just so she could continue her childhood passion. “I earned enough (pumping gas) to pay for my dance lessons,” Keith said.
Fast-forward 50 years to one night ago at the Briggs Opera House in downtown White River Junction, where Keith was honored for her contributions to the Upper Valley’s arts community. Saturday night’s salute, which was part of the eighth annual FaLaLa Holiday Revue, was well-deserved.
For 33 years, Keith ran Dancers’ Corner, teaching ballet, jazz, tap and hip-hop to literally thousands of Upper Valley kids — and some adults — before closing in June.
“Her dance academy was a substantial institution for decades,” said David Briggs, the impetus behind FaLaLa, a community arts production at the 240-seat theater that bears his family’s name.
Briggs has always been proud of the revue, which includes music, dance and films by Upper Valley arts organizations and individuals, but this year, the “heartfelt tribute to Doreen makes it even richer,” he told me.
The tribute is bittersweet.
After navigating her business through a difficult couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Keith was looking forward to ramping up the academy again.
But ill health got in the way.
Keith, 63, is battling an autoimmune disease that has attacked her joints. The inflammation comes and goes. She doesn’t know from one day to the next how capable she is of the bending, stretching and twisting needed to teach dance classes.
“It was not the way I wanted things to finish,” she told me.
Retiring from dancing and closing Dancers’ Corner has taken a mental toll, said her husband, Kenny.
“This has been tough for her,” he said. “She wanted to do it on her terms.”
Doreen and Kenny grew up together in Northborough, Mass. She was 18 and he was 19 when they married 45 years ago. After a stint in the Army, Kenny started a small trucking company. With three young children and working nights as a dispatcher at United Parcel Service, Doreen started taking college classes. She earned a bachelor’s degree in three years, graduating at age 30.
In 1989, the family moved to Hartland, where Kenny’s mother lived. Shortly thereafter, Doreen dropped by Northern Lights Gymnastics in White River Junction to sign up their youngest daughter, Libbi. Before leaving, she had a job teaching ballet.
In a corner of Northern Lights’ gym, Keith set up a dance floor. Dancers’ Corner was born.
After going into business on her own, Keith outgrew several spaces. With 200 to 250 students a year, Dancers’ Corner moved into a large building off Pine Street, near Stern’s Quality Produce, in White River Junction. Her daughters, Diana and Libbi, were among the school’s teachers.
Along with classes, Dancers’ Corner featured a traveling team that competed in Boston and New York. Several of Keith’s students have become professional dancers, working in the U.S. and abroad.
“You can tell the kids who have natural talent,” Keith said. “You can’t tell who is going to work hard.”
After she started at Northern Lights, a West Lebanon couple showed up with their 3-year-old daughter. Sannie Hodgetts (her maiden name was Woods) was born with cerebral palsy, a disorder with no cure that affects a person’s ability to move and maintain balance.
Looking back, Hodgetts understands why Northern Lights might have been hesitant to take her on as a student. To keep her from falling, her right leg was strapped with a brace. “I wasn’t super-flexible and my balance wasn’t great,” Hodgetts said.
No worries, Keith told Northern Lights. “I’ve got this,” she said.
Before long, Keith was guiding Hodgetts across a balance beam. “It wasn’t my forte,” said Hodgetts, who now lives in Concord. “I’m sure Doreen has battle scars from me gripping onto her so hard.”
At age 10, Hodgetts was told she needed multiple surgeries on her right leg. Keith took her aside. No matter how the surgeries turned out, “we’re going to make this work,” she said.
At 36, Hodgetts continues to dance in competitions with the Concord Dance Academy. She was among Keith’s former students who made a point of being at Briggs Opera House on Saturday night. (Some came from as far away as Georgia and Texas.)
Abbi Courtemanche, who now lives in New London, started taking Keith’s dance classes in first grade. “She has this way of making kids feel special without drawing attention to herself,” said Courtemanche, a 2007 Hartford High School whose maiden name was Ziegler.
Later, she taught at Dancers’ Corner for nearly 10 years. Her daughter, Olive, who is now 10, performed in Saturday night’s revue. “Doreen would babysit while I taught a class,” Courtemanche said. “Basically, it’s where my daughter grew up.”
It’s fair to say that Keith helped more kids than she’ll ever know. And while Dancers’ Corner was her business, she didn’t forget what her childhood was like.
“My mother never turned away any child because their parents couldn’t afford to pay,” Libbi Keith said.
If parents didn’t have the $200 or so that it cost a month for a full-time student, Keith sometimes made other arrangements. In exchange for her daughter’s dance lessons, a mother cooked dinner for the Keith family once a week. A dad who built furniture gave her a wooden chair in lieu of payment. Keith also gave out scholarships.
Said Keith: “I would have been the kid getting that.”
Jim Kenyon can be reached at [email protected].
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