Dance Teacher’s Final Curtain Call

After nearly five decades, Sunday evening was the final recital for a long-time Salina dance teacher.  As the Vivette’s Dance Studio show concluded, Vivette Ashen-Brenner announced she was retiring.

Once caution faded from the cold call, Vivette Ashen-Brenner let loose with a soliloquy of proud moments in her short career as a dancer, followed by 49-plus years as a dance instructor — her true calling.

Happiness flowed from the heart as Miss V fast-forwarded through a half century of dance in Salina. Trickling tears were sensed as a sweet voice cracked over the phone while she weaved her wonderful life into a special story.

“My heart’s always been with the little kids,” said Vivette, who doubled for decades as a substitute school teacher.

In the closely knit Salina dance community, there’s little need to include her hyphenated last name.
“There are wonderful memories. It’s all been about the joy of dance, the love and design of it, the service, the children being so happy, and the look on their faces,” Vivette said. “That’s what it’s all been about.”

Mixed into her blessed life is a more private role as wife and partner to Sid Ashen-Brenner, a retired locksmith from the maintenance department at Salina Regional Health Center, mother to Lisette Ashen-Brenner, of Lenexa, and several “bonus daughters.”

Vivette calls herself Salina’s “grandmother of dance,” as founder of Vivette’s Dance Studio, currently at The Temple, 336 S. Santa Fe, one of five dance schools in town.

But after Sunday’s dance recital on the third floor of The Temple, the 4-foot, 8-inch dynamo announced her retirement, less than a month from her 72nd birthday.

“My family needs me at home,” she said. “Otherwise, I’d keep it going.”

When she learned of Vivette’s decision, Tamara Howe, owner and director of the Tamara Howe School of Dance, 124 S.Santa Fe, rallied the dance community to give the senior leader a proper sendoff.

“I think anyone who’s been in business for 49 years should be celebrated for the contributions she made to our community. That’s a long time to be enriching children’s lives,” said Howe, who moved to Salina with her husband, Steven Howe, 17 years ago.

“I worked with Peggy Simms and Vivette and enjoyed my time with them both,” Tamara Howe said. “When Peggy retired, she wanted a place for her students to go, and asked me to open a school. Vivette has impacted hundreds of lives through her teaching.”

She’s been devoted to dance since enrolling in a class at age 4, while growing up in Champaign, IL .
“I was a firefly in my very first recital,” Vivette recalled. “That was wonderful being on stage.”
Her goal is the same experience for every class member, serving as a springboard for all, no matter their pursuits in life.

Some went on to make careers of dance, but regardless of where they ended up, all were equipped with some priceless tools.
“You just feel so proud that they have become successful persons, that they took whatever lessons we taught them and used them in their life,” Vivette said. “If you can get on stage, do your dance, and smile, you can do anything in life. You can be a doctor, a lawyer, or anything you want to be, because you’ve already done the hard stuff, managed the scary. You’ve had to overcome fear and be confident.”

That recipe works for the preschoolers — Vivette’s favorite age group — into adulthood.

LaRana Skalicky can attest. The former Vivette student got a late start in the business, but shares her mentor’s devotion. She’s the executive director and a member of Denver-based Kim Robards Dance, meaning she still performs throughout Colorado, nationally and internationally, including New York City’s Lincoln Center.

“Vivette’s love for dance was always evident. When she was teaching someone, you could just tell it was her passion,” Skalicky said. “She had a great ability to teach in a way to make everybody feel they could be a success.”
Growing up in Salina, Skalicky first focused on music and played the cello. Her first dance class was at 18, late in her years at Salina Central High School, and there was one month to prepare for her debut performance.
“I’m talking four weeks of dance classes — period — and I was concerned,” she said. “I really had no idea what I was doing. I was just trying to figure it out at the moment.”

Vivette added some sage advice.

“She said, ‘Don’t worry. Just fake it until you make it,’ ” Skalicky recalled.
And she made it.

Skalicky completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance degree and a minor in philosophy from Stephens College in Columbia, MO, landed a job with Kim Robards Dance, and is in her 35th year of performing, teaching and touring.

It all began in the basement of Vivette’s home.

Dance is life for Skalicky, 58. Her dog is named “Pique,” which is a ballet dance term that means “stepping directly on the pointe of the working foot in any desired direction with the other foot raised in the air,” according to (Long Beach City College website).

Vivette teaches ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, bollywood, and belly dance.

“I’m the last of the belly dance teachers in Salina, unless somebody new pops up,” she said.
The daughter of Loren Pullum, a bank vice president, and Genevieve Pullum, “a French war bride,” Vivette grew up in Illinois, moved to Missouri, then Omaha.

Her foray into the arts was as a violinist.

“I played it very badly. I couldn’t reach an octave. My hands were too small,” Vivette said.

Size was a hindrance as a dancer as well.

“I took a summer class in Utah. They looked at me and said ‘You shouldn’t be here,’ because I was too short to be a ballerina. At that time, short male dancers were put into tap dancing,” she said. “Frankly, I wasn’t that good and my heart’s always been in teaching. I didn’t have star quality, but I could find it in others.”

She completed a degree in elementary education and performing arts from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and began teaching as Crescent, Iowa, “a town with three bars, two gas stations and a school.”

Vivette moved to Salina in 1975 and began working at the YWCA as program director.

“I was in charge of anything that didn’t involve a ball or a swimming pool,” she said.

Whenever an opportunity arose to teach, the vivacious Vivette volunteered and became very busy.

“I started teaching tap, then ballet. Our first recital was at Coronado (Elementary) School in May of 1976. In addition to being program director, I taught all the dance classes for several years.”

Vivette began also teaching dance in the basement of her home, starting in 1978, and eventually launched her own studio full-time.

“I kinda outgrew my basement, and moved to Ninth and Crawford,” she said. “I kept thinking ‘I have to expand.’ There was a little chiropractor building right around the corner from my house.”

There was no vacancy because martial arts was being taught in part of the structure.

“I stopped and asked ‘When the martial arts goes belly up, will you rent it to me?’ And they said, ‘Why would you think it will?’ ” Vivette said. “Two months later, they called and asked if I wanted to rent the building.”

It was home to her studio for 10 years, and then Vivette built a building on Armory Road.

“I sold it three years ago when I needed to downsize. The building brought joy to people, and now it’s continuing to do that by helping people put their lives back together,” Vivette said.

She rented space in The Temple and relocated the studio there, where her students range from preschool-elementary to a class of three seasoned alumni.

“It’s kind of a social time, for exercise,” Vivette said.

At Vivette’s Dance Studio, no matter the size, shape or future, pupils learn that “Every dancer is a star.”
Her age groups are aptly named — Starlets, ages 3 to 4; Sparklers, 5 to 6; Comets, 7 to 9; Meteors, 9 to 10; and Constellation, 10 to 13.

“What can I say? When I pick a theme, I stick to it,” Vivette said.

Every group is special for a specific reason, she said, such as the Meteors class of Gracie Wenger, Saya Sawyer, Imogen Eilts, Amara Keck, Ava Jones, and Kennedy Sheffield.

“These girls come every week properly dressed and ready to work, and yet can be so giggly and silly,” Vivette said.
She often branches out at The Temple in downtown Salina, and pitches in to prepare for other events.

“Vivette’s just been so good to us,” said Mary Landes, executive director of the nonprofit Salina Innovation Foundation, where entrepreneurs get a hand up starting new businesses.

“Everyone else is a startup,” Landes said. “Vivette calls herself a ‘wind down.’ ”

The dance studio’s mirrors and wooden ballet barres will be donated and the foundation will look to repurpose the space.
The little lady is credited for helping Salina’s dance community grow and improve, while enhancing many aspects of the town.

“Vivette has always been very welcoming and kind. She’s an encourager of collaboration and support, and always a welcoming face in the dance community,” Tamara Howe said. “She’s done a lot over the years, and I would hate for Vivette to end quietly and not know what an impact she made with the community and all the students she taught.”

One of the more challenging times in her career came towards the end, when the COVID pandemic changed life as most knew it.

“The kids didn’t go anywhere after COVID. There was no Bible study, no story, time. The COVID kids were very, very different. They struggled,” Vivette said. “One little girl’s mom was right beside her, and within a few weeks, she could be close by, then on the edge of the stage. Two years later, mom was in the audience. I think coming to dance was scary.”
Memories are golden to Vivette, harkening back to so many visits to nursing homes during the Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day seasons, also just before recitals. She relished joy on the faces of residents.

“The ladies were just so happy to have us there. Once at Holiday Resort while the students were shaking hands with everybody, they told me a man began to talk, who hadn’t spoken in years. Something connected,” Vivette said. “I told the children, (residents) are going to hold your hand, and they might not let go. Dance is a performing art. It’s a way of touching hearts. It is a way for that quiet little kid to get a moment to shine. So many people walk up to me and say ‘My daughter loves dancing.’ ”

There were many special times:
During difficult weeks while pregnant with Lisette, Vivette enlisted the skills of experienced students — Ellen Schwindt, now a composer, and the aforementioned LaRana Skalicky — to teach her classes, both in her basement and during an outreach program in Ellsworth.

Early on, while teaching at the Salina YWCA, Vivette caught a glimpse of someone in the hallway.

“I kept seeing this guy who was in karate class, a teenager. He was doing everything I was doing while I was teaching my kids, copying our exercises,” she said. “I said ‘come on in here,’ and I started working with him. I soon realized I didn’t know enough to teach someone with his raw talent.”

His name was Brian Bender. Vivette asked her teacher from Creighton University, Valerie Roche, to evaluate Brian, and came to the same conclusion.

“She had no funds for a scholarship, but gave him a place to live in the basement of the studio, and the ability to audit all classes,” Vivette said.

Brian studied there and went on to perform with the Royal Canadian Ballet of Winnipeg, and later opened a training studio in Colorado. Bender, who recently died, would occasionally come home to Salina to visit family, and taught master classes for Vivette.

To this day, she is proud that Bender’s mimicry took place “at the right place and the right time,” and helped influence a career.

“Brian wouldn’t have realized his talent and passion and would not have achieved that part of his life,” she said. “I feel very fortunate that I was able to start him on his path. He went on to train a lot of dancers.”

Remembering those days with so many youngsters, provides enduring pride.

“I’ve touched a lot of lives in many ways,” Vivette said. “They didn’t all go on to be famous dancers, but they all went on to be wonderful people.”