“Ballet with Stevie” classes for adults are held at The Dailey Method in Mercer Island. Photo courtesy of Stevie Reiff

Beloved ballet program in Mercer Island continues under new teacher

Deena Dunning taught classical ballet for more than 50 years before losing her battle with breast cancer last May. She spent more than half of her career in Mercer Island, where she founded her beloved “Ballet with Deena” studio. Before she passed away, she passed on her business to a young dancer and teacher: Stevie Reiff.

Though Reiff is bringing her own energy and teaching philosophy to the adult ballet and pointe classes, which are open to all ages and skill levels, Dunning’s influence is still felt. Reiff said Dunning was an “amazing and inspiring teacher.”

“She was one of the most dedicated women I’ve ever met — to her students, and to her program — even when she wasn’t doing well,” Reiff said.

Reiff, an Islander who has been dancing since she was 2 years old, had dreams to be a professional ballerina, training intensively at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, before injuries and a class on teaching methods at Cornish College of the Arts changed her path. She graduated from Cornish with a dance degree in May, but felt that teaching was her true calling.

Reiff started taking classes from Dunning on weekends and school breaks. When Dunning’s health wouldn’t allow her to teach, she asked Reiff to take over. Reiff said that filling Dunning’s shoes and continuing her legacy is a “fantastic opportunity and a huge honor.”

“It’s hard to replace such an amazing teacher, but I had gotten to know the students. They’re a wonderful group of women, and I was just honored that they continued to come [to class],” she said. “They accepted me and embraced the change.”

Some of the women had studied with Dunning for years, following her from studio to studio, Reiff said. Dunning eventually ended up at The Dailey Method in Mercer Island. Reiff now works at The Dailey Method in exchange for using the studio for her classes.

Though the core group of women in the classes have been together for years, they are very accepting of new classmates, Reiff said. She wants to make sure the classes are a safe environment and welcoming to all levels, and not competitive.

“My goal is to have students leave feeling strong, accomplished, and beautiful and confident,” she said.

Reiff said she’s started to feel more confident in her teaching as well, though she found teaching adults a little intimidating at first.

There’s a large age range in the classes, from students in their teens to their 80s. Reiff said one of her favorite parts about teaching is having diverse dancers come together and form a close community.

Reiff plans on expanding her clientele even more. Last week, she started a class for ballet beginners on Thursday evenings. Reiff said that the hardest part, “besides learning how to run a business,” is attracting new students and trying to get the word out about the program.

When she’s not teaching ballet, Reiff does private in-home pilates lessons and works with young rhythmic gymnasts.

Reiff said she was attracted to the study of ballet because of its beauty and structure.

“It’s so predictable, but so challenging. There’s never a point where you reach the finish line,” she said. “It’s speaking a language through your body; it looks so effortless and beautiful. There’s nothing really like it… Once that passion is sparked, it never really goes away.”

For more, see www.steviedanceandfitness.com.