Mary Shelton is the owner and one of the talented dance teachers at Rhythm and Arts Center of Virginia. Rhythm and Arts Center is a performing arts school, currently specializing in dance, and building their singing and acting offerings. The grand dream includes cultivating a music and instrumental side to the school as well as adding visual arts such as drawing, photography and more. That’s the long-term plan. For now, dance and musical theater, complete with voice and acting coaching are in their repertoire of classes.
Mary attended Oklahoma City University and received her degree in Dance Management and has been teaching dance, for other schools, and now her own dance school, for 23 years. Shelton opened her doors to Rhythm and Arts Center in 2015 and has directed her passion for dance into educating children and adults in the strong traditions of dance and theater history and technique. She uses her education in marketing as her foundation to push her to implement different strategies to set her school apart from the others.
I was particularly drawn to the concept of Mary’s dance school. It is very different than most offerings in our area. Unlike other schools, this one is not competition focused. Mary believes in healthy competition and participation in them offers the opportunity to see what’s new and fresh in the industry. But for her, the competition portion is not top billing. Competitions that she does participate in are held in conjunction with workshops where her dancers can train with master teachers. The classes and workshops, and opportunity for personal growth, are the focus, with the competition portion treated as a bonus. Mary explains, “Most of my students are not going to have a dance career. The competition experience should be more about exploration and growth. I really want that to be the focus; about growing as a dancer and as a person versus the competition side. I also think that we should serve and be good ambassadors in the community so we provide nursing home performances and participate in local parades. I would like to get more involved in the community by offering classes to those who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity. I think everybody should have access to the arts. It shouldn’t just be for the people who can afford it.”
Many of the teachers at Rhythm and Arts Center are people that Mary has previously worked with in the dance and musical theater industry. With regards to how she selects her teachers, Mary says, “I look at personality and how they interact with the kids, but in terms of their knowledge on the subject, it’s really important to us that our teachers have college degrees and have professional experience. That really is what sets us apart. I want to make sure that people aren’t teaching bad habits that they have picked up.” Because the school is not as competition focused, the pressure to constantly be producing is not present. With this concept in place, the teachers are able to dig down to the fundamentals of dance. Time is taken to not only teach proper technique, but also the French terminology and their meaning. It’s rare. You don’t see that much any more. Mary says, “Well, as much as I hope that I’ll have these kids from now until they graduate from high school, it doesn’t always happen that way. I want my students to be prepared, wherever they go, whether they move, or they just decide that they want to get something else out of dance. Or when they graduate, maybe post high school and into college, I want them to be prepared for wherever they go. That’s why I want them to know the terms and definitions. I want them to know the technique. I want them to know that some steps are called something else because if somebody says I want you to do this, I want them to understand that it’s also known by another name or know that’s the move that I really have to stretch my knee on, for example. If they go to another country, because kids study abroad, they can go anywhere and take a ballet class and probably figure out what they’re doing even if the main language is not English.” She goes on, “It’s important to me that the students are well rounded in their dance education. From the foundation that we give them, they can go into musical theater, they can study in college, or they can go into a professional company. For some people dance is just something fun that’s a hobby and that’s totally fine. We’re not just setting up one track and our dancers have to follow this track. Dance is for everybody. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same for everybody in terms of what they choose to do with it.”
Making the decision to open her own dance school was a scary moment for Shelton. She shares, “I am not a financial risk taker; at all. I’m very conservative with my money, so it was super scary knowing that most businesses don’t turn a profit for the first couple of years. We’ve been very fortunate that we have.” She goes on, “It was really scary to think about not bringing in any money. When my husband and I were discussing this, he mentioned this Michael Jordan quote where Jordan says that throughout his career, he made many shots but he missed 100% of the shots he didn’t take. I actually get a little choked up when I say that sometimes. We were in a financial place where we could afford me not having an income, so we did it! And so far so good!”
From the age of 12 as a babysitter, to teaching at summer camps in high school, Mary found at an early age that she truly loves working with children. She shares, “I’ve always had more patience for children than I do adults. Kids are expected to be ridiculous, and I mean that in a kind way. They just don’t know. They’re fun, and they’re silly, and they’re learning their way.” Mary really enjoys working with kids of all ages. She adds, “I like having the variety. I tend to get bored if I’m just doing one thing over and over. Choreography is obviously easier with the little ones, but then keeping them occupied and excited is the challenge. With older kids I can challenge them with choreography, which is more demanding for me, but behavior is usually easier to manage.”
In addition to her full time gig as artistic director of Rhythm and Arts Center, Mary is also a performer and president of the DC based tap dance company SOLEdarity. Her involvement with the tap company, coupled with her true love of the dance community, exposes her to inspiration via the multiple dance genres performed in our region. Says Mary, “We have some really amazing companies in the DC area. They’re just so innovative. I love watching their work. It pushes me to think, ‘What’s something different that I can do?’” Mary confesses that often, with kids, you can get into the cycle of just recital or competition-style choreography, but she continues to work on pieces that push her creatively. Mary adds, “Honestly, when I went back to performing, it changed my teaching. I had been out of performing for almost a decade and I had forgotten what it was like to be on stage. It gave me a renewed perception of other things I had forgotten about and hadn’t realized I had forgotten.”
Rhythm and Arts Center puts on two shows annually, so in the short term, the goal is to make sure that she and her students put on another quality performance. Says Mary, “I always strive to make each show better than the last, which is a lot of pressure. But I really just want the kids to have a great experience. I’ve had really great experiences in dance and I want them to have that.” In addition to her upcoming Spring performance, Mary is also preparing her summer dance program offering. During the summer months, the school will offer regular dance classes in all genres including yoga and Bollywood, as well as a few week long dance camps and intensives.
Mary’s long-term objective is to get into a permanent space of her own. With this achievement, Mary anticipates a sense of permanence. She confesses, “I feel silly saying this because I’m in my third year, so it’s still strange to say, but it still doesn’t feel like it’s permanent. Maybe that’s just part of being a new business. Maybe someone’s been in business 20 years and also doesn’t believe it’s going to keep going. I think having my own studio space would really help me feel grounded and would solidify the feelings of, ‘Hey I’ve done it and I’m doing it.’ I am doing it.”
Mary went into her business venture with eyes wide open. Having worked in the dance industry for so long, she understood what she was getting into. She shares, “I knew in this type of work you’re on 24/7. So even when I’m not teaching I’m still answering emails, and responding to phone calls. I guess some part of me thought at least there would be some down time when I’m not thinking about it, but I am really thinking about it all of the time. But even when I’m thinking about it when we’re in our off time, I don’t feel stressed. Besides that I’d like to have a permanent location, it’s not something that I have to have right now. I’m just trying to take it one day at a time.”
In college, Mary took a lot of non-profit classes which addressed trying to keep the dance world relevant and trying to grow it. Says Mary, “I find here in the DC area, it’s hard. Support for dance comes mostly from our friends from within the dance world. How do we branch that out? One way to do that is through the kids. I think it’s important to start young and get them exposed to all the arts, even if they don’t want to dance themselves.”
This dance school is more than just a business for Mary. Although she’s quite proud that the school is by definition successful, the real joy for Mary is seeing how her students grow. Shared through tears, “I have a group of girls who I used to teach at another school that have gone on and graduated and some of them have gotten married. I’ve been invited to their weddings and it just makes me feel so good that I made that big of an impression on them. All these years later, they still think I’m an important part of their lives.” She goes on to share, “I had a mom recently tell me that her 5 year old wants to be a dance teacher (again tears) and she’s 5 so obviously there’s a lot of time to change, but just the thought that she loves dancing that much and that I had a hand in it’s introduction to her, is reward beyond measure.”
Mary also stresses that dance is for every body. Although there are the traditions of say, Disney, or the Rockettes, or some specific ballet companies, most companies do not have strict molds that they demand all their dancers to fit into. Says Mary, “I dance with people of all shapes and sizes. I see people who can dance in all shapes and sizes. When I was in college, because of their strict image requirements, I felt that there wasn’t going to be something for me. I was not going to be able to dance. So it wasn’t an assumed dream to be a performer, but I’m glad that I can do it. Even though I don’t perform for a living, I teach for a living, the fact that I’m able to perform makes me so happy. I love dancing.”
Mary’s parting words. “If you’ve ever thought about dance, do it. I have a lot of people who say, I can’t, or I have two left feet, or…. I always joke, that’s what the lessons are for. I have an adult right now, a dad of one of my students who I’ve had for a long time. He came to our tap show last year and he said, ‘You know I think I can do that.’ He is doing it! It’s a great way to exercise without feeling like you’re exercising. I mean you’ll feel it the next day, but it’s not like getting on a treadmill and just running. There’s great camaraderie in class, the music is really fun, and if you don’t want to perform, you don’t have to. Don’t let that stop you from taking a class. We offer free trials. Adults don’t have to dance in leotards and tights, they can wear whatever is comfortable. I would just say, if anyone has thought this would be fun, if it’s something you’ve always wanted to try, go for it. It’s so good for the soul.”
To learn more about Rhythm and Arts Center of Virginia classes and summer programs, please visit and follow on these social media sites: https://www.rhythmandartscenter.com/, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter