In 1995, during her senior year at Lamar University, Lori Rodgers often traveled between Beaumont and Harlingen as she prepared to open her business. The dance major, with advice from her father Rick Mathes, had found a home for Rio Grande Valley Arts Studio in Harlingen and was having the building renovated. She convinced him that she did not need a teaching degree as a backup.“Dance is what I know and love,” she said.
Her goal with RGVAS was to have an all-inclusive arts facility with classes in music, dance, art and fitness under one roof. “My mom used to run around from here to there with us going to dance, music and cheerleading classes. But here we have studio classes for everyone in the family. We try to find the best schedule for family members taking a combination of classes.”
RGVAS’ dance and karate classes are designed for specific ages, ranging from 3-year-olds to older teens and adults. Several families participate in the Saturday family kickboxing classes. “Folks watch their children and decide to join a class themselves,” Rodgers said. They have a lot of choices: ballet, tap, hip-hop and belly dancing, morning yoga, art, guitar and piano lessons.
So 22 years on, Rodgers has daily evidence that people welcome the one-stop convenience and the talented instructors the studio offers. Her earliest students are now enrolling their own children in RGVAS classes. “That’s a bittersweet moment,” she said. “It’s gratifying and humbling to be teaching for so long.”
Rodgers, who has one son, considers herself the foster mother of several hundred children, since she spends as much as six hours a week with many. “We communicate and raise the children together. It’s a big responsibility on our part. Sometimes you can push them and challenge them; sometimes not. They progress at different rates. It’s all good as long as they are having fun and being safe, exercising mind and body,” she said.
But it’s not just about learning ballet steps and tap routines. “It’s about discipline, making sacrifices to better themselves,” Rodgers said. “There are no ribbons. You have to do lots of work with little reward. But they experience personal growth and private achievements by completing a canvas, mastering a step. They have the opportunity to dance, to learn what it takes to achieve a goal, and make a friend or two.” Each art has its rewards. In karate, it may be learning when not to use karate moves. Art class may help a student channel frustration.
“I feel our studio is a stepping stone, molding and growing young adults who will have values, commitment and dedication. Later, they can go back and enjoy classes in their discipline,” Rodgers said.
As RGVAS’s artistic director, owner and dance instructor, Rodgers handles the logistics of classes in the facility’s eight studios: three each for dance and music, and one each for karate and art. The dance studios have sprung hardwood floors. From the beginning, RGVAS has had a security camera system in every room for the safety of staff and students. Front and back lobbies provide seating space as well as play areas for younger brothers and sisters. The walls are hung with student art. The studio also has a gym where waiting parents can work out.
RGVAS employs 12 instructors, many for at least 10-15 years. “The staff is pretty close because this is a comfortable, professional place to work. We know when it is time to have fun and when to get work done,” Rodgers said. The music instructors all have degrees, certifications or years of experience in their fields.
Rodgers has seen dance and exercise fads come and go. “’Dancing with the Stars’ intimidates some people, showing how much work goes into it. Others take that as a challenge,” she said. Dancers make up 50 percent of the school’s enrollment. “But I wouldn’t be in business if I just catered to the one percent of students who go into the arts,” Rodgers said. In fact, RGVAS accommodates homeschool programs and Girl Scouts’ badge work, too. A few students come from Sarita for music and art classes.
Movements, the on-site dance boutique, is the only place in Harlingen that sells tap and ballet shoes, tights and leotards, and does fitting for pointe shoes, according to Rodgers. “It has everything you need as a dancer and is open to the public.”
RGVAS has four dance scholarship programs. One, named for the late Lisa Roberts, a long-time RGVAS dance instructor, assists students with tuition for outside master classes. Rodgers also awards a full tuition scholarship annually to the most outstanding dance student.
Afternoons, once music, dance, karate and art lessons get under way, RGVAS becomes a beehive of excited activity: future ballerinas, black belts and concert pianists concentrate on learning the skills they need
RGVAS is located at 1025 W. Jackson St. in Harlingen.
By Eileen Mattei