A studio, in its essence, is nothing more than an empty room. It acquires its magic by the people who gather there. Dancers are faithful. They go to the studio not only to hone their craft but to participate in the daily evolution of a living art. There, they sweat into the discovery of their bodies, then write their movements into its history. Whether they ever share a stage, dancers work together in the studio, a space of learning, experimentation, witness, and community. And for 46 years, Lou Conte Dance Studio, located at 1147 W. Jackson, two blocks from the Racine Blue Line station since 1998, was that meeting house for many–at first the students who became the first dancers of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, then the world of dancers who flocked to learn from a dance company that put Chicago on the map.
Sending shockwaves through a community already devastated by closures and cancellations, HSDC announced on March 27 that the Lou Conte Dance Studio, which had closed on March 13 for COVID-19, would remain closed indefinitely. “The closure is a direct result of the COVID-19 public health crisis,” wrote HSDC executive director David McDermott in an e-mail addressed to friends and patrons of the studio. Instructors and staff had been informed of the decision just hours before.
HSDC founder Lou Conte, who directed the company until 2000, began teaching twice a week in the basement of the now-defunct Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, initially to train dancers, singers, and actors in the style he was developing in the shows he choreographed there. “I rented a studio space by the hour a couple days a week. So many people came that I started a school,” recalls Conte. “During that time, there were always talented people–[founding Hubbard Street dancer] Claire Bataille was one of the big ones. I said, ‘I want you to be here all day and take class, not wait tables too much and be tired when you come in.’ I had trained on scholarship with Christine Du Boulay and Richard Ellis [at the Ellis-Du Boulay School of Ballet], so scholarships were always important to me.”
The school quickly outgrew its first home, and in September 1974 Conte and his students moved into studios on Hubbard Street, where, in 1977, the company began. “If it hadn’t been for the school, there would have been no company, I guarantee you that,” says Conte. “Because I had a thriving school, I was able to cancel classes on Friday afternoons at 4 and Wednesday afternoons a couple hours, and all day Sunday so the company could rehearse. I choreographed and directed for no salary. I was only able to do that because the school was successful. And early dancers, Claire among them, would teach, and that brought in extra income for them. The school gave a good foundation for the company to grow.”
Furthermore, the Lou Conte Dance Studio was far more than a source of talent and income–it was a source of community for the company. “Lou was such a charming and dynamic presence,” remembers Ginger Farley, who joined the studio at the age of 18, danced with HSDC, and taught at LCDS for 20 years. “He asked the most of you as a teacher, and he didn’t tell you you were great if you weren’t. He was completely honest and inspiring and a perfectionist. When I first started taking class there, it was mostly him teaching. I recall seeing much of the first Hubbard Street repertoire being taught as combinations in class. They’re deeply linked, those two entities, beyond belief.”
Classes also built a uniquely dedicated audience for the company. “With Lou, the company class was an open class,” says Birute Barodicaite, who notes she began teaching at the school in 1978. “People could come into it no matter what. It was wonderful because there was a good connection made. People knew the dancers personally.”
That sense of community carried the studio for decades, even as the company grew and diverged from the school. As studio director, Bataille was central to this legacy. “LCDS scholarship dancers describe it as their ‘second home,'” says Ethan Kirschbaum, LCDS faculty and director of the scholarship program after Bataille succumbed to cancer in 2018. “That was Claire’s doing, as she herself gave me a place to belong when I had nowhere else to be. The classes and choreography I experienced inside those walls made me the dancer and educator I am.”
Yet in recent years, signs of financial struggle were literally written on the walls of the building: the roof leaked, the plumbing was fragile, and, perhaps most telling, the sprung floor of the studio where the world-class company rehearsed warped to create a mound several feet wide that, rather than repair, management simply marked with red tape. The community that had been built over decades began to disperse as open classes were shifted into smaller studios to make room for a new professional program with a hefty price tag.
Sale of the building and the decision to move to another, as yet undetermined, venue has also created uncertainty. “I’ve been watching this happen for years, the whittling away of my vision and Claire’s vision for the company and the studio,” says Conte. “The company leaders told me they would be making changes some time ago for financial reasons. The executive director said that the company was no longer invested in providing classes to the public and that the programs that did not bring in money, including Lou Conte Dance Studio, would be eliminated.”
An outpouring of sadness has overwhelmed the dance community near and far, with many dancers mourning the loss of a spiritual home. “Musicality, exactitude, high standards for yourself and pleasure, and a sense of the group improving together, watching and learning from each other–there’s nothing like class,” says Farley. “You admire someone’s work and aspire to it with your own body in the same space in the same time. It was powerful.” Says Barodicaite, “It was like two lungs–now one will be missing.”
Yet some at the studio have expressed not only sadness but a sense of betrayal by a management that prioritized cash over community. “The board neglected the human element,” says Winifred Haun, who trained with Conte and taught at the studio for 14 years. “They treated the faculty the same way they treated the studio, which is, if it’s not making us money, we don’t know what to do with it. Why not think about doing something different? Artists are used to looking at things differently and coming up with something better. The board did not have the courage to stand up and say ‘We’re closing this important and beloved dance studio because we don’t want to do it any more.'” Wrote Dionna PridGeon, former LCDS student and faculty member, on social media, “The lack of transparency and being left out of the conversation is not ok . . . Our voices should have been heard.”
“Right now the building is closed because of the coronavirus,” says Conte. “But that wasn’t the reason to close the studio doors for good. Seeing my whole artistic life, for 46 years with the studio and the company, in this shape makes me very sad.”
As of press time, McDermott could not be reached for further comment.
Still, hope remains. Kirschbaum relates a memory from 2017: “I was teaching a Horton class. The fire alarm started to go off, which ended up being the fire that decimated Studio C, so I evacuated my class. I was touched that the second we got outside, my class continued to dance. They continued to go over the exercises in the midst of a fire! It’s a reflection of the power of the human spirit, and more specifically the unstoppable nature of a passionate dancer.” He adds, “We manufactured a sense of family out of negative space. That still inspires me. v