Indeed, there’s no mistaking the motivational message at this unique Bryn Mawr institution—or the philanthropic one, for that matter. From a live feed on a flat-screen TV in the lobby, parents can watch their kids without really watching them. “A lot of students shut down when they know their parents are watching,” says instructor Sam Bootel, who is also LibertyMe’s manager.
They use lots of glass cleaner around here—what, with all the mirrors and little fingers. “There’s a lot of energy and artistic creativity in our kids,” Bootel says. “They’re extremely healthy.”
Meanwhile, the center is helping make others healthy through its corresponding LibertyMe Foundation, which serves communities in need, leaving a significant imprint in the two years it’s been around. “It’s what we showcase,” Bootel says. “Art can save lives.”
At LibertyMe, kids learn ballet, hip-hop, jazz—and about giving back. Each season, all the money made from evening dance classes goes directly to charities chosen by the young students. All revenue from daytime adult classes and private lessons benefits the instructors.
LibertyMe’s mission is all about creating a sense of community—a feeling that each individual belongs to a core group of unique, diverse artists who share similar passions. To that end, it’s unlike any other performing-arts center in the region, in that every child has a say.
The seed for LibertyMe was planted by Meegan Rubin and her ex-husband, Michael. The founder and CEO of King of Prussia-based GSI Commerce, he established a trust for the foundation that covers operational costs.
The center’s creative director, Rubin started her dance career at age 5. After 13 years of training, she was accepted at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and then went on to continue her studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
The turning point in her career came when she joined Philly’s Koresh Dance Company in 1996. Serving as her mentor, Ronen Koresh helped Rubin harness her talent and work ethic. Since then, she’s won many awards for her choreography.
Also a certified Pilates instructor, Rubin started her first studio after running a popular hip-hop class at another local center. “It took off,” says Bootel, one of several other LibertyMe teachers who were students at Rubin’s Huntingdon Valley studio prior to LibertyMe.
Right now, there are 300 students at LibertyMe, despite any real marketing or advertising campaign. The success has come mostly through word of mouth and the support of parent ambassadors. Once a workout gym, the place retains its black, white and gray color scheme. There are two studios. In one, curtains create a theater atmosphere. “Close the curtains and cue the overhead lights,” says Rubin.
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“Where’s Emma? Ashley?”
LibertyMe instructor Sam Bootel continues to call the names of students. After a warm-up, the girls move into five lines of three. One is feeding her long hair through her teeth when there’s a call for music. Suddenly, “Where Them Girls At,” by French DJ and producer David Guetta, blasts through two large speakers, and there’s instant movement from head to toe.
Meanwhile, in the boys’ breakdancing studio, instructor Alex Favin tells a crew of seven to form a circle and wow the crowd—actually two moms peeking through the glass door. Students show off their hip-hop moves, then gather into something called the “battle circle,” where each tries to one-up the others. The kids can go into any social situation and “have an arsenal of moves,” says Favin.
In the circle, each calls out a move he’ll perform for a minute. One is dressed like Charlie Chaplin, painted-on mustache and all—a school project carryover from earlier in the day. He later opens his button-down shirt like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. When his mom arrives, she makes him change.
Instructor Tommille Smith—aka Twist—is also the DJ. Favin is self-taught, and he and Smith have teamed up for the past two years to run the class. “We love them both,” says Rubin. “They bring a style and a breath of fresh air to the studio.”
One Gladwyne parent says she loves the idea of giving back the proceeds from the classes. “It’s about more than just where you live,” says the mom, preferring to remain anonymous. “Hopefully, they’ll all be better people for it.”
Back in the girls’ studio, students are trying on their costumes for one of two showcase performances they give each year. The creativity at LibertyMe extends to dancers selecting their own fabrics and making costumes. Students use a heating press on logos and create other fancy designs.
One by one, the girls disappear behind the black curtain, only to re-emerge in front of a wall-length mirror in their new garb like models on a catwalk. “So cool!” is the prevailing reaction.
“Sometimes the costumes work out, but sometimes they don’t,” says Bootel. “That’s why we have them try them on. But we make all our own, putting the zippers on, determining what kind of material, everything.”
“This is the best material ever,” says one young dancer.
At this point, no one can sit still. Some have initiated a handstand contest; others do cartwheels. Then they finally move into position for a showcase routine to the Right Said Fred hit, “I’m Too Sexy.”
The word “freedom” comes to mind.
To learn more, visit libertyme.com.