Meet Robin Dawn
Submitted by T.M. Jacobs, Jacobs Writing Consultants
Back in the days of vaudeville, there was OK Stuart the High Wire Walker, who would entertain children of all ages. There were also tightrope walkers who would cross from one building to the next on a taught line and no net. These are just a few of the interesting ancestors in Robin Dawn’s lineage. So, it is not surprising that Robin has spent her entire life in the entertainment industry of dance, although she certainly has some of her family’s attributes as she has performed a few times with various circuses, including the famous Ringling Brothers.
Venice Florida to Colorado and Back
Robin began dance at the age of two and never stopped. She hails from Indianapolis, Indiana, where she began theater school, and will tell you that she doesn’t know anything else except dancing. She spent her high school years in Venice, Florida, then a stint in Colorado, and then back to Florida, eventually settling in Lee County.
Upon graduating high school in 1974, Robin joined the Kids Circus of Sarasota. “When I finished up at the Kids Circus, I headed out to Colorado to join a circus with some friends. We were in Cripple Creek, but the circus turned out to be not so good,” she recalled. “The owner barely had enough money to send us back home.” (Robin was also part of the Circus during High School.)
She returned to Venice and then traveled down to Fort Myers. “Keep in mind this was the mid 1970’s and there was no I-75, and 41 was just two lanes back and forth. The drive took anywhere from two to two and a half hours.”
Her plan was to attend Edison Community College (now Florida South Western State College.) When her father said they couldn’t afford it, she told him, “don’t worry, I’ll get a scholarship.” After she finished her classes, Robin got a local job coaching gymnastics.
“It was with Fort Myers Gymnastics, which sadly dissolved after they replaced paid staff with volunteers,” she remembered. From there she landed another job choreographing and coaching.
Most teenage girls are busy planning their weekends and secretly hoping that the boy who they have a crush on will ask them out. However when Robin was in her late teens, she was unhappy and reached out to her mom. “I called my mom and she said ‘you need to open your own dance studio.’” She told her mom that a teenager never owns their own studio, but told her “if you come down to Fort Myers, I’ll open a studio.”
At 7 a.m. the following morning, Robin’s mother was knocking at her door and the hunt began for a studio that Robin could call her own. When they located a nice small studio, they inquired. “I remember it was $200 a month,” said Robin. “My mom had exactly two hundred left in her account and paid for it. ‘We’ll call it the Robin Dawn Dance Studio’ she said. It’s been that ever since,” Robin says with a smile.
She will be the first to tell you that it’s not easy to open a studio, especially on a very tight budget. “The full length mirrors you hang on the back of your bedroom door, I only had enough money to purchase four of them to hang on the studio wall.” She also took things to an extreme by living out of her car – a Chevy Vega. “I also had students leave behind their Coke bottles so I could collect the nickel deposit.” At the time, her dinner consisted of Spam and crackers, and she would shower at the beach. This lasted for six months. Once she secured a job at the Levy, a club that played the Waltz and the Charleston, she was able to get a tiny apartment that came complete with a warming plate and mini refrigerator.
The first thing she says to her students, “dance is fun! We’re here to have fun and learn and make memories.” And she does just that.
What Robin enjoys most about dance is “you can just disappear. If I’m having a bad day, I can go to the studio and dance and everything kind of goes away. Like being in another world for a while.”
Things were beginning to pick up for Robin. She was offered a chance to choregraph a musical for the Cape Coral Players, which she accepted against the advice of her friends and family who suggested she was taking on too much.
“I had never before choreographed a musical,” says Robin, “but I knew how to dance and figured that would be enough. Everything else I’d learn along the way.” The show, Anything Goes, was a success.
Robin began to study under Tommy Hannaford with the Ringling Brothers. Tommy’s brother, George, was able to get Robin a spot with the circus because she knew how to do tricks while bare back riding. “After a while, they asked me to join them in Lake George, New York for a summer at Storytown USA.” She did this for a while, but once her students began to write her letters asking her to come back, she did.
She opened up a new studio and went from 30 students (who she affectionally refers to as ‘her kids’) to 75 students. She also moved out of her tiny apartment into a new place off County Club Blvd in The Cape. One year later, she again had to find a bigger studio as her class grew from 75 to 125. Some of her students have been dancing with Robin for 35 years.
When it comes to dancing, Robin wanted to be not only the best dancer, but the best teacher. She started to travel to New York to further her studies and was taught by some of the biggest names in the dance world in the late 1970s. In 1978, she became certified with the Dance Masters of America and Dance Educators of America.
Oddly enough, Robin never wanted to be a dance instructor; she had set her sights on being a professional dancer. Now she’s in this for her students. “I want my students to achieve their dreams and make it as dancers,” she says. “I didn’t get to dance professionally. I left my teacher and had no one to guide me on what to do and where to go. I want to be here for my kids.”
Business In The Cape
Robin’s studios have been located in Cape Coral since the mid-1970s. “These people have been my family,” she says. “They have been with me through two failed marriages and one good marriage, through the ups and downs, and have been very supportive.”
She enjoys her time with the kids, from teaching at North Fort Myers High School to running her studio, she gives 100 hundred percent. There is a certain amount of trust that goes between the student, the parents and the teacher. “I know what my kids are going through; I become close with all of them.”
She reminisced about the successes of many of her students over the years. “Some students have been with me, then their children took lessons and now their grandchildren take lessons.” Other students of hers have gone on to do professional dancing, teach dancing, and two brothers, Blakely and Parker, practiced under Robin and are now on Broadway. “They both had their debuts with me in the audience, and yes, I cried.” One girl was with the original Broadway showing of Footloose; another young man went onto Julliard and then performed in Guys and Dolls; numerous students have gone on to perform on the Emmys, the Grammys, and the Academy Awards.
One student, Robin recalled, was Melissa Fair, a sophomore in high school. “She came to me and said, ‘all I want to do is dance for Disney.’ She took her first class and was not very good at all. Her mother called me that night and said, ‘she’s crying and is going to quit.’ I said, ‘no, no, bring her back to class.’ Three years later, she auditioned for the Barbie Show at Disney and made the team and ended up dancing professionally for a long time.”
Besides owning/operating a dance studio for more than 40 years, Robin has been successful in other facets of life. For a while she was a single mom with four children, two of whom are twins, and she was the sole bread winner. “Balancing the studio and family was challenging, but I did it,” she says. Later, when she remarried, two step-children were added into her routine and daily life.
She met her husband, Kevin, when his niece took dance lessons at Robin’s studio. “I was friends with the whole family,” she says. “We were really good friends and just stayed in touch through the years. Then, when I got divorced, he was there. I felt it was something that was meant to be.”
For ten years she was associated with The Broadway Palm choreographing their shows. She also wrote “The Dance Competition Handbook: How You Can Succeed at Dance Competition,” and produced a television show featuring pre-tap, ballet and jazz which has aired nationally on the Bravo Network.
Robin has come a long way since the circus in Colorado. She now teaches all over the country, judges many dance performances and recitals, and conducts master classes. With her studio, she now has a staff of 20 from people handling the administration to teachers. One staff member, Jennifer Pertenr, has been a student of Robin’s since she was three. “Jen has been with me for over 35 years,” says Robin proudly. “She never left, and now not only is she a teacher with me, she’s teaching my four-year-old granddaughter to dance.”
Robin is still passionate and loves to teach dancing. She does tap, ballet, jazz, acrobats, and even aerial. She is also pleased that dance has finally evolved and recognized as an art.