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Published October 12, 2013, 09:26 AM

65 years teaching dance, and still having fun

WEST ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Nancy Raddatz, 77, puts on her tap shoes on a Wednesday evening and merrily guides a class of nine adult students through the click-click-clicking as Michael Buble's joyous tune, "It's a Beautiful Day."

By: MOLLY GUTHREY, St. Paul Pioneer Press, WDAY

WEST ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Nancy Raddatz, 77, puts on her tap shoes on a Wednesday evening and merrily guides a class of nine adult students through the click-click-clicking as Michael Buble's joyous tune, "It's a Beautiful Day," bubbles out over the speakers:

Hey hey hey

It's a beautiful day

And I can't stop myself from smiling

Neither can Raddatz.

This is her 65th year teaching dance.

"It is fun," Raddatz says. "It is still fun."

The tap dancers at the West St. Paul studio named after Raddatz perfectly represent the long span of her career: Five of the nine pupils are grandmothers who began dancing here when they were tots. Some of their children -- and now their grandchildren -- have also danced here.

"Somehow, we all end up dancing in this little pink room on Butler (avenue)," says Rhonda Weber, 55, of South St. Paul. "It's like a magical land."

Raddatz was 3 years old when she began dancing. Sort of.

"I was very, very shy," Raddatz says. "It was three months before I would even go into the classroom. And still, my mother took me to class every week. She had to take a jitney bus and a streetcar to get me from our home in West St. Paul to the class in South St. Paul, it took over an hour each way. Can you imagine? My mother was very, very patient with me. She was a very important person in my life."

Eventually, of course, Raddatz found the courage to start dancing.

At 12, she began teaching others.

"I taught all the neighborhood kids to dance," Raddatz says. "I charged 25 cents a lesson. It was years before I raised prices to 50 cents a lesson. Pretty good deal, huh? We couldn't charge that now!"

Raddatz eventually moved her studio from the basement of her childhood home in West St. Paul to its current location at 120 Butler Ave. It is a home as well as a business -- a private apartment is tucked away upstairs, just off one of the dance floors. This arrangement made for a unique childhood for Raddatz's only child.

"It was all I knew," says Darci Lundsten, now 42. "My home was a dance studio, my backyard was a tile floor."

It worked out, though: About 20 years ago, Lundsten and her friend and business partner, Julie Strauss, opened a sister studio -- also called Raddatz -- in Eagan.

"We didn't really have to advertise," Lundsten says. "People recognized the Raddatz name. They'd call up and say, 'I didn't know you had a location in Eagan' and 'My grandmother took lessons from you.' "

In a way, dance saved Raddatz: In 1952, just three years before a vaccine was developed, she was struck with polio. She was 17.

"It affected my arms and my legs," Raddatz says. "When I was well enough to dance again, it was very painful, but my doctor said the reason I was able to regain normal use of my limbs was because I kept dancing."

This experience, in part, is what led her to a side passion: the founding of the Uniquely Abled Dance Center.

"I had a student, Gene Chelberg, who lost the use of one eye at age 9," Raddatz says. "When he lost the use of his other eye at 12, he called me from the (University of Minnesota) and said, 'I can't dance anymore, I'm blind.' I said, 'What does that have to do with dance?' and he said, 'I don't know.' I said, 'I don't know, either, let's find out.'"

Chelberg kept dancing.

The center, which offers free classes and is run within her regular studio, is an ongoing effort.

"I'm looking for another adult in a wheelchair to fill out one of the current classes," Raddatz says.

The Raddatz Dance Studios teach everything from ballet to ballroom to hip hop to yoga. The current roster of students ranges in age from 21 months to 68.

You won't find any dance divas, though.

"I don't do competition," Raddatz says. "Life's a competition enough without making dance competitive, too. I want the love of dance being taught here."

This spirit is what drew Amy Vietzke back.

"I grew up in West St. Paul, and I started dancing with Nancy when I was 10," Vietzke says. "When my daughter, Erin, was 3, we went to observe a dance class where we were living at the time. At the end of the class, the teacher said everybody was going to get a piece of candy. She singled out one child, though, and said, 'Except for you. You didn't practice enough.' After that, I called up Nancy and started making the drive from Robbinsdale to West St. Paul for Erin's dance lessons. It was worth it. They make dance fun."

Vietzke's daughter is grown now, but the Nancy Raddatz Dance Studio is still part of the family's life.

"I called Nancy on a whim late last summer and asked if she offered any classes for adults," Vietzke says.

Vietzke now drives from Blaine to attend Raddatz's Wednesday night adult classes.

"It's been so good to have a little 'me' time, to get some exercise and to dance with Nancy again," Vietzke says. "She's a delightful lady."

While dancers haven't really changed in 65 years, the structure of society has evolved.

"The students used to go out into the community to entertain a great deal -- to dance at veterans' hospitals and nursing homes," Raddatz says. "Things are different now. Parents are working, kids are busy. We don't get out as much. We also used to offer a holiday recital, but because of people's schedules, we now stick to one recital, in May."

Dance schedules also have been altered over the years.

"Four o'clock during the week and Saturdays used to be our busiest times," Raddatz says. "Now, with families working, most of the classes start at 5:30 (p.m.) on weekdays. And Saturdays are now seen as family time (or for sports)."

But one thing that hasn't changed: The way she feels about her job.

"After 65 years, I can barely wait for the next class to start," Raddatz says.

Bravo, says her daughter.

"She's had a lot of medical challenges," Lundsten says. "She's missing half a knee, she's had polio. But she's made of nails. She doesn't take medicine, she doesn't rest, she just keeps dancing. She's fueled by love."

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