Nancy and Shirley’s Class

There is a class at Arts in Motion Dance Studio Ann Arbor called Modern Improvisation that meets every Wed from 10-11:30. It is attended by a loyal group of students all of whom are over the age of 50. The class is taught by a pair of teachers, Nancy Fate Heers and Shirley Axon. They have been teaching this same class for the past 20 years. They are living proof of how dance can create community, effect change, inspire, keep you healthy, happy and your mind active. Dance brings people together and supports us in times of need. It keeps our bodies limber and our minds agile. Through their classes, they have touched many lives and I am so proud to be able to provide them the space and time to continue doing so.

Nancy grew up in Pennsylvania and was always dancing around the house. At 5, she started Ballet at a studio in Swarthmore. She continued as she grew up and she remembers riding her bicycle to and from dance class. She danced her way through secondary school and high school and ended up at Bucknell where she met her first husband. They moved to California where she danced at USC. She moved back to Michigan in the early 60’s and took classes at a studio in Dearborn where she took class with Christopher Flynn (one of Madonna’s mentors). While Nancy says she “believes in Ballet”, Shirley doesn’t. Shirley is proud to say she has never taken a Ballet class. Shirley grew up in Kansas and danced in the late 40’s when in colleges across the country dancers were mainly rebelling against Ballet. It was the heyday of Martha Graham and the other pioneers of Modern Dance and Shirley was in the thick of it. She danced in Oklahoma and then here in MI at Wayne State.

Nancy and Shirley met dancing with Parker Copely at the Dance Gallery Studio. Shirley was dancing with Ada Cohen at the YMCA and Nancy at Dance Theater Studio in downtown Ann Arbor. Most of the classes at local studios were for younger dancers, so Nancy and Shirley decided to teach a class for older adults. They started teaching together (one of them would be the lead teacher one week and the other would lead the next). The class was a more or less traditional Modern Dance class with technique and some improvisational exercises.Over the years, they began to perform with the class, first in annual studio performances and then out in the community. They performed structured improvisational pieces at the Interfaith Center For Spiritual Growth, the Ella Sharp Museum, 1st Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, at the Ann Arbor City Center and for the League of Women Voters and recently in Detroit for the world wide event, Global Water Dances.

In their 20 years teaching together they have touched countless lives and certainly enriched their own lives and those of the audience members who have witnessed their creative inspiration dances.

What follows are a few of those stories:

“I have been with the dance class from the beginning. I did not know anyone in it, and had just moved recently to Ann Arbor. I was gaining weight after having been kept skinny all my life by a hectic single professional and graduate school life that left me no time to eat, literally, and no one to eat with. My husband went to a university thing and met Shirley Axon, an old friend of his from City Democratic circles, who asked him how his new wife was doing, and he said, “She’s unhappy about too much food and too little exercise,” and Shirley said, “Send her to our new dance class,” and the rest is history. The dance class gave me an important new strong, expressive, fulfilling hobby (I was never a dancer), a strong social group that has remained central to my life, and the beginnings of a personal fitness regime that is so critical to me.” – Diane

“I’ve come to have deep appreciation for Improv Dance. When I’m listening and responding to the music, bringing my awareness to the other dancers near me, my left brain happily lets my right brain take over. I enter a wordless space, where shape, movement, music, and response become my world. Thoughts of the past and future disappear as I enter this moment, and the moment after that. It’s a real “Be here now” situation. The class helps me stay flexible – and it motivates me to exercise other days of the week.

One of the biggest draws for me is the sense of the unexpected – the sense of surprise that Improv has as one of its basic tenants. We never know what the the class may start with – it may be: move without using your arms, or: expand and contract, or any number of other prompts that cause us to think differently. As we see each other trying movement ideas, that adds new possibilities and combinations.

When we interact with each other’s movements and bodies, we form a sense of trust. We come to appreciate each other without one word being spoken. We trust enough to play, experiment, and react in the moment. It brings back the freedom of our childhood – and if we didn’t have much fun then, we get to have it now!” – Connie

Several of the students in the class are visual artists: photographers, fiber artists, painters. Rebecca, a local fiber artist has this to say about the class, “As an artist dance informs my work and frees me to do what I want to do and that surprised me”. She began taking the class for health reasons – stretching, flexibility—but now she sees that it also helps her to look at things from different angles and because of the trust that has developed in the class she is able to share her thoughts more freely both in class and outside of class. She reports that her boyfriend says she is much more interesting and open after she has taken class.

Nancy and Shirley’s class is proof that dance enriches our lives in so many ways. Dance provides connection, physical activity, mental activity, connection to community, inspiration and joy. That’s why I like to say “it’s never to late to start dancing!” and “once you’ve started dancing, never stop!”

For more information about this and other classes at Arts in Motion go to: