Four-Decade Passion For Dance

Mitzi Roberts’ love for dance has been ingrained in her since she was young. She started dancing when she was just 4 years old. Four decades later, she is still passionate about dance.

Roberts, the owner of Mankato’s Dance Express, said she has her mom to thank for that.

“My mom always wanted to be a dancer herself, but her family couldn’t afford it,” Roberts said. “She came from a poor background, so it was important for her that I have that experience.”

Soon, Roberts was enrolled in tap, ballet and tumbling at Barbara’s School of Dance in the old Mankato Armory. She took all three classes in one hour, and still remembers the friends she made and the leotards she wore.

“Instantly, dance was something that I felt included in, and I was so excited to be part of it,” Roberts said.

When she was a bit older, Roberts enrolled at Kathy’s School of Dance. It was a great experience, but eventually Kathy’s closed. Though Roberts enrolled at a different dance studio, she didn’t feel the same connection to dance that she had previously.

“I thought I knew everything,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t challenging me.’ I was just being snotty, but I actually stopped dancing for a year or two.”

A few years passed. When Roberts was in seventh grade her mom signed her up for a new studio. Roberts’ passion for dance was reignited there.

“I tried this new studio, and it was one of those moments where, after you take a break from something, you realize just how much you missed it,” she said. “With this new studio, I realized that there was a whole other group of people out there that loved dance as much as I did. The new studio was for older students. At that moment, I realized I’d found my niche, and I began to love dancing again.”

Because she had taken a hiatus from dance for a few years, on the first day of class at her new dance studio, Roberts said her nerves got the better of her and she was hesitant for tryouts. Then, her dance teacher made a suggestion that would alter Roberts’ path in life.

“She asked if I wanted to assist with classes instead,” Roberts said. “She’s the one who immersed me into assisting and teaching dance.”

Roberts said from then on she was in the studio. She was 15 when she taught her first class to a group of adults, and from there, she began to sub for other dance teachers. Leading dance classes wasn’t much of a stretch for Roberts; she’d been putting on neighborhood dance shows since she was 10.

“I think I was born a teacher,” she said. “I had a friend in my neighborhood who lived just around the corner from me, and, oh boy, did she get roped into putting on shows with me.”

Roberts remembers choreographing short routines with her friends with the idea of charging admission that would go to local charities.

“We did that quite often in the summer,” she said. “I just think it’s in my blood to do things like that.”

After Roberts graduated from Mankato West High School, she attended Minnesota State University, Mankato, and received her bachelor’s degree in business. She also obtained a dance teacher certification from Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. Roberts said it seemed like a natural decision to return to teaching dance after graduation.

“You know, it felt a little like it was all that I knew,” she said. “When I was younger, I wasn’t the kid that was the best at everything right away. I’m not a natural athlete. I had to work a little bit harder for it.”

She said that experience has helped her relate better to kids who are struggling when she teaches them at her studio.

“I understand the benefit of breaking things down differently so people can grasp it,” she said. “I think that’s where the teacher comes out in me. When you reword something, it can just click differently.”

After teaching dance for 12 years at an area recreation center, Roberts was mowing the lawn at her mom’s house when she thought to herself, “I have more to offer. I want … [teaching dance] to be what I do.”

With her mom’s guidance, Roberts ventured out on her own and made the leap to opening a dance studio.

“She’s the one who said, ‘OK, I believe in you. Let’s do this,’” Roberts said.

After looking in the Mankato area for a suitable location, Roberts settled on a space at the Mankato Place Mall. The River Hills Mall was opening at the same time, so Roberts was able to move into the downtown spot “for a steal.”

“Things were shifting and moving around in Mankato, so the area was open and ready for rent,” she recalled. “It was a good price point for me at the time for when I was just starting out on my own. I remember building little subfloors, and I only had a 900-square-foot studio to start with, but it worked well for what I needed at the time.”

One of Roberts’ fondest memories of her time at the Mankato Place Mall was when she first moved in and discovered other tenants were selling old furniture and office equipment that she could use in her new dance studio.

“I bought my first computer from Brett’s Department Store,” Roberts said. “This was 1992, and it only ran DOS. I bought it for $500, and I was so excited. I thought having that computer was the biggest deal.”

Surrounded by the right people and not afraid to ask questions, Roberts’ run at owning her own dance studio proved to be a successful move.

“I had good people around me, and I asked a lot of questions,” Roberts said. “You learn a lot just by being hands-on. It’s the same way you grow in anything. It just takes time and patience, a lot of patience.

There are some challenges, but the kids are here to work hard. At the end of the day, their smiling faces are so appreciated. When they hug you and are excited to show you that they’ve been working hard on a dance or a skill, that’s what makes it rewarding.”

Roberts taught out of the Mankato Place studio until 2005. The area was starting to change and was slowly transitioning to include more nightclubs and bars. Because of that, Roberts felt like it was the perfect time to investigate acquiring land elsewhere in town. She settled for a location on Broad Court off Highway 14 in Mankato.

Words of encouragement on the eve of a recital.

A full-service dance studio, Dance Express offers its students tap, ballet, jazz, lyrical, hip-hop, contemporary and tumbling. Dance Express has more than 400 students and 12 teachers with classes for ages preschool to adult. Of the 400 students, 150 participate in competition dance, while the rest are recreational dancers. The studio, including competition and recreational dancers, puts on two shows per year – one at Christmas and one in the spring.

“I really feel like dance is a lot more than just dancing,” Roberts said. “There are life skills that these young kids are learning. Our tag line is ‘Experience Dance, Encounter Excellence.’ It all begins with learning techniques first and the skills after. What we hope to do with these dancers is help build a strong character. We want to promote a deep sense of commitment and loyalty, high self-esteem, a self-disciplined mind and body and the firm knowledge that excellence is not being the best but doing your best.”

What Roberts loves most about her job and dance is how it helps her students express themselves in ways they couldn’t before.

“I love dance because sometimes kids are shy,” she said. “With dance, you don’t have to speak. Instead, you speak with your body, and it gives them confidence. Soon they’re nailing book reports or a speech they have to give at school. It’s all about baby steps in getting used to being in front of a crowd.”

The way Roberts sees it, dance is a stepping stone to building self-esteem.

“Some kids cry when their parents are in the audience watching them during a program, but it’s the fact that they didn’t run off the stage that you tell them they did a great job for,” she said. “In the kid’s mind, they nailed it. In my opinion, the worst thing you can do is let them leave the stage. They have to learn to follow through the process, so they learn the skills that it takes. Some take to it a little slower, and some are born to be performing dance. But, either way, it’s OK.”

With more than 40 years of teaching experience under her dance shoes, Roberts said seeing children grow from young dancers to adult dancers is a special experience that she’ll remember forever.

“It’s truly what takes my breath away,” she said.

Roberts currently has a group of high school seniors who are members of the National Honors Society of Dance Arts, a nationally accredited dance program. The dancer must maintain a high GPA and be active in community service to become a member.

“These students are constantly giving back, and they’re truly remarkable,” Roberts said. “I remember them on their first day of class when they were little. You just never know which ones end up being lifelong dancers. It’s just so fun watching them year after year … from their first year and now developing into such wonderful young adults. They’re ready to take the world by storm.”

To qualify for the National Honors Society of Dance Arts, Roberts submits an essay that the dancer has written. One of the senior dancers wrote about how she went from being, in her words, awkward and nervous and how she attributes dance for helping her come out of her shell.

“If you see this young woman now, you would never believe it,” Roberts said. “She’s so amazing and has so much confidence and is outgoing. It’s so fun to keep up with these dancers.”

Students come to Dance Express from Mankato, St. Peter and as far away as Owatonna. Roberts credits the studio’s teachers for the creativity and talent it takes to choreograph routines for the 400 students.

Lately, Roberts has taken on more of a business and planning role and teaches one or two classes per week.

“I truly have a great staff,” Roberts said. “I like to think of each teacher as their own canvas. They’re constantly taking classes and attending conferences, competitions and workshops to get inspired. Because they’re artists, the creativity and coming up with new choreography will never end.”

This summer, Roberts is introducing a new element of dance to the studio and sees it as a way to appeal to more people in the area. The class, Dance Cirque, is geared toward aerial art using a lyra, a hoop used to perform acrobatic tricks while hanging in the air. Roberts is opening the class to people of all ages, from young children, also called the Little Monkey group, to adults. In addition, a professional team from Australia will be making its way to Mankato to certify the staff.

“I just feel like this helps us tap into something new,” she said. “Some kids don’t love the dance part, and some kids don’t enjoy tumbling. This is hitting a new demographic that will incorporate the two. It will help open kids in the area to a new world of activity.”

The Importance of Giving Back
Roberts makes it a priority during the year to give back to the community that has given her so much, she said, no matter how big or small the effort is.

As a fundraiser for the American Red Cross, Roberts helps pair her dancers with “stars” around Mankato for Dancing with the Mankato Stars. The annual event (though paused for COVID-19) raised more than $140,000 in 2020.

In addition to Dancing with the Mankato Stars, performing at area nursing homes, and hosting blood drives and Toys for Tots fundraisers, Dance Express also offers a free program designed for children with special needs called Darby’s Dancers.

Along with Roberts, 10 dancers and teachers at Dance Express volunteer their Saturday mornings to offer this class to the community.

“I truly think that giving back to the community helps instill that importance at a young age,” she said. “It just becomes who you are, and it really gives you joy.”

Turning The Negative Into A Positive

Roberts doesn’t shy away from sharing her personal struggles because she sees it as a learning opportunity for those around her.

“In 2013, I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said. “Thankfully, I came out of it really great.”

Roberts said her diagnosis helped her realize who her close friends were and how people rally in times of need. With the support of her community, Roberts said she was able to power through treatment and continue to work.

“I think working helped because it was so fun to see the kids,” she said. “I would wear crazy wigs to classes, and the kids just loved it. It was a time that I think helped bring great awareness to the disease. It let kids know that people with cancer aren’t scary, and they could still hug me. It was the kids that kept me laughing. They were the light at the end of the tunnel.”

So many people went above and beyond to support her during her diagnosis that Roberts decided she wanted to help others who were also facing breast cancer. So, together with a close friend, she founded the nonprofit Angels of Breast Cancer in 2017. Each year, the organization hosts a tutu run. All proceeds are used to send care packages to individuals who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It’s just a nice way to give back,” Roberts said. “I know I appreciated it when I was going through my treatment. It was things like that which really helped.”

Seeing The World

When she’s not at Dance Express, Roberts enjoys spending time with her children, Katie and Brendan, biking, and water activities like swimming and paddleboarding. Also, at the top of her list is traveling.

“I lost both my mom and stepdad in a car accident about eight years ago,” Roberts said. “My mom was a big traveler, so I want to continue to have these experiences and see the world. She would want that for me.”

Having been to Peru, Poland, Egypt, Jordan and Mexico, Roberts has set her sights on seeing the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” and hopes to see the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal.
“There’s just so much learning in traveling,” she said. “My mom and stepdad were the best, and I do think they’re still with me, especially when I’m traveling.”

The Essentials

Dance Express
2105 N. Broad Court
Mankato, MN 56001
Phone: (507) 625-3865

Photography by Jonathan Smith

Anna Vangsness

A freelance writer from New Ulm.