West St. Paul dance icon taps for 65 years and beyond

Nancy Raddatz
Dance teacher Nancy Raddatz and student Mary Burnell practice a lyrical routine Wednesday, Mar. 5, 2014 at Raddatz's dance studio in West St. Paul. She's been teaching since 1948.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Nearly fifty years ago, when a student called to say he had lost his sight and could no longer take dance lessons, his dance teacher wouldn't let him give up.

Nancy Raddatz told him she could teach everyone to dance.

"Well you know, we are uniquely abled," he said, agreeing to continue.

That's how the non-profit Uniquely Abled Dance Center, which serves students with disabilities, got its name.

The venture is part of the Raddatz Dance Studios, which Raddatz established in 1948 when she started giving free lessons to her friends at her parents' West St. Paul studio.

Being at her parents' studio helped her overcome her extreme shyness.

"My mother started me when I was two," she said. "She took me [there for] three months before I'd even go into the class."

But her dance life came to a screeching halt when she was 17.

In 1953, she was struck by the tail end of a polio epidemic that ravaged thousands of lives with a crippling virus that atrophied muscles.

Raddatz, 77, remembers the first symptom: coming home from school with a headache. She said her recovery was slow and painful.

"I worked at it. Dancing helped," she recalled. "It was very painful to begin with, but you keep working at it and that's what you have to do."

Since then, Raddatz has taught thousands of students. She and her daughter Darcy operate for-profit dance studios in West St. Paul and Eagan. "Oh, yes," Raddatz said. "I have four generations in some families."

The Uniquely Abled Dance Studio teaches dance and movement free of charge to people with disabilities.

On a recent Saturday morning, she instructed 11 people in wheelchairs. As some have cerebral palsy and other conditions that limit their movement, their parents or attendants propelled them around the dance floor.

"They cannot move, and most of them cannot speak, but you saw them smile," she said. "It brings that out because they are dancing."

Raddatz has studied, performed and choreographed dance in the United States and overseas. She choreographed "Disabled Genius," performed in Minneapolis in 1982 in observance of the 40th anniversary of the Sister Kenny Institute.

She is perhaps happiest at home in West St. Paul working with the Uniquely Abled class and her Wednesday tappers.

For many of her students, Raddatz embodies the theory that dance allows people to age gracefully.

Dance students
Dancers Mary Burnell, Ann Gaetke and Cindy Hedum, left to right, practice a tap dance Wednesday, Mar. 5, 2014 at Nancy Raddatz's dance studio in West St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Among them is Cindy Hedum, of Minneapolis, who regards her Wednesday night tap dance class as an elixir that will help her stay sharp. Remembering the infinite array of moves in dance requires an active mind.

"I think this will help me to age well," said Hedum, 64. "There's both the physical exercise and there's a mental component."

Raddatz also finds the dance sessions invigorating, just as they were when she first started.

"It's magic to be able to do what you love to do for 65 years," she said.

Uniquely Abled students will perform May 17-18 at the Raddatz Dance Studio recital at Bloomington Jefferson High School.

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