Denfeld News

Aug. 20, 2009
Duluth News Tribune

Denfeld grads knew the steps to make dance center a success
By Louise Ernewein

It could almost be a plot from one of the musicals in which they have excelled.
Fourteen years after love blossomed on stage at Denfeld High School for Jennifer Madill and Dustin Hagen, the couple, now married, are celebrating a decade in business by transforming their Madill Dance Center into a hub for the performing arts.

With the addition next month of improv and musical theater classes, and the expansion of the venue’s music classes, comes a subtle name change, to the Madill Performing Arts Center.

It was a venture that began in 1999 when Jennifer Madill Hagen and Dustin Hagen, both 22 and fresh out of dance and musical theater college in New York, paid the first and last month’s rent for a one-room space in the Denfeld Retail Center — just a stone’s throw from the pair’s former high school — with a credit card.

These days the couple, who most recently appeared opposite one another as Belle and the Beast in the Playhouse’s “Beauty and the Beast,” can be found at the 7,000-square-foot Madill Performing Arts Center at the intersection of 22nd Avenue West and Superior Street with their children, Cooper, 8, and Tanner, 4.

“We never thought we couldn’t [do it],” said Jennifer Madill Hagen, reflecting on the past 10 years of a venture that now has a $200,000-plus annual turnover.

“That’s what I think did it for us: We never gave ourselves the option of it not working — and still don’t,” Hagen said. “There’s always a way to make it go right. You might have to work and be really creative, and there have definitely been obstacles, but we always just knew it was going to work. We are definitely optimists, and always have been.”

Madill’s office manager, music coordinator and teacher Adam Sippola is also no stranger to the stage.

Currently playing the lead role in “Sweeney Todd” at the Duluth Play Ground, Sippola is one of 15 teachers employed by the center and is heavily involved with the expansion of the performing arts program.

“I see the potential of the music and theater program being huge, to get up to a par where the dance program is now,” he said. “A lot of the dance students are also very interested in music and theater as well, and the hope is that we can offer all of that in one space.”

The Madill Performing Arts Center boasts three studios, music rooms, office, several waiting areas for families, and an extremely pink girls’ dressing room.

Rules printed on the wall in the dancers’ lounge include: “No parents; No talking; Warm up; Homework.”

“I never thought I would own a half-a-million-dollar building — ever, or that it would be feasible,” Jennifer Madill Hagen said of the building, formerly Hal Smith’s Health Spa, which the couple bought three years ago.

The Hagens, who work full-time on the business, hope to expand the center’s annual displays of talent to include two additional recitals by the growing numbers of students taking lessons in voice, piano, violin, guitar, percussion and banjo. They also plan to develop musicals and cabarets to incorporate incoming students with a gift for acting.

“This is part of their push to broaden and really embrace performing arts more broadly, and I think that’s great,” said Rebecca Katz Harwood, assistant professor of dance at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “I’m a huge proponent of introducing people to the arts in childhood and making it part of your life from an early age, and it’s increasingly challenging to find a place to do that.”

The couple set a high standard for their 500-odd students to emulate, bringing skills learned through hours of classes and auditioning in classical ballet, hip hop, musical theater and tap dance in New York.

It’s an ability that was visible early on, according to Ellie Martin, the leading lady in the Duluth Playhouse’s June production of “Doubt” and a school counselor who worked with the two on performing arts at Denfeld, where she unwittingly brought the couple together when she asked them to work on a skit on teenage pregnancy.

“I knew that they were extremely talented,” she said. “I think they could have easily stayed in New York and been very successful, but it’s great that they came back here. ... We are very lucky to have them.”

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