By Rachel Lusby

Miss Melanie Sartin, owner and founder of Melanie’s Dance Unlimited, has been leaving her mark on the dance world through her studio and successful competitive teams for 40 years.

Melanie started her dance journey as a child and began teaching her own classes by the age of 14. By the time she was 16, she owned her own studio, which was then located at the old Tukwila Community Center. Her mother, Miss Naomi (as she came to be known), became her secretary in support of her daughter’s aspirations. “My mother helped legitimize me,” says Melanie, who then got her business license, and named her studio “Melanie’s Dancers Ltd.” (Later to be changed to its current name, Melanie’s Dance Unlimited in the 2000s). Her studio has been in operation since 1980.

While still a child herself, Melanie toured with the Hoctor’s Dance Convention, which was one of the very first touring dance seminars in the nation. She is an alumnus of the Cornish School of Arts in Seattle, and studied Elementary Education and Music, all the while operating her own studio.

In the early-mid 1990s, Melanie moved her studio to its present location in the Normandy Park Community Center. She has many times been asked why she didn’t just purchase her own space. The explanation is a simple one, she did not want to have to increase her pricing to cover the cost of facility ownership.

One of the aspects that makes Melanie’s Dance Unlimited special, is their goal to be sure children have the same opportunities to study dance, regardless of the income status. “I wanted to be sure the ‘have-nots’ have the same as the ‘haves’,” Miss Melanie says. Many of her students over the years have attended class on scholarships, including students on her award-winning competitive dance teams.

Over the last 40 years, Melanie, along with her staff of teachers and teaching assistants, has taught upwards of 6,800 students.

One can imagine after so many years, and so many students, an impression must have been made somewhere. Well, there certainly has, to say the very least.

For a start, Miss Melanie and her husband Reydavid Sartin (whom the studio kids over the years have affectionately nicknamed “Mr. Melanie) have two daughters, Chelsea Sartin, and Sydney (Sartin) Buckley. Both girls grew up attending the school and got to witness the impact their mother and her studio had on so many young people.

“For 40 years, you’ve all known her as ‘Miss Melanie,’ notes Chelsea. “For 30 of those years, I’ve known her as ‘Mom’.”

Chelsea describes growing up, seeing the “behind-the-scenes” part of the business. Being the child of a dance studio owner, she saw her mother come home from the studio, to sit down at her desk and continue to work on the administrative side of the business.

She saw her sort recital costumes, make sure all pieces are present for each dancer. And even, occasionally, Chelsea was used as a mannequin to make alterations and fixes to various costumes.

“Sometimes even unknowingly in my sleep!” Chelsea laughs.

Through it all, the long nights, the good times and bad, Chelsea says she never once heard her mother complain.

“To this day, I still get approached by former/current dance families and students asking if my mother is still in business, to which I proudly respond, ‘You bet!’ It’s one of the best parts about being her daughter–seeing the impact she’s made (and continues to make) on our local community.”

Chelsea adds, “Mom always told me that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. Miss Melanie, or Mom as I know her, truly loves what she does and not one of those days in her 40 years has ever felt like “work” to her. When asked if she plans on retiring, she laughs and jokes that ‘I’ll be teaching until the day I die!’”

Sydney (Sartin) Buckley is Melanie’s youngest daughter and has in many ways followed in her mother’s footsteps, going on to become a dancer, herself. Sydney has gone on to be a guest instructor at her mother’s school, but also is a touring instructor for Dupree Dance, has performed with the 5th Avenue Theater, and has even worked in Disneyland.

But that aside, what Sydney admires most about her mother, is what she has provided to her students over the years. The opportunity to be a dancer.

“Miss Melanie (Mom) has always had a very generous heart toward her dancers and clients,” says Sydney. “For decades, she has made dance education accessible to families from such diverse backgrounds from all over South Seattle. At MDU it has always been one big family. She is compassionate and so giving of her time, talents, and care.”

Describing Melanie’s studio as a “big family” is not far from the truth. Lifelong friendships have been founded there over the last 40 years.

Holly Moore began dance at Melanie’s when she was 3 years old, and continued until she was 16 years old, leaving the studio as a competitive dancer. Not only does she describe Melanie’s as a place that founded friendships but growing up there taught her so much more than dance.

“I think it helped me gain a lot of confidence, structure and hard work ethic that I still carry today. It also gave me so many lifelong friendships and so many memories. Melanie’s was my second home and I am forever grateful that I had Melanie’s as an outlet growing up,” says Holly.

Going even further past learning how to dance, take instruction, and hold your head high, one Melanie’s Dance alumnus, Eron (Napier) Hayes had this to say about the nine years she spent as a student there:

“I spent nine years with Miss Melanie’s studio; and throughout high school, I was at the studio as much (or more) than I was home (between classes, company, and teaching). Part of the training for new assistants and teachers is to educate them on how to speak to children with respect. This was, and still is, a radically revolutionary aspect about Miss Melanie’s program that I believe to be a key to her success. I experienced, both as a student and as a teaching assistant, the power of treating even the tiniest dancer as a full person worthy of respect. So many speak to children like objects – she made a point to speak to everyone with dignity and taught everyone around her how to do the same. She ignited in me a desire to understand relationships, especially parenting, from an entirely different perspective than what I had known. This journey has enabled so much of my healing, and I am forever grateful for the perfectly imperfect, and sincerely embodied example of loving leadership in Miss Melanie. She taught me the most enduring lesson on leadership: take responsibility by embodying what you want from others – your leadership is in your example, be aware of your impact. Simple, and so subtly powerful. I wouldn’t be the mother, wife, or entrepreneur I am today without the lessons I learned from her.”

As one would imagine, Melanie could not possibly do it all herself, so over the last 40 years she trained many instructors to run classes at her studio, each producing routines for the end of the year showcase. Many of those instructors had been students of Melanie’s themselves.

Two such alums are Kim Dettman and Kelly (White) Barnard. Both started with Melanie’s Dance in the 1980s and continued to perform and instruct at the studio into the 2000s.

Kim started at Melanie’s in the summer of 1988, (when it was in the old Tukwila Community Center) and by the time she was 9 years old, she was competing. She went on to be a teacher when she was only a teenager, and by the time she was 17 she was teaching her own competitive dance team at the studio.

“Thinking back, I have so many fun, meaningful memories during my time with Melanie’s,” says Kim. “When I was at MDU I made long lasting friendships that I’m grateful for. From fellow dancers, students, and parents. MDU was family to me, I lived at that studio.”

Kim adds, “I took on challenges that were way out of my comfort zone, was taught accountability and responsibility. If I failed, I was trained to get right back up, set and conquer goals, learned true life lessons, thanks to Miss Melanie.”

Kelly (White) Barnard couldn’t agree more. Kelly began her time at Melanie’s in 1985, again at the old Tukwila Community Center.

“I was completely enamored with dance and instantly felt at home there,” Kelly states. “Throughout my childhood and into my teenage years, dance – and the studio where a constant for me. I made wonderful, life-long friends. I have fantastic memories of performing in super fun places, traveling to compete (we even went to Disneyland!!), and am pretty sure that every single costume I ever wore still lives in my parents’ attic.”

Kelly says growing up at the studio, she not only gained a love for music and dance, but also leadership skills that she still uses in her adult life today. “Congratulations Miss Melanie on 40 years – and cheers to many more!” Kelly added.

Personally, I (the author) have had the unique experience of knowing Miss Melanie my entire 34 years of life. My big sister was one of her earlier students, starting classes around 1982, and I later enrolled in her school at the age of 5, circa 1990. I continued with the school until 2005, when I turned 19. I can confidently say her impact on my life can hardly be overrated. It is thanks to Miss Melanie and her wonderful staff of teachers, that I was never overly afraid of public speaking. I was never the student who would be paralyzed with fear when I had to speak in front of my class. I learned to hold myself up straight, (I still get compliments on my posture!) and I learned positive reinforcement will always produce better outcomes than negative. Miss Melanie taught, and still teaches, far more than just dance. She creates more than just dancers. She helps shape her students into confident and passionate adults. And I am forever grateful to her. It is no surprise to me, and likely not too many others, that her studio has made it to a full 40 years.

More info at https://melaniesdancers.com.