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Bigfork Dance owner Leigh Ann O’Neill’s lifelong passion for teaching movement

by TAYLOR INMAN
Bigfork Eagle | January 4, 2023 12:00 AM

Bigfork Dance owner Leigh Ann O’Neill has been dancing as long as she can remember.

“Dance has definitely been my life. I started teaching my stuffed animals and eventually moved up to the neighbor’s kids. I would line everyone up in the yard in the summer and make them put on a recital,” O’Neill said.

After moving to Montana in 2000, she opened one of the only dance studios in the Flathead Valley at the time. She went on to open a studio in Bigfork, where she calls home. After 35 years, she said she hasn’t gotten tired of teaching kids to love dance.

“I love it (teaching) as much as performing probably, if not more. I teach every class— the littles through high school. Because I mean, I just love teaching every ability and helping them develop a love for dance that I hope that they keep,” O’Neill said.

It’s a frigid December afternoon when about a dozen little girls rush into Bigfork Dance for their rehearsal. They have tutus poking out under their heavy winter coats, which quickly get sat aside for the real fun to begin. She instructs the dancers in some across-the-floor exercises, basic tumbling and some impromptu dance partying. Though they may be small now, she said she enjoys watching her performers come into their own.

“I love watching their accomplishments, the smallest little thing that they get so excited about. Or, the older, more advanced girls— they will be pushing for something and then they'll get a trick or a turn or a leap, you know? So it’s a reward, seeing them happy and proud of themselves,” O’Neill said.

Most girls in her “minis and littles” class are the same age as O’Neill was when she began dancing. She said she was all in on being part of dance from the time she was small, attending four to five dance conventions and workshops a year.

“When I was a teenager, I would travel to Minnesota and St. Louis, and Iowa just to take from as many different types of teachers as I could. I did not go to college, because right out of school at nineteen I opened that studio, and it worked out for me,” O’Neill said.

When she opened her own studio in Kansas at 19-years-old, she said she made sure to move far enough away so as to not pull students from her home studio. She said her teacher there not only taught her what she knows about dance, but also how to teach it and run a business. When she was in high school, O’Neill was already helping run rehearsals and train younger students, adding that she was the teacher’s “right hand man.”

This made for an easy transition for the 19-year-old studio owner, who would teach dance in Kansas for 13 years before making a move to Montana. She opened up Whitefish Dance and Acro in 2000, which was an instant success.

“It was so busy, like so busy. We had a dance team that halftimed Flathead basketball, and in Whitefish, Columbia Falls— we were just busy going to out of town conventions and competitions and were just busy, busy, busy,” O’Neill said.

She said after more dance studios were established in and around Whitefish, she looked towards creating a studio in Bigfork in 2012. She cut back on hours at her Whitefish studio to invest some time into Bigfork, and in 2022 they celebrated their 10 year anniversary. At both studios she teaches “a little bit of everything” which includes ballet, lyrical jazz, hip hop, tap and clogging, among others. She said she alternates teaching different kinds of dance to her younger students, letting them decide on a focus when they get older.

Her students enjoy all types of dance and movement, but particularly enjoy tumbling acrobatics.

“They all love tumbling. Like, we have to do acro every week, or it's like, ‘when are we gonna do it? When are we gonna do it?’ like 20 times,” O’Neill said.

Her enrollment varies, with more students taking classes during summer months when they might be here seasonally with their family. Many of her dancers are also active with other organizations and sports, such as the Bigfork Playhouse Children’s Theater and soccer. Over the years, she said she’s taught hundreds of kids who are old enough now to bring their own kids to Whitefish or Bigfork Dance.

She’s never had to post a job advertisement for her other teachers either, O’Neill said. Many of her students age into becoming teachers themselves.

“I have one now, and my other one is just from Bigfork dance. She started the week we opened here and now she's down at Bozeman. She graduated in May from Bigfork and now I have her younger sister who is still dancing, so she's taking over teaching with me, and she's only a freshman so I’ll have her for another four years. This way they teach like me and it's just solid, I think cohesive for the kids too,” O’Neill said.

Her dancers go on to be part of competitive teams, captains of college dance teams and part of the University of Montana’s Dance Team. Sometimes, they even come back for an extra lesson.

“I had a dancer call me from Missoula who said, ‘could you teach me and Megan just like 45 minutes of clogging? We miss clogging together,’ and they're like, 30 something. So I said, ‘just tell me when you're up here visiting and I'll meet you at the studio.’” O’Neill said.

When she’s not teaching dance in Whitefish or Bigfork, O’Neill teaches line dancing at the Bar W Dude and Guest Ranch and at Flathead Brewery. Her approach to get people up on their feet sums up her love of movement, especially when someone tells her “I can’t dance.”

“You know, I'm not a ‘I can't’ person. So, I'd be like, ‘just give me 10 minutes, stand up for 10 minutes … If you hate it, if you feel like you're getting nothing out of it, if you're uncomfortable, you can sit back down. But give me 10 minutes,’ … If they don't feel ashamed of it and you can show them, it's much easier than you think,” O’Neill said.

Find out more information about Bigfork Dance on their website https://bigforkwhitefishdance.com.

Bigfork Eagle Editor Taylor Inman can be reached at 406-758-4433 or by emailing tinman@dailyinterlake.com.

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Bigfork Dance and Whitefish Dance and Acro owner Leigh Anne O'Neil with her mother Sherri Patterson, who helps her run the studio. (Taylor Inman/Bigfork Eagle)

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Jump around! Bigfork Dance's "minis and littles" class lets loose at the beginning of rehearsal. (Taylor Inman/Bigfork Eagle)