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Pulse Dance company prepares new work in its new home

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 14, 2014

When Stephanie Wonchala was a teenager, someone gave her an old-timey needlepoint that said, "Miss Stephanie's Dance Studio."

Last week she sat in the modish, neat-as-a-pin lounge of Studio Pulse Center for Dance and described how a childhood dream turned into reality.

"Ever since I was a little girl, I was like, 'I'm going to have a dance studio!' " she said. "But it wasn't until I had the company that I began to think that we need a home."

The company is Pulse, now in its fifth season, admired by local dance fans for its high-caliber, cutting-edge work. The full-length piece that capped last year's offerings, "Ever After," sold out three performances and was a highlight of the local arts season. At that time the company was without its own rehearsal space and administration was largely being conducted from Wonchala's living room and cell phone.

That changed on August 16, when Studio Pulse opened in a space off Tudor and Lake Otis that had previously been a liquor store.

"It was a disaster," Wonchala said, recalling the state of the building before it was remodeled.

There's no hint of the former business now. A large, open rehearsal space features a wall of mirrors, barres and a sprung floor -- easier on dancers' joints. A chandelier sparkles from the center of the ceiling.

The chandelier was essential to set the tone, Wonchala said. She remembered seeing the ballroom in a German castle when she was a girl and being struck by the dazzling light fixture. "I love everything fancy and luxe," she said.

The luxe tone is seen throughout the facility. There are two downright elegant bathrooms, changing rooms for men and women and the brightly colored lounge. "It's really important to me to have a place where dancers can connect," she said.

And the whole place is spotless -- in part because Wonchala is constantly mopping and vacuuming. It's part of being a business owner, she's discovered. But in a lifetime of dancing, she's worked in studios with trash, dust and dirty floors and wants nothing of the sort in Miss Stephanie's Dance Studio.

The closest thing to clutter is found in one of the closets holding props and costumes. "This is one of the things I'm super excited about," she said. "I finally got the costumes out of my garage."

Fierce new work

The public will see some of those costumes next weekend when Pulse Dance Company presents its season finale, the premiere of another original full-length piece.

"From Dust to Dawn" runs just over an hour with no intermission. It will be Pulse's biggest production to date, with a cast of 15. Wonchala described it as "emotionally laden dance-theater inspired by numerous 'end of the world' perspectives and scenarios" and exploring "love, loss (and) perseverance in the wake of devastation and the importance of hope."

Like "Ever After," "From Dust to Dawn" is composed of distinct segments. "It's multiple stories being told in one large story," Wonchala said.

But compared to the fairy-tale-flavored "Ever After," the new piece will be darker and more intense, Wonchala said. "It's a little more heart-wrenching."

Press material cautions that the concert "may not be suitable for children due to implied gun violence and adult themes."

"The dynamic is more fierce and the subject matter is really heavy," she said. "It's more demanding, with a lot of physical risk-taking. The dancers are really flailing."

Wonchala did most of the choreography, but there are also "little snippets of light" inserted, the work of longtime Anchorage dance guru Alice Bassler Sullivan, who teaches ballet at Studio Pulse.

"It was important to me that Alice contributed something frivolous, happily over-the-top, which she did brilliantly," Wonchala said.

For opening night, Feb. 21, the company will repeat the "Red Carpet" event that proved successful last year. Patrons are encouraged to dress up as if going to a Hollywood gala for photos with the cast, hors d'oeuvres, adult beverages and a silent auction.

The mobile barre in the studio has been moved in so that dancers can rehearse on a floor space that matches the rather constricted confines of Grant Hall. They've adjusted with few problems, Wonchala said. The company is far from being able to afford the large venues at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, she said. "But this really is a Discovery Theatre show."

Always training

Pulse Dance Company may be the reason Studio Pulse came into being, but dance students are what keep the chandeliers lit. The studio offers a range of classes from formal ballet to hip-hop. There are pilates classes and something called "Yoga by Candlelight" on Thursday nights.

While younger dancers, often children, are the core clientele of many dance schools, Wonchala said her initial target group was grown-ups.

"It's really hard for a lot of people to wake up and say 'I'm going to take a dance class,' " she said. "I thought we needed to offer programs for the adult working on an adult schedule."

The programs have been expanded to include a student company that meets right after local high schools let out and classes for children from 5 to 13 years old on weekends.

Dance classes have never been an easy sell in Anchorage. Wonchala has tried to get the word out with a limited ad budget, lots of posters and heavy use of social media, tweets, blogs and a Facebook following of nearly 2,000.

One of her promotions has been "The Black Swan Challenge," in which a person was selected to take two complementary classes a day and blog about it. "It was a pretty tough schedule," she admitted. "So far only one person has completed it."

If the dream keeps unfolding as planned, the dance school will not only help support the company financially but also raise new dancers to advance into the troupe.

"The idea is to have a flourishing school that feeds into an exemplary company," she said.

That is, a company that keeps its exemplary edge by having a place where it can do its work. The space is big enough to allow the creation of what Wonchala calls "substantial" works and can even be used for public performances. "Once I get some black curtains, I'll have a small black box," she said.

The current schedule shows the space reserved for the Pulse dancers three nights each week. That's a priority, she said.

"What it takes to be a strong dancer is dedication and fortitude," she said. "And that takes regular practice. Companies that are successful are successful for a reason. If you're going to call yourself a dance company, then the company should always be in training."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.