By Laura Ann Tipps
When Linze Rickles McRae teamed up with the Gadsden Cultural Arts Foundation to open the Downtown Dance Conservatory 10 years ago, she started with a little under 75 students.
A decade later, in the midst of the studio’s anniversary celebrations, McRae has 400 students already registered for the upcoming year and expects that number to climb before classes begin on August 19.
While still a young adult, McRae may surprise some with her success.
But for those who have known her since she was a child, McRae’s endeavors are simply natural extensions of a lifelong passion.
“She has always been passionate about dance, and that is what makes her so special,” said Bobby Welch, Executive Director of the Gadsden Cultural Arts Foundation.
After training with Monica Barnett Smith, Miss America 1995 Heather Whitestone’s teacher for many years, the constant drives to Birmingham began to wear on McRae and her mom.
When they found an ad for classical ballet training in Gadsden with Deedee Leda, they were immediately sold.
“She actually told my mother she was full and couldn’t take anymore,” Linze recalled.
But one day, in “The Closet,” as Madame Leda used to call the dance studio, she discovered something in McRae that she wasn’t willing to let walk out her door.
“She told the girl behind me she couldn’t dance and should never come back, and she told me she liked the way I used my head and that I needed to stay,” McRae said with a smile.
Years later, having had experience assisting Madame Leda in teaching classes, McRae decided to open the conservatory. She was accepted to and graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, a big accomplishment for a dancer not originally trained in the Academy’s specific progression of coursework.
McRae’s students follow a version of the Royal Academy’s syllabus, moving from level to level all the way to the “upper school.”
This year, the upper school from the Conservatory will be performing in Paris and London, working with the Royal Academy of Dance, and attending the Paris Opera Ballet.
Additionally, to commemorate its tenth anniversary, the conservatory will be staging a holiday surprise performance in collaboration with one of the state’s premier dance companies, as well as an extravagant spring production which McRae said will be a remake of the overall favorite between the parents and students of the past 10 years.
“That’s all I can really say right now, but we’ve got some big stuff coming up for this milestone year.”
McRae attributes much of her success to the continued support of others, such as the Cultural Arts Foundation.
“The board really helped and supported us when we moved into our new space,” she said, referring to the upstairs suite the Conservatory has occupied since the Etowah Youth Orchestra moved to the old synagogue on Chestnut Street last year.
Other integral parts of McRae’s team are her three fellow instructors. Laura Cornwell recently graduated from Jacksonville State University with a degree in Exercise Wellness, and Krystin Baird graduated from JSU with a degree in theatre.
Cammie McFarling teaches in the Conservatory’s Imagidance program and is certified in Kindermusic.
“We round each other out. We’re four different personalities and we all love these kids, so it works really well,” McRae said of the three young women.
Despite a busy schedule of teaching classes all afternoon Monday through Thursday, managing the studio, and producing mesmerizing stage performances, Linze makes time for her two young daughters, Azaela and Eve, and her husband, Ryan McRae.
She values her time with them just as her students and their parents value her, not only as a teacher, but as a mentor, as well.
Welch prizes Linze’s presence at the Center for Cultural Arts.
“We are very proud of the fact that Linze is associated with us, that she is a Royal Academy of Dance graduate, that she is such an excellent choreographer and stage producer, and that she chose to teach with us and call Gadsden home.”