Gotta Dance Studio’s competition team and their coaches — Lanell Brennan and Michelle Ayers — accept the award after Gotta Dance was named the national studio of the year at a recent competition | Photo: Allison Gilbert.

Most people who are interested in a career in the performing arts dream of taking their talents to New York City. It is, after all, arguably the world’s biggest stage for both dancing and theater. And Oneida’s Katelyn Gilbert has been there three times in the past two years.

Gilbert — an Oneida High School student and the daughter of Drs. Scott and Allison Gilbert of South Fork Physical Therapy — dreams of becoming a Radio City Rockette, the precision dance team best known for their annual Christmas Spectacular and for performing in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She auditioned for and had the opportunity to participate in the Rockette Summer Intensive, a coveted training program for girls interested in becoming Rockettes.

And Gilbert isn’t the only young dancer from Scott County who has had the opportunity to go to New York. Like Gilbert, Gracie Strunk — the daughter of Kent and Dani Strunk — has received scholarships to pursue dance opportunities in NYC, and she has an agent for both modeling and dance. 

So what do these two small-town girls, whose dancing talents are being discovered by those who matter most within the industry, have in common? They both got their start at Gotta Dance Studio in Oneida.

Few people in the Big Apple — or any other major city, for that matter — would expect a dance studio from a rural town with a population of 3,700 to be winning team competitions and sending individual dancers to New York City. But that’s why Gotta Dance — recently named the national studio of the year by one competition — has been called “a small-town studio doing big city things.” This is the story of bridging the gap between rural and urban — and of opening doors and creating opportunities in the process.

Celebrating 14 Years

Gotta Dance Studio is the brainchild of Lanell Brennan. The wife of Dr. Nate Brennan, she moved with her husband to Oneida in 2005, shortly after he established a podiatry practice with offices in Oneida and Jamestown. Back then, Brennan — a licensed educator — was working as a substitute teacher in the Oneida Special School District. When an opportunity presented itself for her to open a dance studio in Oneida, she stepped out on the limb. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Gotta Dance Studio opened on Halloween in 2005, a small hole in the wall at Northtown Plaza, next-door to the Save-A-Lot grocery. It was a far cry from its modern-day setup on the sprawling second floor of the former Southern Labor Union building in midtown Oneida. And Brennan admits now that she never expected it to grow into what it has become — and might not even opened the studio at all if not for a persuasive nudge from her husband.

“As a little girl, I always wanted to own a dance studio,” she said. “I have danced since I was four and I even minored in it in college. Dancing has always been a part of my life. But Nate is the one who pushed me to do it.” 

As the story goes, Dr. Brennan’s assistant had a daughter who was enrolled in dance classes at a small Oneida studio. But the studio’s instructor, a Knoxville woman, abruptly stopped traveling to Scott County. The doors were closed; the dance students had nowhere else locally to turn. When the assistant learned of Brennan’s background in dance, she urged her to open a studio. 

At her husband’s urging, Brennan did just that. She set her expectations — and they were perhaps a little low.

“Twenty to forty students. That’s what I thought,” she said. “But it just blew up.”

It wasn’t long before Gotta Dance had outgrown its Northtown Plaza home. Fourteen years later, the studio has between 110 and 125 students each year, with a core group of 25-30 dancers who attend classes four days a week throughout the year (the studio is closed July and August to give the most dedicated dancers a break).

Early on, another Oneida woman — Michelle Taylor Ayers — made contact with Brennan. She had a background in dance herself, and owns a photography business. She inquired about being the studio’s photographer. During a three-hour interview over Chinese food, the two women made a connection, and Ayers became a partner in Gotta Dance.

“We split the studio into two sides, and she teaches and I teach,” Brennan said. “She’s a wonderful asset and a good friend, too.”

Growing Up in Dance

As a little girl in rural Pennsylvania, Brennan was always active in dance. Her parents initially enrolled her because they thought she needed to “open up,” as she puts it. She did, and it became a way of life.

“Mom thought that at my first recital I was going to be a kid who stood there and cried, but I didn’t,” she said.

From there, she danced her way through elementary school, middle school and high school. And then she knew she wanted to take it a step further — so she did. She got into theater, doing some work at a tap company outside Philadelphia, and kept it going even after she landed her first teaching job.

Along the way, she met Nate Brennan. He was in med school, aspiring to be a podiatrist. The two eventually married, and followed Dr. Brennan’s career to Tennessee. He wound up opening his own practice in Oneida, and the couple moved to town in 2005. For some people, moving from small-town Pennsylvania on the north side of the Mason-Dixon Line to small-town Tennessee on the south side would’ve been like a fish flopping out of its bowl — especially when the destination of their move is an everybody-knows-everybody sort of town where outsiders are sometimes regarded somewhat suspiciously. Dr. Brennan, the town’s new foot doctor, is an unabashed Notre Dame fan who had never learned the words to Rocky Top.

But the couple endeared themselves to the town, and have become as much a part of it as any who were born and raised here. Gotta Dance is a big reason why.

“Opening the studio here is what made this even more home,” Brennan said. “When we first moved here, I was such a people person and I was going crazy, not having anything to do. Then this opened up. This is our family here. Poor Gabe (the Brennans’ son, now in seventh grade at Oneida Middle) had to grow up here.”

Dr. Brennan jokes that he came to town as “the foot doctor” and has become “the dance teacher’s husband.”

Fair assessment? “Oh yes,” Lanell Brennan laughed. “But it wasn’t always that way. When I started subbing at Oneida, they were kinda like, ‘Oh, she’s the foot doctor’s wife.’ Now everybody knows he’s the dance teacher’s husband.

“But Nate has been a good supporter of this,” she added. “I know he must get frustrated that I spend so much time here — he says it’s a black hole like Walmart: I go in and I don’t come out. But he’s been good about it. And this is a family here. I know that’s kinda corny, but it really is.”

Gotta Dance Studio’s three teens who have been with the studio since its inception in 2005 are, from left: Katelyn Gilbert, Gracie Strunk and Bayleigh Griffith | Photos by Michelle Ayers.

Doing Big Things

Fourteen years after Gotta Dance opened, the studio commands respect — winning on a national level, carving out its name as a studio. 

It wasn’t always that way. Dancing — at least competitive dance on national stages — isn’t often associated with rural America. There was a time when some of the larger studios in Knoxville sneered at Gotta Dance dancers from tiny Oneida. Now those dancers take pride in beating those studios at competitions.

“We’re an interesting studio in comparison to the ones we go against,” Brennan said. “We are from a small town. I never dreamed when we started at Save-A-Lot that we would wind up here. I love our local performances — the Christmas recitals and performing for Scott County. But it’s really neat to get feedback on our ideas and choreography and things like that when we go to competitions.”

It wasn’t always that way, of course. Climbing to the top takes time. And Gotta Dance and its dancers — some of whom, like Gilbert and Strunk and Bailey Griffith, have been with Brennan and Ayers from the beginning — have paid their dues.

“Looking back now, I know we were at the bottom (in the early days),” Brennan said. “We just had to learn what they wanted. And now we’ve won some at the national level. We’re finally at the place where people know who we are. I judge competitions myself now, so I’m able to collaborate with other teachers. The dance world is really, really small, and we’re getting connections now even though we’re really isolated here in Oneida.” 

And the awards aren’t even the biggest thing, Brennan said. The really rewarding part is being able to go toe-to-toe with the big-city studios.

“It’s neat to see the kids grow and see that we’re at the same level as some of the kids who are home-schooled and all they do is dance,” she said. “To be able to hang in there with them is really cool. That’s my biggest pride in my girls.”

Opening Doors

Whether Brennan would admit it, Gotta Dance has made an indelible impact on Oneida and Scott County. It has opened doors and created opportunities. The argument in the education world has long been that public schools don’t do enough to incorporate the arts — usually because they’re so strapped for cash. Brennan, who assists with the drama department at Oneida High School, takes pride in the fact that Gotta Dance can help bridge that gap.

“I’m excited that this has integrated the arts so much in this county,” she said. “We want to get our kids the same experiences as kids in the bigger cities get, and I feel like we’re getting to a place where we’re able to accomplish that.” 

Kids who are dancing at Gotta Dance and are proving to be truly talented might have never pursued dancing if not for the opportunity to do it close to home.

Gilbert, the Oneida High School student who has been to NYC three times the past two summers and is daring to dream of becoming a Radio City Rockette, is one of those. She played t-ball and soccer when she was younger, “but neither were my thing,” she said. Her mother enrolled her at Gotta Dance when she was three. That was 14 years ago, when Brennan and Ayers were just getting started. And she fell in love with dancing.

“I was really shy and quiet, but always loved Ms. Lanell and especially the games we played in class,” Gilbert said. “I even had my eighth birthday party at the studio so I could play the ‘fast and slow’ game with my friends.”

From the once-a-week, 45-minute dance sessions as a preschool student, Gilbert has flourished.

“Now my dance training takes a lot of hours of work every day,” she said. “I spend up to five hours a day at the studio after school.” 

And that’s led Gilbert to NYC — and opportunities to pursue a career in dance after graduation. That wouldn’t have happened, she said, without Gotta Dance.

“Being a part of a large family, there’s no way my parents would have had time to take me to dance classes in another town,” she said. “If GDS wasn’t here, I don’t know what I would be doing. People always ask if I’m a basketball player because I’m so tall…maybe I’d be doing  that.”

It isn’t just Gilbert and Strunk who are going on to bigger things because of Gotta Dance. Brennan recalls another alumnus of the studio, Laurel Blount, who is now a model in NYC. She recalls a recent text from Blount, who told her that it was her days at Gotta Dance that helped her open up and realize her potential.

“It’s interesting to look back at my juniors and teens and remember them in Kinderdance,” Brennan said. “It’s interesting to look at the kids now and wonder which ones are gonna be the juniors and teens that are going to practically live here down the road.”

Her junior class — many of whom have also been with the studio since they were just old enough to get started learning dance — are also talented, and Brennan expects them to walk through the same doors to opportunity that her teens are walking through now.

Brennan and Ayers both know the costs of being interested in dance as small-town kids without a studio close to home. Ayers’ parents drove her to Knoxville to attend dance classes as a child; Brennan drove to a studio an hour and 15 minutes from her rural Pennsylvania home. That makes their work in Oneida even more important.

“Michelle always says that she wishes we had something like this (in Oneida) when she was growing up,” Brennan said. “I’m just glad that, even the kids who’ve gone on to other things as they’ve gotten older, when they see us they have good memories.”

As for Scott County’s youth who might be interested in dancing but haven’t given it a try? The door is open.

“We’re not just competition; we have rec classes as well,” Brennan said. And, she adds, “Everybody thinks dance is expensive. Actually, coming and taking classes here is not expensive at all.”

The studio’s 45-minute sessions are priced at $35 a month; 60-minute sessions are $40 a month. Kids can start dancing as young as two, as long as they’re potty-trained. 

And while competitions do run into a lot of additional costs for dancers who choose to participate on the competitive side, Brennan said parents are actively involved in fundraising efforts — including working concessions at University of Tennessee football and basketball games and the upcoming Garth Brooks concert at Neyland Stadium — to help defray those costs.

Some of those kids who start with 45-minute weekly sessions in Gotta Dance’s Kinderdance program will simply enjoy learning the art of dancing. Others will join Gotta Dance’s competition team, showcasing their talents to the world. Some, like Gilbert and Strunk, will have opportunities to pursue dancing even further. No matter the height of their aspirations, a door that once didn’t exist has been opened — because an elementary school psychology teacher wound up in Oneida with her foot doctor husband and didn’t just dare to open a dance studio in a small town, but built a “small town studio” that can “do big city things.”

“Just because you don’t play football, basketball or soccer doesn’t mean that you aren’t worthy of being seen or appreciated,” says Gilbert, one of the original GDS dancers. “Your talents are God-given and should be shared with the world, no matter what they are.”