Making dance accessible to all ages and experience levels, Merge Dance Studio helps dancers ignite or rediscover their passions.
By Ainsley Maloney
Ever since the age of three, Jillian Scavone has been a dancer.
“My mom put me in dance because I was very clumsy, and she was hoping to give me some coordination,” she said, with a laugh. “I fell in love with it.”
Jillian danced throughout high school and college. But by her mid 20’s, as she focused on obtaining a Ph.D. in neuroscience and landing her dream job at a non-profit cancer center, “life got in the way,” she said, and dance disappeared from her routine entirely.
Her passion for the sport, though, never went away.
“Dance is such mind-and-body therapy,” she said. “Learning the steps, you use your full concentration. It’s exercise but also artistic. A lot of science professionals come to dance to get a breath of fresh air. It’s a great outlet for the right side of your brain.”
Jillian searched online for adult classes but struggled to find any that weren’t either beginner or professional. Then, she came across Merge Dance Studio, 4047 Cresson Street, and soon discovered this intimate and welcoming dance studio was exactly the place she’d been searching for.
“Merge offers this perfect balance of challenging classes without being this strict atmosphere where you’re going to get yelled at for not pointing right,” she said, with a laugh. “It’s great for working professionals looking to bring dance back into their lives.”
Jillian attributes the atmosphere of Merge to the heart and soul of the company, its owner and artistic director, Christa Campbell.
“Christa does a really good job of creating a welcoming environment,” Jillian said. “She’s accepting and patient, and yet she’ll push us and challenge us. It’s been that way for a lot of us who are rediscovering dance after five or 10 years away.”
Christa opened Merge in 2012. With a lifelong dream to dance professionally and supportive parents to encourage her, Christa went on to receive her B.A. in dance at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. She then built an extensive resume of dance accolades, which included touring Poland with a professional dance company. She soon found herself drawn to Philadelphia for its “more approachable” dance scene as compared to the hyper-competitive New York City vibe.
Now, as director of her own studio in Manayunk, Christa has created the welcoming dance environment she’d been seeking all along. As a result, she attracts like-minded instructors and dancers.
“Other studios have drama or competitiveness — that’s just not how Christa rolls,” Jillian said, while prepping her jazz shoes surrounded by the seven other women in her class. “I’ve developed strong friendships with the girls that extend beyond the studio.”
Christa, now in her seventh season, has grown her business from a nights-and-weekends side gig to a full-time profession, managing eight instructors and staff and offering classes seven days a week.
With the motto of “where dance and fitness merge,” the studio’s class schedule is packed with such diverse offerings as Jazz, Hip-Hop, Modern/Contemporary, Ballet, Pointe, Tap, Creative Movement, Acro, Musical Theatre, Zumba, Piloxing, and BARRE Fusion. She offers everything from Mommy/Daddy & Me for ages two to three to advanced classes for adults. Clients can also request to schedule private lessons, studio rentals, birthday parties, or events. With the goal of expanding the class repertoire, Christa sprinkles in guest workshops or master classes taught by experts in areas she does not typically offer, such as Ballroom, Swing, Lyrical, and AcroYoga.
Christa’s inspiration for her choreography sparks from the beat.
“I pick the music first, then choreograph from there,” she said.
She rarely reuses songs and is currently using Walk the Moon’s “Kamikaze,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to the Feeling,” and Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel,” among others for the studio’s performance group, Merge Dance Company. She also enjoys watching “So You Think You Can Dance,” and when she can, live performances at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center or of Cirque du Soleil.
One key feature that separates Merge from other dance studios is Christa’s focus on community outreach. Her dancers perform at various local events for the community, such as Manayunk’s StrEAT Festival and Harvest Fest as well as Pretzel Park’s Halloween event. In December, her dancers perform at the Manayunk Tree Lighting Ceremony where teen and adult dancers showcase group, duet, or solo performances.
“The holiday ones are a lot of fun and really festive, they get everyone in the mood for Christmas,” Christa said.
In addition, Christa offers dance storytime programs at many local libraries, and Merge dancers perform everywhere from North Light Community Center’s open house event, the Mount Airy Village Fair, the Travel & Adventure Show at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, to local retirement homes.
Looking to the future, Christa said the biggest change to her life has been her son Levi, now 13 months. Being a new mom has given her an entirely new meaning for the phrase “en pointe.”
“Time management is now about getting everything done in tiny windows. I didn’t think I had time before, well, I had a lot of time before,” she said with a laugh.
Living in Roxborough with her husband, she values having a career that allows her to spend mornings with her son, while teaching nights and weekends.
“You realize what’s important,” she said.
For Christa, what’s most important for her business is to create a welcoming place that ignites people’s passions.
“I love introducing kids to dance and seeing them get excited and grow to love it like I do,” she said. “It’s so fun seeing the wonder in their eyes — their eyes just light up! The adult dancers inspire me, too. I love being the place where that’s accessible and comfortable for them to get back into dance. They make me push myself creatively.”
The appreciation goes both ways, Jillian said.
“I thought my dance career would be over. I thought I’d never be able to dance the way I once did,” she said. “Christa gave me an opportunity to bring dance back into my life, and keep it there. She’s done that for all of us. Merge feels like my little second home. I’m really grateful.”