Kehl School of Dance leaves big footprint on local community

For a business that’s 135 years old, it’s no surprise that Kehl School of Dance is steeped in history and tradition.

But even beyond its extraordinary longevity, the school has woven a colorful legacy that could be the envy of some of the area’s most profitable and prominent firms.

On April 30, Kehl School of Dance will celebrate that legacy with a 6 p.m. anniversary show at Verona High School Auditorium.

According to Kehl School Director Jenny Kehl Hiltbrand, the show will give Kehl alumni a chance to reunite while providing the general public a look at what the school can offer.

“We’re trying hard right now to reach out to any Kehl alumni who would like to make an appearance, not necessarily to dance, but either make an appearance onstage or stand up and be recognized in the audience,” said Hiltbrand. “For this special show, we’ve got a red carpet introduction of our staff, we have a whole show around a fashion theme called ‘Get Your Sparkle On,’ and then we’re going to have a commemorative program for the people who attend the show.”

“Shirley Temple had a movie called The Little Colonel, and she taps on a drum, and that’s my grandfather’s choreography.” — Jenny Kehl Hiltbrand, Kehl School of Dance

While that may sound like a lot to pack into one evening program, the school does have a lot to celebrate.

Kehl School of Dance was founded in Madison in 1880 by 18-year-old German immigrant F.W. Kehl, Hiltbrand’s great-grandfather. According to Hiltbrand, F.W. used to drive his horse and buggy to small communities around southern Wisconsin organizing social events and teaching kids in the community. In 1898, he built his own building with a large ballroom where he would host parties and community gatherings. It was an age, says Hiltbrand, when dancing was the go-to social activity for most Madisonians.

“Back then, social dancing is what everybody did,” said Hiltbrand. “Families would gather and have big social events. And then he went on to build another building, and in that one he built a bowling alley on the bottom and a huge ballroom on top. He hosted events and taught the classes.”

F.W. Kehl had 11 children, and the youngest, Leo, was Hiltbrand’s grandfather.

“[Leo] was such a talented young man and choreographer that the movie industry actually asked him to move to Hollywood,” said Hiltbrand. “He taught Shirley Temple and Gene Kelly and a lot of other notables, but he turned down that offer because he wanted to keep the family business in Madison.”

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have an impact on Hollywood history.

“Shirley Temple had a movie called The Little Colonel, and she taps on a drum, and that’s my grandfather’s choreography,” said Hiltbrand, who notes he also taught several other big Hollywood stars, including Ralph Bellamy and Melvyn Douglas. “My grandfather was an amazing tap-dancer. He would travel around and do master tap classes, and Gene Kelly kind of followed him for a while and learned from him, and then of course [Kelly] went on to be a star.”

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Leo Kehl also rubbed elbows with local luminaries, including one who shaped the local landscape as much as any other individual.

“My grandfather Leo was a really close friend of Frank Lloyd Wright,” said Hiltbrand. “He would spend summers out there in Spring Green teaching and hosting events. And Frank Lloyd Wright actually designed a building for my grandfather, but unfortunately my grandpa was never able to find the right piece of property in Madison to build it before he passed away. But we do have the plans for it.”

Strengthening a legacy

F.W. and Leo Kehl’s greatest influence, however, has been on the Madison area’s up-and-coming dancers, through their school’s continuing contributions.

Hiltbrand, who has been teaching dance for 38 years and now runs the business, feels a sense of responsibility for keeping the school’s legacy going.

“I’m both honored and humbled, and I do feel like I have a duty to continue that legacy,” said Hiltbrand. “Sometimes I’m really excited about the prospects, and sometimes it’s a hard weight on my shoulders.”

Hiltbrand notes that the pressure of keeping a 135-year-old business solvent is worth it when she gets to work with young people, who make up most of the business’s clientele.

“It’s an immense pleasure to teach young children how to dance,” said Hiltbrand. “I think teachers of any sort who teach children, you have to have the passion to want to do it, but the passion is so easy to find because of the joy that children bring.

“I’m lucky that I get to see them once a week for maybe an hour or a few hours, and then they go home, so I always say that I get to spend the best time of their lives with them. It’s such an immense pleasure to get to know them and to see them grow.”

Many of the school’s students have excelled, says Hiltbrand. In fact, one Kehl alumna, Alexis Evans-Krueger, will be auditioning for Alvin Ailey, one of New York’s most prestigious dance companies, this summer.

“This will be her second audition with them, and she has spent several summers with them, so we think she has a pretty good shot,” said Hiltbrand. “It’s one thing to be associated with Alvin Ailey, but I can’t even tell you how immensely difficult it is to get into their company.”

While Hiltbrand notes that dance teaches kids to be disciplined and trains them to use the “disciplinary math side of their brain plus the creative side of their brain,” those same skills are needed to run the everyday affairs of a business focused on creative expression.

“It’s never a mundane day,” said Hiltbrand. “You’re always switching from the business hat to the creative hat to the counselor hat … or to the marketing hat to community outreach.”

Today, Kehl School of Dance is located in Waunakee, Middleton, and on Verona Road in Fitchburg. The suburbs are where most of the kids live these days, so that’s where the school relocated after selling its downtown Madison building in 1997. But Hiltbrand still has fond memories of the old days, when the studio was on East Mifflin Street, just a block from the Capitol Square.

“I would love to somehow get a Kehl presence back downtown, because that’s where I grew up,” said Hiltbrand. “I think back to that era, when I was just a kid running around downtown Madison, and those memories are precious to me.”

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