How a local dance studio has grown stronger over 70 years

In the heart of Shelton, behind the city’s famous Wiffle Ball factory, Kicks Dance Center shares the top floor of the American Legion Post 16, where the unlikely combination of military veterans and teenage ballerinas peacefully coexist.

Currently owned by Nancy Altieri (with the help of her two daughters, Julie Arcos and Christina Altieri), Kicks celebrated its 70th anniversary on May 7 with its annual recital at the Klein Memorial Auditorium, featuring 136 students ranging from ages three to 18.

The studio’s beginnings were unusual as it was handed down from Claire Foster to 16-year-old Zita Carrano (Nancy’s mother) in 1946.

The two met when Zita’s mother, having just given birth to Zita’s younger sister, shared a hospital room with Claire. Zita’s mother mentioned that she wanted to enroll her older daughter in dance lessons before discovering that Claire owned a dance studio. Zita was promptly enrolled. Claire quickly noticed that Zita was no ordinary student and promoted her from dancer to teacher’s assistant to teacher.

As Claire prepared to move from Bridgeport to California, she decided that Zita would be the best choice to take over her studio.

At a young age, Zita flourished in this position and renamed the studio “The Zita Carrano Dancers,” thus officially marking the start of Kicks Dance Center.

To become certified as a teacher/owner, she pursued a rigorous training program through Dance Educators of America in New York City, eventually offering her students classes in three main styles (tap, ballet, and pointe), a live pianist at every class, all original routines, and personally designed costumes.

Years later, Zita’s passion for dance was passed down to her daughter Nancy, who began to follow in her footsteps and help her mother with choreography, which led to her own certification through Dance Educators of America. With Nancy joining her mother, the studio soon became a family business. This transition would call for a name and a location change.

The name “Kicks Dance Center” came about because it was thought to be more inclusive and welcoming of future generations to join the family business. With a growing number of students enrolling, the American Legion Hall in Shelton had the space and facilities that would allow Kicks to continue to grow. According to Nancy, her deep love for Broadway and theater led her to add jazz, junior and senior production, elaborate tap numbers with 30-65 dancers with costuming and props. (Recent years of production have included feather fans, golden canes, light-up cowboy hats, rapid costume changes and fake snow.)

Kicks focuses exclusively on performance, providing students with the opportunity to adapt Broadway shows and experience the thrill of Broadway-styled dances. Additional opportunities at the dance center include gaining community service by helping to teach dance, being chosen as a character or soloist in the recital, becoming a student teacher, and helping the youngest kids backstage.

Nancy said she takes a lot of pride in her student teaching program.

“We have had numerous dancers with professional dance careers as well as teaching careers. It is such an honor to know that these students go into their adulthood carrying the lessons that they have learned from their dance education,” said Nancy. “ The students have such fond memories of their days at Kicks and it is a joy to see them return again to us with their children and grandchildren!”

Today, Zita has enjoyed 20 years of retirement, but she comes back every year to watch the recitals that Nancy and her daughters have choreographed together.

Over the past 70 years, Kicks has produced a wide range of professional dancers who have gone onto Broadway, television, Radio City Music Hall, and ballet companies across the nation, but their biggest claim-to-fame is that Zita taught tap to Frankie Michaels, the youngest person to win a Tony award, at age 11, for playing young Patrick Dennis in “Mame.”

In addition to producing talent, the studio has also produced a strong, loving dance family, which is the main reason the studio uses no formal advertisement. Julie Arcos, co-director, explained the phenomenon by saying word-of-mouth “has caused a chain reaction to have many dancers who have danced with Zita come back with their children to dance with Nancy and then their grandchildren come to dance with us [her and her sister, Christina].”

However, for the families who are first-generation Kicks, they are welcomed with open arms, showcasing that a passion for dance can truly bring people together. The community that Kicks has formed allows dancers from Shelton and neighboring towns who may not have met otherwise to unite as one force with one goal: to produce the best performance together.