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Ballet school loses its Prince Charming

February 14, 2009|SANDY BANKS

Steve Gebelein didn't know a plie from a pirouette.

But he knew how to install a ballet barre, construct "Alice in Wonderland" scenery and keep the snack bar stocked with treats at Gotta Dance, his family's Granada Hills dance academy.

His wife, Cindy, is the dancer, the visionary. But Steve was the glue that held the studio together and bonded it to the community.

And when he died suddenly last weekend, he left Cindy and their six children grieving, and a close-knit community reeling.

"A lot of us grew up with him," said 14-year-old Shayanne Ortiz, who has taken classes there for six years. "He seemed to be there 24 hours a day. He played the role of a second dad."

Or as Father Ramon put it in his homily Friday at the funeral Mass: "For Steve, family was the only thing that mattered. . . . And the dancers -- and everyone at the studio -- they were all his family."

Every community has people like Steve; unsung heroes who impact children's lives with their commitment, their patience and their dedication behind the scenes.

The soccer coach who doesn't give up on the kid who didn't make the team. The librarian who knows just what kind of books encourage a struggling student to read. The karate teacher who disciplines without breaking the spirit of a rambunctious kid.

Or the guy like Steve, who was never too busy to talk to a kid and saw every problem as an opportunity.

"He never lost his cool," recalled Maura Swanson, who moved her daughter from a more prestigious ballet school to Gotta Dance when it was just a one-room storefront in a tiny strip mall. "They were nice to everybody that came through the door," Swanson said.

Several years ago, Gotta Dance expanded by moving into an abandoned community theater across the street. But it's still a no-frills operation; it shares a parking lot with a pair of auto repair shops.

Thousands of girls -- and a handful of boys -- have taken lessons with the Gebeleins in the 14 years since Cindy took over the studio from a previous longtime owner. If you're a parent and live in the neighborhood -- and I know, because I do -- some kid you know has learned a Gotta Dance routine. Many students begin as toddlers and keep taking classes until they go off to college.

Steve handled everything but the dance lessons -- maintenance, payroll, schedules and performances. He organized the annual June recital. Swanson said he spent every year "backstage wearing a headset, covered with grime and sweat, surrounded by 85 noisy little kids and nervous 'dance moms' with their hair spray cans."

I never met Steve, but parents told me he was the kind of man who never met a stranger. A big guy with an easy smile, an endless stream of patter and a talent for making anyone laugh.

News of his death moved scores of people who knew him to post condolence notes on the studio's wall. "The mailman cried," Cindy told me, shaking her head in amazement as we sat in her bedroom and talked. "The grocery store ladies started crying when I told them."

She heard new stories of small kindnesses from former students and their parents. But Steve's best-known act of generosity is the one that launched their family.

The oldest three of their six children are former students whom Steve and Cindy rescued from an unstable family. "We didn't want them going into the system, so we got our foster care license so they could come live with us," Cindy said. Ultimately they adopted the girls, now 21, 18 and 16.

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Like many businesses, Gotta Dance is struggling right now, as families pare budgets by dropping classes. Steve -- who also worked as a real estate agent -- had begun quietly letting students stay on even if their families fell behind in tuition. He spent late nights running spreadsheets and combing the studio's books for ways to cut costs and keep students coming.

His death has sent Cindy into a tailspin. The logistics, the finances and the parenting challenges. . . . How do you replace a husband who is also your business partner, best friend and source of perpetual optimism?

"I'm terrified," she told me. "I don't know how I can do this without him."

Her friends intend to let her know that she won't have to. They notified all 700 students of Steve's death, kept the dance studio open this week and had payroll checks drawn up so teachers got paid on time.

"We're trying to make a list of all the things Steve did, and find volunteers to pick up those responsibilities." Swanson said.

The list is long and keeps growing, she said. But this is a family with a strong community legacy. Steve's funeral on Friday put hearts at ease.

The sanctuary at Our Lady of Lourdes in Northridge was packed, every seat was taken and visitors stood in the back. Steve's father, Rick, from Philadelphia thanked the crowd and told a joke:

"This is just what Steve would have wanted. A full house, standing room only. Now, one more thing: How about a standing ovation?"

The congregation rose and applauded. And the funeral wound up the way it began, the only way it could have. With a dance performance.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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