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Astoria Characters: The Toe-and-Tap Teacher

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Michelle Koutsoubelis tap dances in the shower. She can't help it; the running water sets her feet on fire.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Miss Michelle, the owner of Cathy's Dance Studio.

Right now, she's sitting in a swivel chair -- don't worry, she won't be in it for long -- and her 4-inch stilettos run through a routine, flying across the floor before she can stop them.

She' s wearing her everyday shoes, so the tap, tap, tap sounds like the petite prancing of a miniature horse.

"I love jazz and ballet, but tap has always been my thing," says Michelle, a vivacious and voluptuous honey-haired blonde with glitter-gold nails that sparkle like shooting stars.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Cathy's Dance Studio was founded in 1956.

For 42, years, Michelle's life has been tutus and top hats. She took her first lessons at Cathy's Dance Studio, which was opened by the one and only Miss Cathy way back in 1956 when every little girl wanted to be a ballerina at the barre.

It was Miss Cathy herself who taught Michelle her first steps, and it was those debut dances that saved Michelle's life by giving her a whole new life.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Tap's her favorite.

Things aren't easy when your daddy leaves right before you are born. Michelle's mother did remarry, but by the time Michelle's little sister arrived, the newly formed family was virtually destitute and living in a one-room apartment a hop, step-heel and shuffle from Cathy's.

"Sometimes all we had for dinner was oatmeal," Michelle says. "We used to make believe it was steak, but actually it was better than steak because my mother served it with love."

Her parents had no budget for extras, but they scraped together enough to send the girls to Catholic schools. The closest thing to vacations were trips to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Michelle, age 5, during her first year at Cathy's.

"You could check out 10 records at a time," Michelle says. "They were heavy, but we happily lugged them all the way home."

Michelle's stepfather was a ruler-strict disciplinarian with a tendency toward physical abuse, so Michelle retreated into TV land.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She gets a thrill every time she enters the studio.

"I saw the ballet Swan Lake on Channel 13, and it allowed me to dream outside of the darkness I was living in," she says.

At 5, Michelle enrolled at Cathy's, and she although she wandered, she never left, continuing lessons for 18 years, through college and her first job.

"For many years, I fantasized about finding my real father, and I wanted him to be proud of me," she says. "I saw dance as a way to show him how successful I was. I never did get to meet him, but I did find out a couple of years ago that I have family in Greece and that he had died."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She also loves acting.

When Cathy's second owner was ready to pass the baton in 1989, Michelle, who the students call Miss Michelle, was waiting eagerly in the wings.

"In the back of my mind, I always wanted my own dance studio," she says.

While running the studio, she continued her studies, working with Gregory Hines and Charles "Honi" Coles to add rhythm tap to her show tap routines. She also took acting lessons, something her parents could not afford to give her, and embarked upon an Off-Broadway career.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Michelle studied with Gregory Hines.

"But I quit it for love," she says. "That was a big mistake, because the boyfriend only lasted five years."

Michelle has never put down her dancing shoes. When fire gutted the studio in 2005, that's what she grabbed. She points to a single shelf that holds a half dozen pair. Is that all she owns? She's shocked at the question. It goes without saying that she has a trunk full of high-heeled hoofers.

"I'm known as the Imelda Marcos of tap," she says.

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Dance, she says, molds character.

She also saved the photos of her and her students that cover one wall of the studio.

Through the decades, Cathy's has made the world a stage for thousands of students.

"We offer much more than dance," Michelle says, adding that she teaches several classes. "It sounds corny, but I see my role as molding kids and giving them hope."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Michelle's ruby slippers have taken her far.

Michelle has never had a husband and doesn't have children, but her two nieces started at Cathy's when they were 3 and 5, the same ages Michelle and her sister strapped on their taps.

She keeps company with Mr. Barney Ralph Wong, the 14-year-old Scottish terrier who is the studio's mascot, and when she's not on duty, she and her banker boyfriend do a lot of things together. Dancing is not among them.

"He'll do it to patronize me, but he's 6 foot 7 so logistically, it's a little challenging," she says. "But when I'm traveling, I go dancing at nightclubs."

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Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Michelle takes Mr. Barney Ralph Wong to meet students.

Ah, the dancing. Michelle's 47, and sometimes her knees would rather her fleet feet sit it out. Fat chance -- the show and the classes at Cathy's must go on.

"I'll be dancing until my legs won't move any more," she says.

She sighs. Mr. Barney Ralph Wong is starting to show his age. He can't move the way he used to, so she gathers him in her arms and carries him down the stairs to greet the next class.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com.
Copyright 2014 by Nancy A. Ruhling