Tucson Salvage

A Step Above

Megan Maltos (left) and mom, Jill.
Megan Maltos (left) and mom, Jill.
It's a January show of pageantry and art. This, the Velocity Dance Competition, a massive U.S. and Canadian touring outfit whose three-day congregation at the Casino Del Sol hotel outside Tucson features dance companies from all over Arizona and bordering states. Beyond the scholarship-driven competition, Velocity, which gears its programs to aspiring pro dancers, offers workshops, fitness classes and tutorship from dance professionals. Today is set for staged dance competitions, held inside the hotel's Grand Ballroom, which is crammed of audience and spectacle.

Backstage, conference rooms double as dance company dressing rooms. Moms and instructors hurry about, and the kids, aged five and up, studied in the arts of dance—lyrical, contemporary, hip-hop, tap, ballet—are here to ply their skills in duos, groups, solo, lines and full-on productions featuring 25 dancers or more. In the wide, well-lit hallways, dancers rehearse steps, gyrate, bend and prance to and from the main stage inside the Grand Ballroom for their presentations. There, panel judges rate the kids based on technique, performance, choreography, musicality and overall appearance. The radio-ready presenter's voice and DJ, spinning soundtracks of contemporary pop and hip-hop, blare at bright, insect-killing volume. It is a spectacle, to be sure, one part junior Broadway and one part America's Got Talent. This bustle and chaos, the hundreds of children, instructors and parents filing in and out of the ballroom, rolls all day.

There is lots of beauty here, and there is lots of art here and there is charming here, but there is also some of this: Mothers, whose gaudy denim jackets sport words spelled in rhinestones ("Babe" or "Champions 2018"), shuffle preening 10-year-old girls in and out of dressing areas in purple hues and feathers and facial glitter, more Super-Bowl halftime or Vegas showgirl than child-brain stimulation of the spiritual and emotional aspects of dance. The swathes of adult-showgirl makeup on prepubescent girls huddling in tribes of matching old-school Barbies, or Second Life avatars, is not easy to ignore. The princess proxies and artifice, the spray-on tans, the perfected salon two-tone curls. This kind of attention-seeking child sexualization infuses a creepy JonBenét Ramsey beauty-queen vibe, a dated technology upholding perhaps some mother's antiquated idea of what qualifies as female beauty. It's too easy to imagine such households full of pop-glow screens replaying America's Next Top Model and Toddlers and Tiaras, YouTuber Gabi DiMartino and her gazillion views. The disturbing, pre-puberty and long-dated J-Lo booty shakes, and faces sculpted for photographs, accent the external, not the internal, the trivial versus the substantive. Private weaknesses not allowed. Contexts devoid of irony. Here to win it all, total domination.

Tucson's Danswest company, among some others here, stick out. These kids stick out, nearly ragtag by comparison. Not in an amateurish way, more in an upstart philosophical way, it's us and them way. Human vs. artifice. Hair in easy ponytails, costumes allowing children to look like children, some dancers so young they carry toys with them. There is an air of conservatory about the Danswest kids, yes, and a truth and DIY ingenuity.

Today, 45 or so of these Danswest dancers are here, culled from the 350 dance students at Danswest Dance Studio, all from varied social stratums—military kids, PTSD kids, privileged kids, foster kids, girls, boys, trans, black, white, brown, kids with gay dads. In this context, they adhere to the more traditional aspects of dance performance, raw assurance in shades of black and yellow, and no dancer-child fetishization beats. Its costumes often reused and stitched by the company's co-owner, a quick-witted ex-skater kid named Megan Maltos. She is equal parts sister-figure, gifted dancer and choreographer, and teacher. Scenes unfold, heady competitions ensue and Danswest walks with awards. So what? Didn't matter because the kids don't seem to care much about the awards. It's not about that. Anyway, two Danswest dancers suffered minor injuries (a bloody nose and an accidental kick to the head) so Megan was at the hospital and missed the awards completely.

It is a warm February morning inside the Danswest studios, the business Megan and her mother Jill Maltos own and operate. Danswest teaches and performs tap, ballet, jazz, and modern dance and its many stylized offshoots. The storefront studio on East Speedway is situated in a classic Tucson setting, a '60s L-shaped strip mall called Plaza Eastgate, which features a cavernous dollar store, a sporting goods outfit, a vape depot and a stand-alone eegee's in the parking lot. Danswest houses four dance workrooms—sizable, mirrored and bare, some fitted with shock-absorbing floors. Its uppermost shelves draw attention through the rectangular main lobby with thousands of dance trophies dating back to the 1980s when one Frank Trent owned the business. Plastic and metal chairs for parents and guardians outline the vestibule and video screens are set so parents can watch the in-studio action. Walls show myriad photos and memorabilia derived from all-manner of company successes and dance. Most times I've been here, the place hums with joyful activity and kid-energy discharging like pressure-release valves.

To hear Megan and Jill tell it, the place was nearly obliterated back in April 2015. At the mercy of waning neurons and a confused brake/gas-pedal foot, the old woman crashed her Toyota Corolla straight into the studio's front glass windows, plowing clean through three walls—and the balance beams, mirrors, file cabinets—to a complete stop in the small kitchen, right where Megan usually sits and eats. Megan miraculously ate offsite that day.

In feverish recall, Jill remembers the old lady stepping from the Corolla with her cane, ambling through the rubble and dust to take a seat in a lobby-room chair in front of the ballet studio window, announcing her hair appointment. Just like that. Her Corolla showed few scratches and a flat tire.

The already laser-focused Megan, one averse to dramatics, suffered a total anxiety meltdown, the worst of her life, and paramedics had to calm her. In her mind, in that moment, Jill and Megan's work and dreams violently splintered in a sickening blam, crash and hiss. Megan wells up with tears retracing it.

She questions the physics of the crash, the perfect outline of the bulldozing car cookie-cut into the walls, as kooky as Wile E. Coyote, a comic-tragedy of horrors too rich not to ignore, metaphorically or otherwise. Luck played a slight hand; the hair appointment, whereever that was to be, could've been scheduled for 4 p.m. when the dance studio is filled of children, parents and instructors. The crash could've been a human massacre. Jill whips out photos of that scene from 2015, revealing what appears to be total devastation, and just weeks before a major recital involving hundreds of dancers.

There is a rare lull in the conversation with mom and daughter, soon broken by the elder on a cliché overshadowed by its truth from wisdom and necessity. She says, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." The line sort of hangs there, and Megan dries her eyes.

But to understand how they bounced back from the old lady is to understand how this mother-daughter team operates. It is to understand how this tightly run organization is as much built on dance traditions as it is a sense of community—at once demanding and hothouse-y as a conservatory yet chill as some jovial uncle's rec room. It is to learn how the people gather here, teach, listen, laugh, sweat and develop muscle aches, all enlightened on the soul of dance. The very soul that saw Danswest up and running only one day after the crash, with the help of students, parents, an understanding landlord, and some long-hour miracle whipping.

"No one ever says anything nice about their landlord," Megan says. "I'll give a shout-out, we were open the very next day."

"When it's like community the parents and students have a deeper love of the organization," Jill adds.

Tucson Salvage
Brian Smith
Megan Maltos at work: “The kids deserve it.”

Whereas Jill's comportment is specific, Megan's is searching. The bespectacled elder stands tall and thin, a blue-eyed Swede, born and raised in Evanston, Illinois, thick blond-graying hair shortened into three-inch get-shit-done power coif. She is retired from a career nursing and administration background, so she is organized. She's an energetic pragmatist (even keeps a drawer filled of healthy snacks so as to make sure Megan doesn't starve) who does her best to help realize Megan's dreams and creativity. Megan tells me she is Mama Jill to dozens and dozens of students over the years. Need advice on car insurance, how to do taxes ... Jill runs the business, oversees it like some den mother, knows the students by name (currently averaging 350 students yearly) and many of their histories and stories.

Megan knows too but she is the creative weight, dreaming things into reality. Need giant platform steps for an upcoming show? No problem. Gets it done. Homemade. The basement is filled with costumes and set pieces, they reuse, reshape, refashion. Megan and Jill call themselves best friends.

I ask if they ever fight. They look at each other and at the same moment say flatly, "no."

Now Megan's joy is infectious, leavened occasionally by a shy yet subversive grin, and everything she says makes sense somehow, and that's saying something because she says a lot, once you get her going. Her sentences teem with funny insights into teaching preschoolers the basic grammar of dance, and the deceptively elaborate geometric steps to memorize. ("You need to keep them moving!") She'll bracket such with self-mockery, not in a shaming way, more in a way of explaining how she experiences life by trial and error, the way of an artist or someone mostly sure of what they are doing. They know what they want and have the confidence to get it. Her confidence rises from dance, she'll say, and it is an oversimplification, but says much about how Megan defines her life through a lens of dance and physical movement. How she relates to the greater world.

In conversations, the 36-year-old Megan alternates between balling herself up on a bench little-kid like, or splaying herself out in an affectation of relaxation. Some appendage is always moving in weirdly frictionless ways, the knuckle cracks, the nippy calf stretches, or she'll rise to the balls of her feet mid-sentence with a bouncy kind of grace. Hair a dark, perfectly down-angled bob. Today she is dressed head to toe in fitted black dance wear, a gray Danswest T-shirt, one variation of her daily uniform. Dusky skin tone and lithe lines suggest the cinematic swarthiness of a romantic villain, Zoe Kravitz as Cat Woman. She wears a single brass triangle tap around her neck on a silver chain, just over her heart. Passing observation says equal parts tomboy and ballerina. She'll probably be sore from an earlier gym powerlift workout. Her semi-regular chiropractor visits help with knee and back pains, and her big toes, she says, are "pretty destroyed." Her drive ensures relaxation is fleeting. A work week can mean 80 hours. Megan's downtime tests her, she says. Perhaps the most potent move of a dancer is holding still, and holding still in a larger context is near impossible for her. "I need to do a good job for the kids," Megan says. "They deserve it."

She adds, "Sometime I struggle with work/life balance. But in the last five years, when I go home, I go home. Chris, bless his heart, he helps. He's helped me with the floors here, helps with voiceovers, so many things. He understands."

That is Chris Sabiston, her live-in boyfriend, a gentle sort who I've met once.

Megan handles Danswest marketing too, shouldering social-media pressures to stay visible and current. Not easy when one is actively trying to eschew screens and computers and the vapid lull of marketing in general. Megan says, "I want to live in the real world these days. It's kind of weird when you live your life by an event calendar." The Danswest events stack up, each demanding months of grueling work and prep, including the spring recital, Not Your Ordinary Nut/Winter Showcase and Company Recital.

Megan is recognized in dance and tap worlds well beyond the 520, and her CV is a head-spin aggregation of sundry accomplishments. She doesn't talk this stuff, sort of shrugs upon query. Her mother and easy research fills me in. Her tap choreography and theater dance has been performed internationally, she has aced scads of performance and chorography awards, at regional and national dance competitions, been on national television. Been featured on National Tap Dance Day (an actual day of recognition signed into law by George W.) showcases, and myriad community dance events. Been chosen to teach, perform and showcase her choreography at the prestigious Big Apple Tap Fest in New York City. She'd hardly consider herself a master teacher, though she's taught at national conventions ("master is nothing you can call yourself, it comes from years of tradition and study"), though she'll easily lead a class of elders and experienced tappers. ("My adult classes are some of my favorite. 'Oh, you had your knee replaced three times? Ok, let's adjust for that.'") One performance from a few years ago saw 19 young Danswest dancers on stage in New York City dressed in white performing a Megan-choreographed movement to Sleeping at Last's restrained take of the Police's "Everything She Does is Magic." The ensemble took the song to its earthy and tender extreme, graceful as butterflies. A group tapping as one, a slow build into a visual interpretation of love and loneliness as echoed in the words; the piece upheld the beauty of the song, sure, but pushed the meaning even further, deeper. The audience adored them.

In short, Megan is respected nationally among her peers, has palled around with greats, such as Arthur Duncan, the godhead tap dancer and hero of Megan who made his name on The Lawrence Welk Show, the first African-American regular on a variety television program.

Yet Megan turned away from performance to teach kids, and even elderly.

Today, for example, she gives a private tap lesson to Sam Prouty, an older woman, a classical dancer and tapper and instructor who was once a Radio City Music Hall Rockette, and who now runs her own specialized Pilates studio in Tucson. Prouty returns the favor as Megan's Pilates teacher, to whom she sees for "realignment," both for head and body.

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Photo by Jill Maltos
Kid-dancer Megan.

Megan began dancing when she was 3, and later, at 9, she and mom caught a public Danswest performance on Tucson's Fourth Avenue. That was it, she joined. Jill says Megan was a gawky knock-kneed kid at the back of the line when she began. "It took Megan many years to get to the front of the line. And that's what she tells her students." At 12, Megan made company at Danswest (a company dancer is one who gets promoted from within to higher, specialized levels of performance) and they traveled all over. Jill went along both as a mom and a chaperone to other kids, traversing the states, and abroad, London, Paris, Rome. Jill says "the first two years she was in company we went everywhere."

The Danswest owner then was a storied old-school vaudevillian tap man named Frank Trent, who began touring the country in roadshows when he was 4 years old. (He is a spry man in his 80s now, and still teaches privately. Even has a 91-year-old student.) Trent was Megan's teacher/mentor, and she was Charlie Bucket to his Willy Wonka, because when she was 17, Trent—who recognized in her the abilities to stretch beyond reality the universal laws of the body, and her head to intuit the many steps ahead, in both dance and business—offered her the keys to the business. Megan was a senior at Canyon Del Oro High School. She had the golden ticket to her future, didn't know what do with it, and mom stepped in and said to Trent, "Look, will you wait for her to go to college?" And Trent waited four more years to retire. And Megan and Jill have so far been keeping Trent's traditions alive.

Megan describes herself growing up a shy tag-along. "A follower ... in my big raver pants, screeching out to the desert listening to Korn. I never went to the school dance, never went to the prom." Early fascinations involved sciences and math, even marine biology. Her teen years were also about skateboarding ("I was so afraid of getting hurt for dance, I was the nerd with the big elbow pads"), guitar and punk shows too, especially swing revivalists Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, a band whose music sent her digging backwards to discover old worlds of ragtime, New Orleans jazz and big-band swing, music and movement that dovetailed with her tap dancing, which she was studying hard, hours and hours weekly, yearly, with Trent. Weed was the only drug she says she "dabbled in," though at school she'd see kids doing lines of coke off the bathroom sink. She resisted. "Look, you can't dance high!"

She hit UA and earned a BA in business management with a focus on dance. She continued honing her modern, ballet, jazz and tap moves in the well-regarded UA School of Dance, working with the best professors there, including Susan Quinn (now an instructor at Danswest), Michael Williams and Amy Ernst, and others.

She learned early how dance brought together disparate groups of kids and cliques. But it wasn't until college when Megan experienced a moment of total self-realization: "Dance is who I am." She begins to cry again, not from nostalgic sadnesses, but gratefulness. No one knows why they like what they like, they just do, and Megan thus turned a childhood enthrallment of tap and dance into self-definition and a career of education and movement. "I feel like I didn't choose dance, it chose me; I found out who I was, and who I wanted to be, from dance. I know I'm one of the lucky ones. To get to do this for a living and a life." She reaches for a napkin, dries her eyes.

Trent turned the business over in 2005, just after Megan's graduation. The first Danswest was a 5,500-square-foot place in the rear of a skating rink off Speedway. They started from scratch after inheriting the students from Trent. The mom and daughter winged everything, Jill learned things on the fly, even searched the internet on how to run a business. Taught herself bookkeeping, payroll, ordering, business taxes.

Several years later they were informed the ice rink was closing and to find new digs. They had only weeks to find another location and they had a massive recital looming. Wasn't easy, the new place had to be up to snuff, and they couldn't lose the students, the income, which would've shuttered the place, plus ADA building codes needed to be met, involving the restroom, kitchen and studios, the wall and floors. They did it. Some dancers and students and parents pitched in. "And when Megan suggested we open a store," Jill adds, "I said how? I didn't know retail at all. But we did it right here." That store, the self-evident Danswest Danswear, is now situated a few doors down in the strip mall from their dance studio. They've opened a second on the city's northwest side, the only two of its kind in Tucson. Old-world American dreaming, but not for riches, for kids. "No one gets rich running a dance studio," Jill laughs. Later Jill tells me, "Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined when I put her in tap and ballet when she was three years old would I have imagined this." She holds her arms up and wide to show the place. "I'm like a fan, a proud mama, a Mother Superior," she laughs. "I love to watch Megan work and I get to see these kids grow as people, you see them grow through pains, so many great kids. So I don't even see this as work."

Megan remembers her dad on his hands and knees scrubbing dance floors wondering how they were going to pay for this. The talk shifts tone to the sadness of dad's death. Jose "Joe" Maltos, and his difficult-to-watch seven-year descent into Alzheimer's and diabetes, how he died later the same year the old lady crashed her car.

Jose was of Latino and Native American descent (Pascua-Yaqui), came up in a migrant family, a child working the fields in Texas. "They followed the crops," Jill says. "Jose was cutting asparagus at 3 years old. He never liked chicken because he was the one who had to wring the chicken's neck."

Mom laughs remembering Megan at 3 years old saying, "Why are you white, dad is brown and I am beige?"

Jill met Jose in 1976 when they each worked El Rio Health Center in Tucson, Jose was its first executive director.

"His whole thing with the health center was helping others with health care. He knew what it was like living on a dirt floor and sharing a room with nine other people."

Jill became mother to his five children, Megan's older brothers and sisters, the next youngest of which is 14 years her senior. One, Faith, died in 2009, in a tragic freak car accident. The grief still shows when Jill and Megan talk about it. Jill became a kind of surrogate mother to Faith's twin children, who are so close in age to Megan, the trio were called "the triplets" growing up. Jill has nine grandchildren and as many great-grandchildren, all close, and hosts big family get-togethers at her Northwest Tucson house.

"Jose," Jill says, "instilled a work ethic in our children, in Megan, and that's where that comes from. And I'm amazed at what Megan was able to accomplish; so much self-study, hungers to learn more and do it better."

The Jose in Megan is obvious: She teaches herself everything involved in performance, and running a studio. The lighting and backdrops, the audio-visual, the poetics of colors, which look good on what tones of skin. Taught herself photoshop to create the website and graphic design because when'd they'd hire out they hated the results, "so I sat down and did it myself." Taught herself sewing, basic electrical, plumbing, and on and on.

Mom says, "You put in your own garbage disposal, changed your own oil filter..."

Megan: "Did I want to sew 20 costumes the week of the show? No. Did our costumes not come because the company went out of business and didn't tell us? Yes. No problem. I just sewed. We do everything ourselves."

The pair created a community-theater atmosphere at Danswest. Megan, quick to assert it's not just the two of them, adds, "The faculty we have here is highly educated. They genuinely care. We get attached to the students, we sympathize when they are not feeling well, celebrate in their triumphs."

Of nine Danswest instructors, a few were child-students here first, grew up in the place, became accomplished in Tucson and around the world. Austin Twaits, for example, who danced in the Nutcracker with the Moscow Ballet at the age of 13, is the hip-hop instructor. There is Baily and Dylan, the Sadowsky sisters who began here before preschool, and their rising-star kid brother, Ryan, who at 16, a junior in high school, has three agents for his acting and dancing work.

This Ryan kid is a success story because he can dance, his body does things that defy physical human logic. He started coming here when he was 2 years old. He's a Danswest "company" dancer, yet he travels everywhere for work and you've likely seen him on a national Petsmart commercial. Or maybe the Lionsgate Tom Holland-directed film Rock Paper Scissors in which he plays the kid version of an insane killer. He tells funny stories of walking around New York City with Spike Lee and his two giant body guards, Lee getting mobbed by fans and the way Lee has a guy who constantly lint-rolls his hats everywhere he goes, how he still uses a Blackberry. Ryan starred in an episode of Lee TV series She's Gotta Have It, based on the film. He played a white rapper in boy combo and went to NYC for the part, numerous times, and went into a proper studio to record a song. He's proud of the signed pair of rare Nike's Lee presented him as a gift. He participates in the Hollywood Connection traveling dance convention, for which he won its Icon of the Year award twice. He goes everywhere. Tomorrow he leaves for Chicago, the next weekend Los Angeles, he just returned from Seattle.

Ryan is PR-coached, but humble, and shows kindness. With short, streaked hair, the kid is strikingly handsome and agile. Dude's a schoolgirl magnet but only talks of his girlfriend, who he enjoys spoiling from money he earns. He seems aware how fleeting pop success can be, the difficultly of earning a living dancing or acting. He helps the younger kids in Danswest, and provides sneakers for low-income Arizona kids.

Megan has been his mentor and teacher, just how Trent was for her, and over the years challenged him to rise from his comfort zones. "She has guided me and mentored me a lot," Ryan says. "She and Miss Heather [Harrison]."

He knows if not for Megan, if not for the fact his older sister Baily saw a Danswest performance on Fourth Avenue and joined, at 3 years old, the same way Megan did when she was a girl, he doesn't know what he'd be doing. "That's true," he tells me in the lobby of Danswest. "I would probably be playing sports at school."

He says, he'd like to return to Danswest after college and teach like his two older sisters. Because it's family like that. But then he might get a call from Beyoncé. He did get two callbacks from Steven Spielberg for his upcoming West Side Story reboot, the only teenager to do so.

Megan has studied, taught and performed ballet and jazz but tap is her specialty, and she is in service to its history. The tap master is passed down oral-history style and in black and white. Styles of tap are drawn from generations, cultures and backgrounds, it's a universal language with no religious, ethnic or sexual barriers. A rhythm tap, for example is performed without musical accompaniment, the focus is the percussive sounds of taps. 

Tap dancing essentially rose from the early American south, a monstrous lesson in how expression finds a way. Slaves began percussive dancing for expression and identity when slave owners trashed their instruments. Tap grew and morphed into other cultures and beliefs and storytelling. By the 20th century, it became a fixture in minstrel shows, circuses and vaudeville, a force in the Harlem Renaissance. Tap dancers collaborated with jazz players (hence the term jazz dance), incorporating improvisation and intricate rhythms, yet it was still racist as hell, and white and black dancers performed separately and for segregated audiences. White folks were appalled at the black dance, but soon began to copy it, of course, blending with traditional Irish dancing, and sending it into the ballrooms.

Tap hit Hollywood on the backs of Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly but waned after WWII. It sparked in the 1980s through Broadway shows. It is an art form worthy of keeping alive and Megan will defend it vehemently.

"And what they did 100 years ago, what they could do, we're just trying to keep up," Megan says. "They've got to learn about the choreography and the time and context—the tap history. This is so much bigger than just tap dance, this is a whole art form with history and context that hopefully some will pass down. There is so much to teach in that hour they are in here, music, rhythm, coordination, balance and weight, and where it came from. Oh, and then you have to have fun."

One Megan fave is Clayton "Peg Leg" Bates, the vaudevillian tap dancer who lost a leg in a cotton gin accident as a kid. He's a legend, can be found in film and on old clips from The Ed Sullivan Show. She references him often, usually to get herself and her kids up when no one is feeling it that day. "If Peg Leg Bates can do it ..."

Megan's teaching methods rely regularly on intuition of the kids, and if she is the authority figure to her students, she wields it tenderly. Megan will tell you how much the kids teach her. She skillfully marries formal dance technique to bonds of contemporary movement. Arms and legs as expression devices of hip hop and old R&B and classic pop, tapping to swing greats like Charlie Beal, or Robert Johnson or Smokey, and her playlists feature fetching mashups and songs by artists as disparate as Bob Marley, Bruno Mars and the Beastie Boys. ("If I have to listen to the music all day, it has to be good," Megan laughs. "It has to be human.") She captures how kids relate to the world, beyond the mind-dulling surfeit of social media and false accents on perfection, beyond the problems at home or at school. The trying on of various identities in dance characters is bigger than the costumes. There are a few kids here from broken homes, foster kids, parents whose children were saved by dance. And the troubled ones fall in line. "Sometimes," she says, "it's a lot for me to hear what goes on beyond these walls." They recently helped one 5-year-old girl whose family home was destroyed by fire.

Other times it is less easy. Megan: "we have morals here, and kids have been tossed for using or vaping. It sucks and I hate doing it." They threw one kid out for acting out. They had no choice, his problems were too big.

Danswest has an alliance with the Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation (AFFCF), placing foster kids in dance programs. They donate to Dancing in the Streets, a non-profit ballet company that helps "at risk" children. "Volunteerism for life," Jill says, explaining how they volunteer shows at nursing homes, and art fairs and such, how it's about giving free art to the world.

Waning attention spans of children concerns too, and Megan can see the downward trajectory over the years.

"That's why dance is so good," she says. "To have the focus to watch and do it is a lot; it nurtures the attention span." She'll say to kids in movement, "I know you had swimming and violin lessons or sports or whatever, but does your body remember this?"

Littler ones sometimes enter their first social experiment with other children in dance. "They're learning to coexist and cope with other kids they don't understand yet," Megan says. Others struggle with gender issues: "Even in pre-school. I'll say to the kids, Kyle wants to be Kylie, and that's OK ... I'll explain."

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Jill Maltos
Megan Maltos (right) and her mentor Frank Trent in 2018.

The tiny kids sometimes require tricks of instruction to get dancing, and those may include storytelling and warmup questions. "I'll ask them, 'What book did you read? See any good movies? What did you have for breakfast?'" She pauses, "I'm vegan but I'll still talk about meatballs and hamburgers!"

The class focus is not on making "company," or the aspects of competitive dance. This is life. Danswest is a growing operation in Tucson, so politics and religion are left at the door. Dances reflect that, eschew political sloganeering, as the Winter Showcase is not the Christmas showcase. Whatever message may or may not be discerned in the subtlest of ways.

One Megan creation called "Detention" made it all the way to ABC's re-revved The Gong Show in 2018. Five Danswest teens play kids stuck in school detention, bored at desks, a giant blackboard as backdrop repeating the words "I will not tap in class." Rhythm with pencils and schoolyard objects is set, feet tapping under desks. A girl sets her phone down and the tap escalates into a social interconnection. The dancers each hop to the desktops. The choregraphed moves kick up, they leap to the floor in rhythm and joy, in rotating legs and arms, paced patterns as storytelling. It's classic old-school tap frolic, yet a stunning 90 seconds in the hands of these Tucson kids. The piece works on deeper, deceptively clever levels. The outward show of kid-defiance becomes a treatise on boredom and teen communication, and even salvation. (The kids end with books in their hands.) It aced a perfect score on national television.

Megan's latest recital, "Game On," to be unveiled this May, will show characters based on games—card games, video games, board games, Harry Potter, Mortal Kombat, Poker Face, Twister and so on. It's a collaborative effort, each of the instructors tackles the theme with music in ballet, tap, hip-hop, etc. In some ways it is putting a transcendent spin on utterly meaningless kinds of interactions. How else can one humanize, say, an avatar? Megan and her other instructors are showing us through body movement, discipline and humor how some modern capitalism and conflict in games can be filled in with humanity. It is turning kid paradigms into moments of beauty and attendant clarity in a world now seemingly strung together of hideous moments. This is what Megan does, time and again.

The odds are stacked at a Danswest recital, and I've seen several. The varied experience level of performers can upset even the most balanced choreographies. But like that girl with the golden ticket, Megan pulls it off, mainly because of the gameness of tiny, big-eyed toddlers and the teens rising to levels of expertise only otherwise hinted at. On one hand, they want to do their spiritual leader Ms. Megan proud, how they respect her enough to want to show up for her, and the audience and their parents. These are rushes of profound moments observing a kid's life, in a parent's life, in a teacher's life. These are rewards. Countless times kids fall together in show of respect and love, both in rehearsal and backstage at events. When you see a group of children under the age of seven gather at the lip of the stage and stare grinning at an audience and then reassemble quickly for a propulsive number incorporating rolls, splits, gyrations, tap and ballet, all while keeping rhythm and time, it is months of hard work, yes. It is years of trial and error, yes. But it is also a show of respect to Megan, Jill and their instructors. Earned. It's a show of respect to their own young lives. And it is easy to ignore children doing incredible things, so watch hard.

Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.

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