By Karen Billing
There is always something going on at The Royal Dance Academy in Carmel Valley’s Piazza Carmel. Its four studios are full every week day until 9:15 p.m.; the place pulses with dance activity all day Saturdays; and on Sundays there’s visions of sugar plum fairies as dancers rehearse to put on the studio’s first-ever “Nutcracker Ballet” this winter.
Owner Francine Garton, endlessly bubbly and cheerful, couldn’t be happier with her busy dance studio as she prides herself in serving up the classes everyone wants and needs from ballet, jazz, contemporary, lyrical, hip hop, musical theater and even acting.
The studio will even offer its first Zumba dance-workout class on Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 10:30 a.m. The class is free.
For the last three years, Royal Dance has offered competitive dance teams and they have 22 teams dancing in about four competitions per year. Teams performed at Pulse in Las Vegas, a three-day dance convention, this year and one of the team dancers, a 12 year old, has earned a spot to perform on Broadway in “Annie.”
Garton teaches ballet and jazz, where she loves working up a sweat alongside the kids, leaping across the room and doing splits. She also trains students for the Royal Academy of Dance ballet examinations. An examiner flies in for four days every March and the students in the program have had a 100 percent pass rate.
“We have over 700 students and what I like is that for any child, no matter what age, whether they want to dance for fun or want to be a professional, I can offer something for everyone,” Garton said.
Garton strongly believes in having a great team of teachers and has 16 on staff, wanting students to find a teacher they can really connect with.
“I want each child to walk out with a smile on their face, feel that they did something great, get more self esteem, had lots of fun and know that their teacher loves them and cares about them,” Garton said.
Garton grew up in Liverpool, England, and got her start in dancing at age 8, walking to the little local dance school around the corner from the home she shared with her parents and five siblings.
“I had a wonderful teacher who still teaches now,” Garton said. “I loved to dance but she really nurtured the love of it.”
Her teacher encouraged her to pursue dance at a higher level and, at age 14, Garton was accepted to the Legat School of Dance in London and went to study ballet, contemporary, jazz and musical theater. She then attended the Northern Ballet School to study dance and dance instruction.
Garton danced for the Manchester City Ballet and toured around dancing professionally, everything from cruise ships to musical theater. At age 21 she opened up her own dance school.
“I always thought I would dance for much longer but when I started teaching I just realized that was my gift,” Garton said. “When you’re teaching a child and making a difference, that was really what I became passionate about.”
In 2001, Garton came to America with her husband Billy and her two children (she is now a mother of four). Billy went to work right away, co-founding Carmel Valley Manchester Soccer, and Garton found Carmel Valley the perfect place to open a dance studio.
“You know when you know,” Garton said. “We had uprooted our lives to come here and it was a big risk but, as with everything, you have to go all in, you can’t do it half-hearted. To fulfill your dreams sometimes you have to take a big risk.”
She found a space in Piazza Carmel and as they couldn’t yet get into the studio, she held registration in the food court. Garton was pleasantly surprised by the crowd that turned up that summer day. She enrolled 400 students in her first year.
Royal Dance Academy has now expanded three times in its 11 years and now has more than 700 students.
The studio underwent its most major renovation last year during a stressful two months when they took over the space of the old post office (it is now inside Elam’s Hallmark).
All the stress was worth it as Garton feels the result is gorgeous, with four studios and over 6,000 square feet.
“I really built it exactly how I wanted it but those who know me know that I’m always striving, always thinking what I can do to make this better,” Garton said.
She would never want to move from Piazza Carmel because the location is perfect for her studio parents, but she admits to the occasional “itchy feet”— she won’t rule out the possibility of opening a second location.
“I feel proud of what I’ve achieved,” Garton said, noting she sometimes still feels the need to pinch herself when walking into the studio. “It’s hard work teaching, running a business and juggling a husband and four kids. I try to find a balance of doing something I love, making a difference and also being the best wife and mother as well. At times it’s overwhelming but I get through.”
Garton punctuated that last statement with one of her trademark huge grins.
Registration is open for classes and schedules are online. For more information, visit royaldanceacademy.com or call (858) 350-9770.