Were it not already claimed by a certain chef, "kick it up a notch" would be a fitting catchphrase for Tracey Sims.
If you reach her voicemail you'll hear the professional greeting you'd expect from a successful business person, before being wished adieu with a high-spirited, "Toodles!" Exclamation points aren't always sufficient when describing her personality.
Sims, 32, is the owner of TurnOut Movement Arts Studio. With the drive of an entrepreneur, the temperament of a teacher and the energy of, well, a dancer, the Springfield resident has created one of the largest and most diverse dance studios in the area.
"I love everything I do. I mean, the office work isn't bad, but the dance ..."
Sims doesn't finish the sentiment, but it's apparent in the way she savors the word "dance" that she's one of the lucky ones who has found a career living out a dream, although she had to overcome initial doubts.
"I always enjoyed teaching dance. I just never thought I'd own a studio. I wanted to be a counselor. I wanted to be a social worker," she said of her earlier career plans.
Some of the same motivations that originally drew Sims to social work have inspired her to take her studio in unique directions. In addition to offering traditional dance instruction in hip-hop, tap, jazz and ballet - along with tumbling, cheer and art classes - she has found a niche serving people with mental and physical disabilities.
Several years ago, Sims, who holds a master's degree in movement and dance therapy, began a dance class specifically designed for the cognitive and physical abilities of children and young adults with Down syndrome. There were eight students in that original Getting Down class, a number that has grown to 25 today.
Sims admits she was a bit overprotective when she first started the class, but over time learned that her Getting Down students are pretty similar to her other dancers.
"Each child is different in that they learn on their own. But the main thing I learned is that they're just like the other kids. The girls get in their little tiffs. They make up. The boys act macho," she said.
TurnOut has added special-needs classes in hip-kick, karate and cheerleading, and Sims donates studio space to the Special Olympics for gymnastics training.
Sims' compassion runs wide and deep, and she wants all her students to be understanding of those facing challenges.
Inspired by an uncle who is developmentally delayed and suffers from other mental illnesses, Sims choreographed a dance for three of her students that interpreted some of the feelings and sensations that her uncle has described. Before the performance, she also sat down with her students to discuss the misconceptions associated with mental illness.
"Many people are scared of the words 'mental illness' or 'schizophrenia.' If I can move my students past those words in a dance piece and educate them just a little, I am giving them the power to move beyond stereotypes," she said.
In addition to her teaching and business responsibilities with the studio, Sims has extended her dance brand into other areas throughout the community.
She's currently the coach of the Robert Morris College dance team, and has worked with the dance team from Southeast High School as well. Sims said she has trouble saying no when it comes to sharing her passion for dance, which is why she said yes when asked to choreograph the Muni's production of "Annie" this past summer.
"I watched the movie a few times and went on YouTube to get ideas. It was a lot of work, but it was fun," she said.
On the charity front, Sims is in the planning stages of a fundraiser that she hopes will unite all of the dance studios in town for a performance and celebration of their art.
TurnOut has approximately 400 students currently enrolled in classes. Sims recently traded in her 2,400-square-foot studio on Stevenson Drive for one with 7,000 square feet just off Toronto Road. Another 40 or so students take classes at the studio's Taylorville location.
TurnOut's most active students are out there hoofing it four or five times a week. It's become such a part of their lives that for some of the older students, it's maybe not so much a home away from home, but it's certainly a school away from school.
"For me TurnOut has always been more than just a dance studio. It provides a support system for its students. Tracey encourages each student to maximize their potential and the importance of giving back," said Rachal Wolf, who is both a student and teacher at the studio.
Comments such as these inspire Sims. When she takes a big-picture look at her studio and how far it has come in a short period of time, she can't help but dream a little bigger.
"A lot of my dancers say, 'I wish this was my school.' So a performing-arts school would be ideal," she said.
She realizes that a performing-arts school would be a huge undertaking and that she lacks the background in education for such an undertaking, although she has served as an adjunct professor at UIS. But she also remembers a time when she didn't think she would ever own a dance studio.
"I'd like this to concentrate on all art forms as well as individuals with disabilities. There is a lot we can do with a performing-arts school to better our community," she said.
Sims is a fast talker. She's not shilling snake oil; her words just tend to stream out at an excited rate. This is especially true when she's talking about all the people who have helped her along the way. Then, she begins rattling off names like an actress accepting an Oscar.
Her mother, Ann Sims, runs the front desk and helps with the bookkeeping. Her sisters, Tina Sims and Jennifer Howard, get a shout-out, as do Matt Hilst, Karla Carwile and Jerry Van Meter. There's Miss Misty, Miss Kendra . . . and then the orchestra ushers her from the stage mid-tribute, but not before she gets in one last acknowledgment.
"The studio wouldn't be going if it weren't for all of the parents that help. And the teachers. I have really, really good teachers. I'm very fortunate," she said.
Story published Friday, January 7, 2011 ( Volume 5, Number 8 )