BY ANNE MARIE HUNTER, The Kansas City Star
As a college senior in 2005, Charissa Fuchs was not only looking forward to finishing school, but also opening one of her own.
“At the end of my senior year, I realized I always wanted to teach and loved to teach,” said Fuchs, who had majored in dance performance with a minor in theater. So she spoke with her parents about her goal of opening a performing arts center.
“They backed up my dream and everything was set on course.”
Within a few months, Fuchs founded In the Light Performing Arts Center. At her first location in Raymore, Fuchs established the core philosophy around which she built her school. Though the Center is now in Peculiar, that vision has remained the same.
“We cultivate an environment where teachers, families and students are appreciative, accepting and encouraging of one another,” she said.
“Confidence is often underrated for kids, but having confidence in oneself to move forward into any area of life is so important,” Fuchs said. “It’s essential, and our school’s positive environment reinforces confidence.”
Addison Rutherford, of Raymore, took her first dance class at In the Light nine years ago and has been a student ever since. As the passion and dedication for her art have increased, Rutherford, 15, has also discovered a deep well of self-confidence.
“I’ve realized in the past few years that embracing my differences is super important,” she said. “Everyone has different bodies, different looks and different reasons for why they are dancing. Each individual is so special, and fully embracing one’s uniqueness is the most important thing one can do in dance.”
Rutherford says she’s also learned how to transform setbacks into strengths.
“Dance has changed my life by not only teaching me that it’s OK to fall and make mistakes, but has helped me learn how to get up, brush myself off and try harder than I ever had before.”
In the Light’s diverse curriculum is designed to inspire the imagination, as the school’s instructors open doors to new creative adventures for students. Classes, open to students from age 2 through adults, are led by a staff of 13 teachers who each have degrees and/or professional experience in their areas of expertise.
“We have two priorities for teachers,” Fuchs said. “They have to love kids and have a passion for teaching.”
The school’s wide spectrum of classes includes theater, dance, visual arts and art history, creative writing, culinary arts, tumbling, martial arts and more.
Fuchs believes weaving all of these disciplines together is valuable for parents and their children.
“For families, it’s nice to have so many options in one place, and students can try everything and discover what they really like to do,” she said.
“Fun things can happen when kids are exposed to all of the arts and explore them. They all work together and reinforce each other.”
In the Center’s supportive environment, students have found that self-discovery can extend beyond the creative journey. Denton Meehan, of Raymore, is one of those students.
In 2009, Meehan, 16, played Sandy the Dog in the Center’s production of “Annie.” Since that first role, he’s performed in dozens of shows, as well as voice and dance recitals.
“It’s not just about becoming a better performer, it’s about becoming a better person,” he said. “I’ve literally grown up at ITL. I started out as a kid who just liked to make people laugh.
“From there, ITL developed my passion for the arts and made me into a performer who can sing, dance and act. There have been lots of other life lessons learned along the way, too.”
Inspired by all of her students, Fuchs says the transformation of one has particularly touched her.
“Savannah Paxton started classes when she was 7 years old,” Fuchs said. “When she first came, she would not speak aloud to anyone. She was so shy and scared. Today, she has leads in musicals and plays. She also writes and is now in dance. She talks to everyone and is really social.”
Paxton acknowledges her profound growth.
“Before acting, I thought that I was just the quiet girl in the corner,” said Paxton, now 16. “But, in every role I’ve played, I’ve found a bit of myself hidden there. I’m still finding who I am, but acting and the people around me at ITL are helping me get there bit by bit. Acting has helped me take huge strides.
“The teachers are amazing, the people are kind and the environment is warm. There has never been a day at ITL that I’ve felt unloved or unimportant.”
For more information or upcoming performance schedules, visit In the Light Performing Arts Center, www.itlarts.com.