Families who play together, stay together at Family Center of Arts

At the Family Center for the Arts in Portage everyone in the family has a role to play.
Petite, her dark hair in braids and tucked beneath a navy woolen hat, Rebecca Achenbach doesn’t look so very different from the children who scamper through the door of Family Center for the Arts at 6136 S. Westnedge at the back of Southland Mall in Portage. She’s the owner, and she bounds around the spacious center, walls painted sunshine yellow, with unstoppable energy.

"You know, I think busy parents have forgotten how to play with their kids," she says. "I want them to learn how. A parent will tell me, my child wants to learn about music, but I don’t have a musical bone in my body. Oh, but they do!"

Achenbach beats a rhythm with her palm on the table. "Timing, rhythm, we can all do this. I empower parents to play with their children."

Music isn’t the only art form Achenbach brings to Family Center for the Arts (FCA). Along with dance, drama and art are also available for ages birth to adult, or, as Achenbach says, "as long as you can dance."

Achenbach has been working with "children of all ages" for more than 25 years. Prior to opening FCA in September 2014, she was child care executive director for the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo for 10 years. She oversaw the Y Art Center, in the same location, until she took over the lease and the operation, making it her own.

"I grew up on a farm in Fulton," she says. "It was a commune-like environment, and it made me passionate about community. We worked with other farmers, helped each other out. It was a good and safe way to grow up, outside all day. You can’t put a price on that."

Now Achenbach lives in the Westnedge Hill neighborhood, raising two daughters, 14 and 8, with her husband, and she still keeps up that sense of community. "I have two kids, but I take seven, maybe a dozen kids to school every day."

That kind of hand-in-hand, mutual support atmosphere is what Achenbach brings to FCA. She works there along with a small staff: Bianca Washington, drama coordinator; Barb Marquis, art coordinator; Traci Soule, dance director.

Starting a family theater company, Achenbach says, came from her strong belief that families should always sit down at the dinner table together. "When I think back at being a kid, it’s really hard on kids when parents don’t get involved. My parents made a lot of sacrifices to be there for me and five siblings,  so now I want to give that back to my community. In our theater company, every member of the family has a role of some kind and is involved in some way."

Achenbach takes special pleasure in watching camaraderie develop between families that come to FCA. If at first people come in wondering how to participate, soon conversations begin, one person helps another, friendships develop, cooperation blossoms.

The family theater company came from Achenbach’s own love for civic theater, which she set aside while raising small children. "Then my daughter grew old enough to want to audition for a part, and it grew around that. Here, everyone in the family does something."

Parents help to build scenery for plays, create costumes, help with lighting, or just hand out programs. FCA puts on productions on premise, with a holiday musical, Babes in Toyland, as their December showing.

While the theater company is busy with a production, art classes often join in on the theme. In December, children enjoyed a gingerbread house workshop. Another recent popular theme was children’s book character Harry Potter, with children building paper mache wizard hats, Potter glasses out of pipe cleaners, and other themed art projects. Meanwhile, adults can join a class to learn how to paint--the walls of FCA sport their paintings of red cardinals in snowy birch trees, and nests with a treasure of bluebird eggs.

"In music classes, parents enjoy music with their kids," says Achenbach. "Personally, I like music to be taught in an unstructured way. Music is feeling. I know people need to know how to follow directions, and they get that in school. Here we want them to veer away from teacher-directed to explore their own creativity. We offer all kinds of instruments, and whatever instrument is calling their name, that’s what they will play."

Achenbach teaches beginner levels of piano, guitar and voice. Preschool music classes teach through movement and involving all senses whenever possible. "Parents get involved in this, too. If you can talk, you can sing. Kids don’t care how you sound; they care that you sing and play with them."

Dance classes include ballet, tap, jazz dance and hip-hop, offered for all ages. Dance classes also feature one of Achenbach’s tricks up her sleeve. "So everyone wanted to take hip-hop. Or ballet. But what about tap? It seemed like no one wanted to learn tap anymore, but when I paired ballet and tap into a combo class, and got those kids into tap shoes …"

Achenbach gets a big, mischievous grin on her face. Her trick works, again and again. A kid in tap shoes turns into a quick love of a dance form gone out of style, but now re-discovered, with enthusiasm.

FCA also offers various workshops, day camps, special events and private parties, generally priced from $80 to $150. Birthday party packages are available with themes such as Rainbow Art Party, Wizard of Oz Drama and Art Party, Frozen Dance Party, Hello Kitty Hip-Hop Party, Super Hero Drama and Art Party, and many more. Or, bring your own ideas; Achenbach loves a show of creativity.

"It’s all about the quality of time we spend together with our families," says Achenbach. "Give your children the gift of your time."

For more information about FCA classes, events or community outreach, contact Rebecca Achenbach at 269.321.8385 or visit their website here.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and correspondent for WMUK 102.1 FM Arts and More program. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Susan Andress