Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Nichole Pierman offers an alternative to aspiring dancers in the Battle Creek area who want the focus to be on the core message they convey through their choreography rather than the costumes, music, and specific dance moves.
The name of her dance studio – In His Steps – leaves very little doubt about the type of atmosphere she has created for girls of all ages. Located at 833 Golden Avenue, the studio occupies a two-story, brick building that was the Harper Creek Schools Administration Building.
With the exception of being a non-competitive dance studio, In His Steps operates similar to other studios and offers a range of different classes, including ballet, tap, jazz, pom, and pointe.
During the school year, the site bustles with activity as girls as young as 3-years-old come in for lessons while many of their parents sit in cars in the parking lot catching up on work, making phone calls, or taking a much-needed breather from the day’s activities.
Upon entering the building, a chalkboard with an inspirational message greets the students and sets the tone for the time they will spend perfecting their dance moves under the watchful eye of any one of 10 instructors who Pierman describes as “Godly people.”
“We start every class with a prayer and end with a devotional,” Pierman says. “We use the music of Christian artists and our costumes and choreography are appropriate.”
Despite the studio's religious underpinnings, enrollment is not restricted to practicing Christians. “A lot of (our students) are unchurched,” Pierman says. “Parents just want a safe and moral place for the parents.”
To her knowledge, the studio she owns with her husband, Tony, is the only Christian-based dance studio in the area. Those who take classes there include homeschoolers, students who attend schools throughout Calhoun County, and students from nearby cities, including Kalamazoo.
Elizabeth Spencer’s two daughters started as students at the dance studio nine years ago. They both now teach there.
Her eldest daughter, Lydia, now 20 and a student at Spring Arbor University, teaches two classes, and her youngest daughter, Anna, 15, who attends Harper Creek High School, teaches three classes.
The Spencers were exposed to In His Steps when Pierman and a few of her students came to Wakeshma Community Church to perform. Not long after that, Spencer signed up daughter Anna, who was 6 years old, for a beginning ballet and tap class.
“We called it Tutu Tuesdays and she loved it,” Spencer says.
Meanwhile, her daughter, Lydia, who had tried dance at another studio and walked away after the first class, decided to give it another try after watching an In His Steps recital.
“The curtain closed and Lydia said, 'I want that',” Spencer says. “She started right away. “We’ve pretty much lived at that studio ever since.”
Nichole Pierman leads a dance class at her studio, In His Steps
In general, Spencer says, dance can be a tricky thing in terms of movements and costumes. She says she’s talked to other parents who have taken their children to recitals where they’ve had to cover their younger children’s eyes because of what they considered inappropriate dance moves on stage.
Pierman, Spencer says, is very deliberate in terms of her choice of costumes and movements for her students, which does not diminish from the level of creativity that goes into choreographing a dance.
“It’s just a safe environment and I don’t have to worry that my girls are going to be up there wearing something suggestive,” Spencer says.
Maintaining that ever-present religious component and moral compass is important to Spencer who says she also likes the inclusive nature of the dance studio.
“We’re a Christian family, but the faith aspect is not shoved down anyone’s throat, even though it’s there,” she says. “It’s a welcoming atmosphere no matter where you’re at.”
This inclusiveness is important to Pierman who was not raised in a Christian household. Her grandmother took her church. “My family is not Christian, I was not saved, so I didn’t grow up in that type of atmosphere,” she says.
At the age of 5, her mother enrolled her and her sister in classes at a dance studio in Battle Creek. Six years later she was asked to join a competitive dance team which she continued with until she was 18.
“It was fun and exciting and I got to travel,” Pierman says. “That’s where my friends were and where I wanted to be.” But, it also was all-consuming, leaving her no time to participate in extracurricular activities or sports. It was also expensive.
Growing up as a competitive dancer, Pierman says she always wanted to open a dance studio. The foundation for that dance studio would be set after she began attending weekly church services with a friend.
During this time she became a Christian, was saved and she started asking God what her spiritual gifts were.
“God spoke to me and said I would dance and I will do it but in a different way,” Pierman says. “It would be dance, but not the way that I knew it. It meant me learning what dance meant and what I was created for. I was in a church service and I don’t remember what the pastor was speaking on. I grew up dancing my whole life and it was like a veil was lifted and it was very obvious that I would dance, but not in a way that I knew it.”
As a competitive dancer, for Pierman it was all about winning trophies and embracing the drive to be number one. “I grew up in studios that were obviously not Christian,” she says. “The costumes were inappropriate and the dance was inappropriate.”
At one point she pulled herself out of a dance that she says was inappropriate and didn’t line up with who she was. She says God saw that she was being obedient and not just going with the flow.
Nichole Pierman and instructors lead a dance class at In His Steps studio
She began reading and studying verses in the Bible about dance and prayed a lot for guidance. By this time she was married and operating a daycare out of her home which allowed her to stay home with her three daughters. She taught dance classes at Endeavor Charter Academy where her daughters attended school.
“God spoke to me clearly one day and said, “I want you to call Branch Gymnastics,” so I called and met with the owners and they liked the idea (of dance classes) so we started teaching classes there in 2005. I had 20 and students that first year. Most of them were friends of my girls.”
Eventually, she opened a studio at a plaza on Columbia Avenue.
“We only had one dance studio in that plaza and we were up to 120 students when we left there doing classes Monday through Saturday,” Pierman says. “Even when the economy hit the ground, God was still blessing us and we were still growing.”
That growth prompted Pierman and her husband to move into their current location on Golden Avenue.
She and her husband met at First Wesleyan Church which is where In His Steps dance recitals take place. Pierman credits her husband with providing the foundation for the success of their dance studio. They currently have about 200 students and also have a class for women who grew up in churches or homes where dancing wasn’t allowed.
“Growing up in a dance studio (his mom owned her own dance studio and he danced as well), he knows what it takes to own and operate a dance studio,” Pierman says of her husband. “All our students know him as Mr. Tony and love seeing him around the studio as well as our recitals.”
The studio has two recitals each year – one in December and the other in June which coincides with the end of the school year. On June 15, Pierman’s students will perform a recital at First Wesleyan Church with a theme based on the Creation story from the Bible. Each of the dances performed has been choreographed around the seven days of Creation.
Pierman says the recitals are more like a church service and includes an altar call from a pastor and an explanation about the theme.
However, it’s what happens leading up to these recitals that best exemplifies the mission of In His Steps.
“It’s not like a student/teacher relationship,” Pierman says. “We know what’s going on in their lives and ask if there are any prayers or praises they want to share. We know who’s sick at home or struggling at school. We use that to pray for the kids, even the non-churched kids.”
Removing the competitive aspect removes the potential for cliques, dance-mom drama, or negative behavior, Pierman says.
“Our students are not talking against each other and they know we’re not going to scream and yell at them if they mess up,” she says. “This is about fun and for God.”
It is also a calling for the Piermans who both say this is where they are meant to be.
“We feel like we’re called here, like we’re supposed to be a part of Battle Creek, and we believe in it,” Pierman says. “We’re here to restore dance back to its original purpose and that is to glorify Him. We teach dance created to worship God.”
Photos by John Grap of John Grap Photography. His work is featured here.