Dance can be described as the visual expression of the heart, and no one has more of it than Olga Berest, founder and owner of Berest Dance Center in Port Washington. For the past 40 years, Berest’s studio has served as a place for education, a center of performing arts and, above all else, a home away from home.
“When I think about 40 years, it’s not about how I grew, it’s about how I am a community resource,” says Berest. “It’s not about how fabulous my teachers are, which they are, and how many genres we have in this school and the fact that our population of teenagers is the highest on Long Island. That’s not what I remember. I remember what kids say and how they felt.”
Though it appears small from the outside, the Colonial-style building on South Washington Street contains three floors of studios that have been graced by some of the most talented dancers throughout Long Island. Berest Dance Center has produced dancers who have continued on to perform on Broadway and in national and international companies. Berest’s own daughter, Heather Berest, toured professionally with the notorious Paul Taylor Dance Company for 10 years, and has since returned to the studio as both an instructor and creative director. However, what the center prides itself on most is not the
achievements of its pupils, but rather its role in the community.
“Berest became a safe haven for them,” says Berest. “It became a place where they could be themselves, a place where they could grow their identity, a place where they bonded
with their friends and they grew in technique, a place they would always remember.”
When Berest Dance Center opened its doors in 1976, the number of competing dance studios that were not New York City based was slim, but that would soon change. Studios similar to Berest’s began to emerge in towns across Long Island, but none proved to be a threat. The homey atmosphere and welcoming energy that visitors can’t help but feel upon entering the building have been the driving forces behind its success for the past four decades. Berest proudly retains several college essays and personal letters from past students who reflect upon the dance studio that essentially raised them.
Berest recalls one moment that brought her to tears and reminds her that Berest Dance Center is more than just an institution of dance education and instruction.
“Last week an SUV pulled up and a young woman about 45 jumped out. She was teary eyed and she ran over to me and said, ‘Olga, I had to stop. You taught me from when I was 3 all the way through high school.’ She had a little girl in the back who was 3 years old. She said ‘I’m in California now, but my little girl takes class and I just hope I can bring her to a school like this one. The safe haven that I felt when I was in your school I will never forget.’”
Berest never anticipated the size and scale that the center currently boasts. What began as a program with 10 students filling about four classes has grown into a local attraction encompassing nearly 600 students and 100 classes a week on average.
Classes are open to dancers of all ages and skill sets. Whether beginner or expert, 5 years old or 18 years old, there is a class for everyone, encompassing genres such as ballet, pointe, modern, tap, hip-hop, jazz and musical theater. The center has a special company comprised of the most elite and dedicated students, however they do not perform competitively as many others do. Berest is committed to maintaining a level of comfort and enjoyability for her dancers.
With 40 years under her belt, Berest is more than satisfied with the impact her studio has had on the surrounding community. As for the future, her only wish is that her legacy lives on through her daughter and the direction in which she takes Berest Dance Center. She has faith that her daughter is beyond capable of maintaining a high-caliber studio, yet she has no intentions of retiring anytime soon.
“I’m not ready to retire,” says Berest. “The day I wake up and say ‘Oh my, another day at the studio,’ will be the day. It’s just not happening.”
Berest Dance Center is located at 12 South Washington Street. For more information, visit www.berestdance.com or call 516-944-6687.