Top Hatters holding 50th anniversary of dance recitals this weekend in Keokuk’s Grand Theatre
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
KEOKUK – For more than 50 years they’ve been dancing, coaching, choreographing, and inspiring young girls and women to step out of their shells and onto the stage, literally and figuratively.
Martha Butler and Shari Bartlett have been running Top Hatter Dance Studio in one form or another for the past 52 years and this weekend the duo will be celebrating 50 years of annual recitals with two shows at the Grand Theatre at 26 N. 6th Street in Keokuk.
The shows are at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
The two started in 1969 as young girls who loved to dance and caught the attention of neighbors, friends and even shoppers on given days.
Shari said she’s always loved to dance and her mother saw that love and provided her with lessons, but Shari who longed for the fame.
“My passion was to get in the limelight and that was from a very early age,” Bartlett said. “My mom used to put me on the grocery counter and I would dance and people would give me quarters. That was my candy money back then.”
Shari said she would always be dancing at home and at the age of 4 her mom got her started in lessons. She had two brothers and was kind of a tom boy. She said Fort Madison had a big long sidewalk that called to her.
“It was just waiting for me to do cartwheels all the way down. I wouldn’t dare to do that now, there’s no way I’m pulling that off.”
Bartlett started dancing as a girl with business partner Butler and two other girls, Janie Woolridge and Butler’s sister Barb Wardlow.
The four traveled all over the region to talent shows in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri.
“It was always the four of us and we kept doing that and proceeding and then decided we wanted to do more with it and share our knowledge. We all loved working with the kids,” Bartlett said.
The four started teaching classes for the neighborhood girls, but Janie would only stay with the group for a while.
Shari and Martha both got full-time jobs and started to navigate life as adults with jobs and families, but they both also wanted to see where the dance business would take them. Barb would end up teaching classes across the river.
After a couple years of teaching at homes and in basements, the two were spotted by a family that wanted them to teach in Farmington as well as Fort Madison, and even offered up some studio space. A move the girls jumped at.
After about three years in Farmington, Martha said they started looking for a place back in Fort Madison with a studio and they wound up taking some space from Kenny Lampe, of Lampe Drug. At the time the drug store was in the Old Lee County Bank building, and Lampe offered them the third floor studio and a few other rooms on the floor.
Then in 2008, the two purchased the current location of Top Hatters on the southwest corner of 6th Street and Avenue G in downtown Fort Madison.
From there everything has blossomed to include, among other things, assistant instructors and choreographers, including Fort Madison choreography staple Ann Chapman.
Chapman has been with Top Hatters for more than 30 years as an instructor and said the girls are humble, but their story is almost unbelievable.
“Shari and Martha are both so humble and modest they don’t make a big deal of things,” Chapman said.
“That’s just who they are as people. They never toot their own horn. We’ve gotta do those big things, but this is such a huge accomplishment.”
Chapman started with Top Hatter as an instructor when she was still in high school and is back teaching again.
“I took a six year hiatus and then came back,” she said. “That’s the crazy thing…the loyalty the teachers have for them. Most of the teachers studied, taught and stayed with them. And that’s what’s really cool about it.”
Butler said she never imagined she’d still be teaching 50 years later
“Absoluetly not. In my mind I was thinking, ‘Yeah it was like next season will be it, and then…ok, next season.’ It wasn’t until this last couple weeks I was thinking, ‘ Wow how did we get this far’,” Butler said.
“I realized our enjoyment was still there and we grew enough to sustain us, financially. I was married with two kids and working two jobs and I thought I could drop the full-time job and do this simply because of the hours we were putting in building it. But you just had to be careful in those days so you could make it and have a family, eat and sleep, and carry on mentally.”
Butler said its watching the progression of the students that keeps fueling her passion. She said she even keeps tabs on former students who are continuing to use what they were taught.
“It’s the kids… the kids,” she said. “Watching them grow. Watching that little girl hanging onto her mom’s pants when she first comes in and then working through that fear and shyness and getting on stage. That’s what makes this all worth it.”
“We keep telling them they are going to get it, to keep after it and take that out into the world. That’s my emotional want for all of them.”
Butler said students have gone on to professional lives in dance, theater, entertainment and some are doing choreography professionally.
“The deep root for me is that most them will be able to carry on as adults in the real world… this competitive world…and be humble at the same time, while getting what they’ve worked hard for in life.”
Butler won’t count the students she has now or has had in the past.
“Oh my gosh, I don’t know if I could count how many we’ve taught, but I don’t think that I’d want to. You start counting and something happens,” she said.
Her best advice for people who are trying to follow a path of entrepreneurship is to get after it and stay after it.
“You need to have enthusiasm for your business and believe in yourself. Work hard. It’s not easy to be your own boss. You might think it is, but you have to get up every day and have a plan and do it…and keep at it.”