Former BYU dancer teaches students to use their gifts to uplift others

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Nesha Woodhouse, Artistc Director at Lifehouse Performing Arts Academy. (Photo courtesy of Nesha Woodhouse)
Nesha Woodhouse, artistic director at Lifehouse Performing Arts Academy. (Nesha Woodhouse)

“My body is a gift. I will use it as an instrument to uplift and inspire others.”

This statement is posted on a wall at Lifehouse Performing Arts Academy. It is one of several statements representing the core values that have guided BYU alumna Nesha Woodhouse in her role as the Lifehouse artistic director.

Different values are posted on the walls of seven dance studios at the dance studio. “The values are positive and personally affirmative statements to remind the dancers of their larger purposes,” Woodhouse said.

The values include these:

“Who I am is more important than what I can do.”

“I will focus on my potential and not worry how I compare to others.”

“This is a safe haven, in these walls we treat each other with kindness and respect.”

These values and Woodhouse’s philosophy about dance began to take shape during her time at BYU. Woodhouse came to BYU and danced with the Cougarettes.  She took classes from Kim Yandow and Colleen West, who are still at BYU. She sites Yandow as one of her biggest influences.

“Kim asked, ‘Why? Why do you dance?’ She took the time to teach us about life. She taught us that we would be accountable for how we used our talents,” Woodhouse said. “I learned that talents should never be used to make people feel small. They should be used to uplift. This changed my perspective completely.”

Woodhouse originally intended to major in music dance theater but ended up studying psychology. “I believe my studio would be very different today. I would have been more career oriented,” Woodhouse said of the decision to change majors.

The beginnings of Lifehouse Performing Arts Academy were humble. Woodhouse had just moved to Elk Ridge, Utah, with her husband and newborn daughter.  Some of her neighbors found out about her dance background and asked if she would teach a couple of classes so they would not have to drive their daughters into a different town for classes. Woodhouse agreed and began teaching lessons in her home.

“My plan was to have 20 students between the ages of three and eight,” she said. By the end of the third year she had more than 90 students.

“If, during that time 15 years ago, you had shown me where I would be today, I would have laughed. This wasn’t anything I had ever envisioned or planned. I was led by the Spirit, step by step,” Woodhouse said.

Throughout those early years, Woodhouse continued to dance in the Deseret Dance Theater, directed by Yandow. It was during this time that Woodhouse’s vision for dance was reinforced, and she began sharing that vision with her students. “I care more about who the students become than how they dance, and I feel the most joy as I see students support each other,” Woodhouse said.

It was during these early years that Jessica Purdy, a dance major and current member of the Ballet Showcase at BYU, first began dancing with Woodhouse. “I think the studio environment is especially nurturing at Lifehouse,” she said.

Another former student, Shanae Sainsbury, said, “Nesha always taught that family and the gospel were more important than anything else in our lives. The gospel should be at the root of everything we do in this life,” Sainsbury said. Sainsbury is a dance major and member of the BYU Theatre Ballet Company.

Soon the students outgrew Woodhouse’s first home, then a second home. After her third year, Woodhouse hired Christy Hill, the current director of ballet and also a BYU alumna. Hill helped manage the growth; but the number of students continued to increase, and the studio soon moved to a new space in Payson.

“With each move to a bigger location, I thought for sure that was the end,” Woodhouse reflected.

After a few years in Payson, her students had once again outgrown the facility, and Woodhouse decided it was time to build, this time in Salem. Today, Lifehouse has approximately 500 students taught by 16 teachers, 14 of whom graduated from BYU.

“BYU produces amazing talent,” Woodhouse said. “I have been fortunate to hire and find people who shared my vision for Lifehouse, and it would not be what it is today without them — both in size and in excellence.”

Finding a personal balance has been a constant issue for Woodhouse. She describes her balance as “busier” and notes that she is happiest with a full schedule. She has learned that balance is something that has to be re-evaluated along the way.

“I taught 12 classes last year; this year I only teach four. This has allowed me to get to know the teachers and students better. It has been a huge transition, but it allows me to spend time with each of my company students and present a seminar about the values I hold dear. We discuss what makes each dancer valuable and ask them, ‘Why do you dance?'” she said.

As the studio and her family grew, Woodhouse had to adapt. Over the years, she has chosen to home-school her children, and her husband left his career to help with the family and the studio full time.

“My favorite moments are when I can just be a mom. My kids study piano with Dr. Irene Perry-Fox here at BYU. I love doing that. I can just be totally there for them,” Woodhouse said.

Woodhouse also makes time for philanthropic work as a member of the board for Cambodian and International Children Friend Organization, an organization that benefits orphans in Cambodia. She was recently able to assist the organization on opening its own dance show featuring the Cambodian traditional style of dance, Khmer.

Unlike many studios, Lifehouse does not participate in competitions. Rather, rehearsals are focused on opportunities to perform. The studio presents five regular performances each season: a fireside, a children’s show, a ballet, a musical theater show and a spring recital. Lifehouse focuses on technique and individual improvement. These qualities attracted Tessa Fitzgerald, a pre-nursing student and BYU Ballet Showcase member, to Lifehouse.

“It’s not about competition or how good you are but rather what you have to offer, and that is a beautiful thing, because everyone can offer something beautiful,” Fitzgerald said.  “During my time at Lifehouse I learned how to work with people and love others and become at peace with my body.”

There are no established future plans for Lifehouse. For now, the studio will continue to accommodate as many students as it can. “I do believe in the way we teach dance,” Woodhouse said. “I think it is needed in the world. We have talked about opening other locations, but we will see.”

Woodhouse believes that everyone has a purpose for being alive. “Lifehouse has been one of my purposes, and I have learned so much and have been so blessed to know parents, students and teachers,” she said. “It has been such a rich experience.”

For performance dates and additional information about Lifehouse Performing Arts Academy, visit www.lifehouseacademy.com.

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