The Harwood-Watson Dance Studios, located at 1015 S. Orlando Ave, recently celebrated two decades of providing dance lessons to Orlando residents. Harwood-Watson’s lessons have a distinct line of thinking – within every student there is a seed to be nourished.
“The approach is that we don’t do competitive dancing,” Harwood-Watson said. “That does not really teach the art form – it teaches to the trophy, to the reward. We teach to the language and that the artists should truly be the messengers of the world. We should really show what’s happening and the emotional side of that.”
Harwood-Watson moved around the country growing up but spent a large chunk of time in Atlanta, Georgia where she finished her ballet apprenticeship. She spent years performing with a company and almost joined a theatre up north before plans fell through. She finally made her way to the Southern Ballet Theatre, soon to be the Orlando Ballet, in the 1970s where she met the theatre’s founder and her future husband, Kip Watson.
But Eliza says their meeting wasn’t love at first sight – not even close.
“Kip and I didn’t like each other at all when we met,” Eliza said. “I thought he was an absolute jerk and he thought I was a queen bee. We always laughed about that.”
The pair attended a neighborhood backgammon game that turned into a first date. One thing led to the next and the pair were married a few years later. Kip left the Southern Ballet Theatre soon after and Eliza eventually followed – she said they both were “horses of a different color” and felt it was time for something new.
“He thought ‘You know, (Southern Ballet Theatre) has a hundred thousand dollars in the bank, they’ve got a brand-new building, I’m leaving now.’” she said. “We felt it was time to pass things on to the next … there comes a point where you say ‘I want to create.’ Like with any big institution, you can and you can’t.”
Kip spent some time working as a chauffeur and then with the Enzian – Eliza says they lived a “very Bohemian lifestyle” – but eventually decided with his wife to go back into theatre. They eventually found a piece of property they liked at the edge of Baldwin Park. The studio opened its doors in 1997. Kip handled much of the administrative efforts while Eliza focused on hands-on training with her students. The studio, following Kip’s passing in 2011, eventually made its way to Winter Park.
The Harwood-Watson Dance Studios primarily teaches children starting at age 4 how to dance, though Eliza has older customers too – including a handful who have been practicing with Eliza at the studio every week since its opening 20 years ago.
Eliza, whose performance style is rooted in the Vaganova school but has since taken a life of its own, says she’s proud of the discipline her students learn at her studio – something she worries has fallen by the wayside elsewhere. To Eliza, “can’t” is not a word in the English language.
The studio had a Happenstance Program, which put a spotlight on up-and-coming choreographers – that Eliza says helped many performers seen in Orlando theatre companies today. The program ended soon after Kip passed.
While several of Eliza’s students don’t fully pursue a career in dance, she’s comfortable and satisfied knowing they learned other valuables lessons in her classes.
“I love when people become excited about learning,” she said. “…They’re no longer working towards the trophy, they’re excited about the process of learning.”
Harwood-Watson Dance Studios
Where: 1015 S Orlando Ave, Winter Park