Oldest dance studio glides through time in Switzerland and beyond

By Heidy Brosofsky-Weaver and Kimberly Weaver
mail@floridanewsline.com

Way back when the only school in Northwest St. Johns County was Julington Creek Elementary and the only business at the wooded corner of Race Track Road and State Road 13 was a saloon, “Miss Janice” Torbett moved to Switzerland with her husband, Wayne, and their two young daughters. The area was so remote that “we didn’t even have streetlights,” recalled Torbett, who soon discovered there weren’t many activities for children either.

Initially, Torbett travelled to Jacksonville’s Westside to teach dance. Then, after enrolling 10 – 15 students by word of mouth, she opened Switzerland Dance School in the back room of the Switzerland Volunteer Fire Department in 1975.

“I had to assure the fire chief that parents would not get in the way of firetrucks in an emergency,” said Torbett, who later shared the space with a fledgling church, Fruit Cove Baptist. “I would move the dance bars on Friday night, and they would set up the chairs on Sunday morning.”

Fast forward 44 years, and the studio is still located by the church, but now both are situated near the heavily-traveled corner of Race Track Road and State Road 13. Although the area has been transformed into a booming suburb, and modern dance classes like hip hop and contemporary have been added to the schedule, the ingredients that made Switzerland Dance School an endearing part of the community haven’t changed.

“My mom created a studio that focuses on excellence, character, faith, and service, and these are critical to our continued success,” said Stacey Dumdei, Torbett’s eldest daughter, who started teaching at the dance school while in college and officially took the helm when her mother retired four years ago.

Switzerland Dance School is truly a family affair around the five-member Dumdei household.

“The studio has been a second home for us,” said Dumdei’s son, Jonathan, who is a freshman in college. He recalled events such as bunkering down at the studio during a hurricane and being kicked out of dance by his grandmother for being “too rowdy” as a toddler. Although Jonathan and dad, Mark, have spent a lot of time behind the scenes helping with props, he’s also been recruited to play everything from a tunic-clad apostle to a tuxedo-wearing groom. And for the past six years, he’s also found himself entertaining crowds with his saxophone between dances in Peru, South America, after his mom started a global outreach with the Switzerland Dance School Dance Company.

According to Dumdei, she began her auditioned dance company in 2001 to give students more opportunities to perform outside of the annual recital in an environment that is “wholesome and promotes service in the community.” The dance company participates in non-competitive performances, workshops, and outreaches around Florida, and now they make a positive difference in the lives of many children and families in Peru as well. In addition to sharing hope through their performances, the group has raised money to fund various projects in impoverished villages and dance clinics that encourage self-worth.

“Our eyes are opened to the greater needs of the world,” said Dumdei. “We see we can make a difference and return grateful for the privilege to live in America.”

The dance company also learned to be ready for the unexpected. While travelling from a village on a hot bus last summer, a landslide blocked them from civilization with little food and no cell service for 48 hours.

“We ended up missing performances that we had worked weeks to prepare, but I watched these teens choose joy over complaining,” Dumdei said.

Dumdei’s daughter, Taylor, has joined every overseas trip and loves how dance reaches across language barriers. After earning a degree in dance education, she shares her skills at Switzerland Dance School.

“I really love being able to work with students of all different ages and enjoy sharing the knowledge I’ve learned so they can grow in their techniques,” said Taylor, a former Bartram High salutatorian. Dumdei’s oldest daughter, Ashton, is a licensed clinical social worker who teaches part-time at the studio, as well.

The legacy of family is the foundation of Switzerland Dance School, and the teachers, staff, and volunteers are part of this extended family. In fact, dance instructors Sarah Tansey and Tiffany Lee (who is also a St. Johns County fifth grade teacher) both started dancing with “Miss Janice” as toddlers.

All share “Miss Janice’s” desire to let students know they are “loved individually for who God made them to be and that their gifts and talents can be used for a greater good,” said Dumdei. Afterall, unselfish love for people can brighten lives … even if there are no streetlights.

Photos courtesy Stacey Dumdei

Switzerland Dance School instructors Tiffany Lee, Ashton Dumdei, “Miss Janice” Torbett, Stacey Dumdei, Taylor Dumdei, and Sarah Tansey.