The longtime Mill Valley resident has been teaching kids and adults to dance since 1978, when she founded the Happy Feet Dance School on Miller Avenue. But instead of passing the torch to her kids and giving those happy feet a rest for a minute, Bechelli’s giving the organization a rebirth, expanding the curriculum, adding lectures and a film series on the history of dance, particularly the roots of rhythm tap dance, Happy Feet’s speciality.
“What’s so cool about what my mom is doing is that we’ve been teaching kids these dance forms for years, and now we’re incorporating the deep-rooted history and traditions of dance,” says Caitlin Bechelli of the summertime curriculum expansion. “Tap is our own art form. It’s a style that is very unique to America.”
“The history of tap dance and the history of America are closely intertwined,” adds Cece Bechelli. “Tap is America's own indigenous dance form with roots from African and Irish dance. The fusion of these two forms, along with other European forms, resulted in a hybrid which came to be known as tap dance. One of the consistent threads throughout the compelling history of tap dance is seen and heard through the rhythmic freedom and artistic expression of generations of tap dancers.”
If that sounds like a nearly three-decades-old organization that isn’t resting on its laurels in the slightest, that’s the way the Bechelli family wants it. And while the elder Bechelli is driving the expanded curriculum and historical focus – she’s getting her master’s degree in Humanities at San Francisco State University and is currently teaching an undergraduate course there called “Values in American Life” – she credits her daughter with making it all possible.
“Having Caitlin back as assistant director has been a huge shot in the arm for Happy Feet,” she says of her daughter, who started dancing at the age of two at Happy Feet, taught there during high school and graduated from UCLA in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in World Arts and Cultures/ Dance. “It allowed me to go back and get my master’s, and it’s allowed us to grow our enrollment significantly, something we couldn’t have handled before Caitlin came back. Most of all, it’s been super fun.”
A native San Franciscan, Cece Bechelli trained in Irish, tap, jazz, ballet, modern and acrobatics in her youth, eventually falling in love with tap dance. She became a member of The Lorna Fordyce Professional Dancers, winning the title of Miss Dance of Northern California in 1979, and competed in a national competition in New York City.
At Lorna Fordyce, Bechelli met her future sister-in-law and dance partner, Sheri Bechelli, who’d won the title of Miss Dance of Northern California the year before Cece did. Twenty years later, Cece and Sheri Bechelli joined with dancer Patti Meagher to form The Step Sisters, a tap dance trio that has performed extensively ever since, including a pair of sold-out shows opening for acclaimed dancer Gregory Hines at the Marin Center.
Cece Bechelli’s interest in teaching dance was blossoming in 1978, and her brother-in-law Pat suggested she make connections with recreation departments in southern Marin. When she did, she learned there was an appetite for children’s dance programs – and she seized the moment to establish a dance school in Mill Valley.
Happy Feet offers classes in tap, jazz and ballet for anyone three years and up, and their Tiny Toes class parent-child program goes as low as two years old. In the summer, they offer dance intensive classes that include those three styles as well as forms like African, Irish, Hawaiian, Flamenco, Bollywood and Cuban.
In addition to their work at Happy Feet, both Cece and Caitlin work with the Mill Valley School District to provide dance instruction to kindergartners via Kiddo!, and they regularly serve as choreographers for the Throckmorton Theatre’s Throckmorton Youth Performers’ productions, including 42nd Street in 2015.
“Mill Valley is such a unique community,” says Caitlin Bechelli, noting that she and her siblings Kelsey and Matt were dancing at Happy Feet as toddlers. “With the school district and Kiddo, there just so much emphasis on supporting the arts here. And these kids have so many wonderful opportunities to learn and explore art.”
And while Happy Feet’s rebirth is a product of hard work and a continued quest for inspiration, its longevity has had another delightful outcome: “We’ve had tons of former students come back with their kids over the past five years,” says Cece Bechelli, who won a Milley Award in 2003 for her artistic contribution to the Mill Valley community. “They almost feel like my grandkids. It’s just wonderful.”
The 411: Happy Feet Dance School is at 15 Montford Avenue. They're performing at the 2016 Winterfest celebration on the Depot Plaza at 1:15pm. All photos courtesy Happy Feet Dance School. MORE INFO.
perform a tribute to Duke Ellington and the Whitman Sisters: