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Under one Umbrella: Umbrella Arts, an inclusive and multipurpose performance and visual arts studio, to open in Cheat Lake

By Jade Ruggieri

A pie-in-the-sky dream.

Angela Dennis and Elizabeth Braithwaite tossed around the idea of opening their own art studio at the beginning of the pandemic.

Opening on Aug. 1, Umbrella Arts studio, in Cheat Lake, is a performing and visual arts instruction facility based in dance, movement and somatic education, providing elevated instruction experiences in a non-competitive, conservatory-style environment. The curriculum will expand to include learning opportunities in dance, visual arts, music acting, stagecraft, voice and creative writing, with pre-professional and recreation development.

“We want Umbrella Arts to be a place of expression and, that those who come, find joy, find a way of self-expression and feel supported and encouraged to explore your craft,” Dennis, the artistic director said. “It is a privilege to cultivate a space for artistic use.”

Growing up, Dennis was a shy, introverted child but found a way to express herself through ballet after her grandmother took her to see a production of The Nutcracker.

Dennis has served as artistic director for Alchemy Dance Project and Redstone Dance Initiative and worked at WVU as an adjunct professor, while maintaining a professional dance career with the West Virginia Dance Company and the Kitchen Sink Dance Company.

“As an introvert, you can hold a lot inside, which isn’t healthy, so finding that outlet is a big deal to me,” Dennis said. “Dance gave me a voice that I felt comfortable with and became my language. I have a very big love and appreciation for many other art forms, too, which ultimately led me to create Umbrella Arts.”

While Umbrella Arts can help children learn how to express themselves, Dennis said the studio offers performing and visual art classes for all ages, not just children. From “mommy and me” dance classes to senior movement classes, Umbrella Arts’ goal is to empower artists with healthy life practices, critical thinking, compassion and to explore creativity.

Inclusion is important to Dennis as she experienced nurturing dance educators throughout her career, so she wanted to give back what she learned in her art to others.

“There are certain situations where you feel completely invisible, where you want to be invisible, and there are situations where you feel seen, which is unbelievably impactful,” Dennis said. “You’re seen but not uncomfortable, and there’s something about that, that is so powerful, so as an instructor that aspect never left me, so I try to bring that into my experience as a teacher.”

“The Big Umbrella,” a simple children’s book about inclusion, helped Dennis come up with the idea to name the studio Umbrella Arts. In the book, a little girl goes on a walk with her umbrella; along the way, she runs with different creatures, as the umbrella grows and grows to keep everyone safe and dry.

 “From that book, I wanted people to feel like there’s a place they belong here,” Dennis said. “Whether you want to express yourself through drawing, painting, want to dance it out, or do some improvisation, there’s a place for everybody under the umbrella.”

Even though Dennis is an upstate-New York native, she has a love for the state, as she found out years ago her relatives immigrated from Italy to West Virginia, so in a way, being in the Morgantown area is like going back to her roots.

Dennis realized the Morgantown area only had specific art resources but felt as though there should be a place for people to learn different art forms in one building.

Backed by an amazing array of staff who are all local, West Virginia artists, Umbrella Arts offers a pre-professional and recreational track with open houses Aug. 4 and 6, a summer sampler session Aug. 15-19, and fall classes beginning Sept. 6.

“I’m so lucky to have this collection of really talented people that are local and have done amazing things,” Dennis said. “We’re excited to have this local pool of artists regularly and then bring in some incredible people, so we can provide an elevated experience.”

Featuring American Harlequin Flooring for the dance and movement studios, the highest quality of dance flooring technology in the industry, Dennis and Anna Potter serve as the dance and movement educators. Potter has a professional dance career with a forte in modern dance.

With 25 years-plus teaching music in Mon County’s K-5 public schools, Heidi Dunkle is the music exploration educator specializing in the Orff Schulwerk Process. The Orff process is a developmental methodology used in music education using movement, natural playfulness learned in childhood and other arts to learn elemental music theory.

From cartoon drawing to fine art, Robert Summers is the visual arts educator for Umbrella Arts, offering classes in drawing. Summers has formal training and is one of the original administrators for the Artist Collective of West Virginia.

Being a conservatory-style studio, Umbrella Arts allows people to choose what arts they are interested in for the sake of learning the art craft. Dennis is excited about the opening of Umbrella arts to provide all these artistic opportunities under “one umbrella” — something she wished she had as a child.

“Education and teaching is learning from each other,” Dennis said. “I learn from my students every day. I don’t just sit in a box, and I want to give students an experience. What you learn in your art is going to stay with you and those invaluable experiences you get from art can show up in unexpected places within yourself.”

To learn more about Umbrella Arts studio and the upcoming schedule offered, visit Umbrella Art’s website.

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