As the minutes would tick down to their appearance on the stage, Antoine Olds was known to give his dancers an uplifting, somewhat humorous bit of encouragement.
“Fix your face,” he would say, his beaming smile and high-energy personality giving them a spirited lift before they started their show.
But those words just wouldn’t work last week for his students, their parents and colleagues as they mourned his passing Nov. 9 at age 37.
A longtime Mesa resident, Mr. Olds also was a legendary figure in the dance world generally and especially in Ahwatukee, where he and a small group of parents started the Phoenix Dance Cooperative – a different kind of dance studio because the nonprofit is funded and run by parents whose children learn ballet, hip hop, lyrical and other forms of dance.
His sudden passing – the cause of death has not been disclosed – prompted grief-stricken students and parents to head to the Phoenix Dance Cooperative’s studio for evening vigils the week of his death. They lit dozens of candles, hung balloons and pasted its storefront with handmade posters expressing their gratitude to Mr. Olds and their grief over their loss.
“He has touched countless dancers’ lives in Ahwatukee for the last 15 years,” said Kyrene Governing Board member and Ahwatukee resident Margaret Pratt. “The loss is immense.”
Echoing the sentiments of untold numbers of parents, Pratt said two of her four daughters began studying under Mr. Olds a few years ago “and it was a dream come true for them.”
“He taught them so much and they wanted nothing more than to make him proud,” she said.
He did that to students, colleagues and others said: You wanted to do your very best because he gave them his very best – and that was something very special.
“He was a very important person and loved and respected by many dancers and their families,” said Ahwatukee Dance Studio 111 owner Kimberly Lewis.
“I did not know him personally but knew him through the dance community and knew he was loved by so many dancers and their families,” she added. “This is truly heart breaking.”
Ironically, while many students in the world of dance start stepping when they’re as young as 2 or 3, Mr. Olds did not take his first dance lesson until he was 18.
He quickly made up for that late start, setting up two years later the Independent Dance Xtreme company, where he was artistic director.
His choreography won numerous regional and national awards and by 22, he had won eight choreography awards, including one presented by world-renowned choreographer Brian Friedman.
His skills became internationally known as companies and dance competitions sought him as a choreographer, instructor and judge.
“He taught and judged competitions in Australia, in New York and Texas,” said longtime friend and colleague Michelle Wentworth Columbia. “People brought him out to their studios all over the country to choreograph dances for them, to teach their kids, to do workshops. Even in Australia and London, people were reaching out to him.”
Wentworth Columbia and Mr. Olds knew each other from when they were both instructors at the old Dance Depot in Ahwatukee. But in 2011, the Dance Depot closed its doors, raising concerns among six dads whose professions had little to do with dance except for the fact they all had daughters who had formed a tight bond at the defunct studio.
They reached out to Mr. Olds to help them organize the Phoenix Dance Cooperative.
The parents divided into volunteer committees to run day-to-day operations while a board of directors was set up to make the bigger decisions. They set it up as a nonprofit so all proceeds could go back into the studio and the instructors.
Mr. Olds, who was co-artistic director at the cooperative, said at the time, “My big concern was making sure I didn’t lose any of our kids to anyone.
“As teachers we invest so much time into them,” he said. “I’ve taught at many studios but this is the first where I’ve had such a connection with the kids. Like everyone else I didn’t know what this model was, but it has kept us all together, it allowed the kids to dance and has allowed me to teach, so it works.”
Connection was important to Mr. Olds and his infectious smile and the energy he brought to everything he did cemented relationships with his students and colleagues in the dance world far and wide.
His skills with choreography, costume design and good old-fashioned mentoring and coaching became so well known that he just wasn’t sought for dance exhibitions.
“He planned weddings and bridal showers and baby showers and proms,” said Wentworth Columbia, whose own wedding and baby shower were planned by Mr. Olds.
In May, when pandemic-fueled school closures left high school seniors without live graduations, Mr. Olds organized a special graduation ceremony for the six high school seniors who were students at Phoenix Dance Cooperative.
“Antoine planned an entire high school graduation just for our graduating seniors,” Wentworth Columbia said. “He set up a stage. He had a balloon arch. He had speakers. He had music playing. He had diplomas for them. They got to put on their cap and gowns, flip tassels and we live-streamed it for all their families.”
Mr. Olds was particularly fond of organizing banquets, she added.
“He just threw these incredible, elaborate events,” she said. “He just went above and beyond with over-the-top decorations and themes and sub-themes. He loved stuff like that and all of these kids got to experience that.”
Perhaps his closest friend and colleague was Ambur Towns, Tempe High School’s dance program director and Mr. Olds’ artistic co-director at the Phoenix Dance Cooperative. She was too grief-stricken to talk about her loss.
So too were family members, who had not yet released any details about services for Mr. Olds. Arrangements are being made by the Melcher Mortuary Mission Chapel & Crematory in Mesa, but no obituary has yet been posted by print deadline.
That grief hangs over the Phoenix Dance Cooperative members as well.
Wentworth Columbia recalled that last week, “We were all talking at our little vigil the other night about what Antoine would say about the inconsolable crowd gathered in front of the studio.
“We were all there crying and mourning and we were all kind of joking about what Antoine could see us all sitting out in front of the studio. He would say, ‘Fix your face and keep going.’ And that’s exactly what we’re going to try to do.”