Trish Reis and Wendy Evitt are more than just mother and daughter. They have shared a passion for teaching dance since 1986. Now after 16 years in Oak Park, Panda Studio is returning to its Forest Park roots, opening at 800 S. Desplaines Ave.

Panda’s name is a combination of Patricia (Trish) and her late husband Dave. “Mr. Dave” as he was known, built the studio and did the behind-the-scenes work at recitals. He died of a sudden heart attack 12 years ago at the age of 53. 

Dave Reis built the original Panda Dance Studio at 7434 Harvard St., Forest Park, in a former barber shop. The 1,000-square-foot studio was torn down in 2005, taking a lifetime of memories with it. Trish described the demolition as a “very emotional” moment. The Panda crew watched it from across the street. She actually kept the name plate of the studio as a memento. 

The studio then moved to a house in Oak Park, owned by dance teacher Charlene Rose. After Ms. Rose died, her house was also demolished. Then they moved to 1003 Garfield in Oak Park, where the studio reached a peak of 500 students. And they also opened a studio in Westchester. After the owner of the Oak Park property died, Trish and Wendy decided to bring the studio back to Forest Park. They wanted to stay in the area, close to their clientele.

Creating a good relationship between the studio and their families is very important. That includes keeping the costs down for dance lessons. The studio initially charged students $5 per class. Twenty-nine years later, the cost is $11 per class. Reis is very clear that “any child of any income should be able to come to us.” To keep costs lower than their competitors, Reis rarely hires teachers. She prefers to work with family members, to create a welcoming atmosphere.

This family-friendly approach extends to the costumes and the type of dances they teach. Some studios have young girls in daring costumes, performing adult-style dances. “We dress a 5-year-old like a 5-year-old,” Reis said, “Parents appreciate age-appropriate costumes and dances.”

And they are amazed by Reis’ patience with young kids. “They love me,” she says of the 3- to 6-year-olds she teaches. She gives them a good foundation in tap, ballet, jazz, hip-hop and tumbling. 

“They listen to music and improve their coordination,” she said. Dance class also improves their social skills. “In the beginning, these 3-year-olds don’t know each other’s names.” 

Evitt prefers teaching older students and training them to compete with her Wendy City Dancers team. 

“I’ve also considered teaching them social etiquette,” she said, “but we only teach dance here.” While her mother’s forte is teaching tap, Evitt excels at instructing them in ballet. 

Learning dance is much more than memorizing routines. 

“They become very disciplined with time management,” Evitt said. “They also learn dedication and teamwork. They spend a lot of weekends inside auditoriums.” 

Reis and Evitt are excited about their new surroundings. It’s in move-in condition and won’t require Reis to do a lot of remodeling. 

“It’s the newest, nicest facility we’ve ever had,” she said. It has a comfortable waiting room, an office and a spacious room in the back, where they will install mirrors and bars. At 2,200 square feet, it’s twice the size of the old barbershop studio. It has a kitchen, which is essential for Panda sleepovers. They also like the location — directly across Harrison from The Park. 

“We actually get to see life,” Reis said, staring through the large windows. “We’re not tucked away on a quiet side street.” The new location gives them greater exposure, and it’s convenient, just off I-290 at Desplaines.

They hope to attract new students from Forest Park. 

“Dance takes dedication from the whole family,” Reis noted. To this end, parents have formed the Panda Family Association to raise funds to defer costs. “They sponsor a bowling night and a racetrack night,” Evitt said. “They also sell cookie dough.”

To further keep costs down for families and to keep the memory of the co-founder alive, Panda awards the “Mr. Dave Scholarship” to students with a passion for dance. They started the scholarship six years ago. Dave Reis certainly would have liked the new studio because it would have required less work for him. 

Panda plans to host a Grand Opening of the new studio in the fall. 

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.