“Billy Clower Dance Studio is a rite of passage for so many Ventura County families,” says Valerie Paris, the studio’s owner. “We have families who have been coming here for three generations and dancers who have been dancing with us for over 25 years!” As proprietor, Paris is doing more than preserving a beloved Ventura institution. She’s carrying on a legacy that began 65 years ago. A legacy, Paris explains, that isn’t just about creating great dancers and performers but about helping to create great people.
Ted Russell opened the studio in 1940 and named it the Ted Russell Dance Studio and Clubhouse. “In 1951, he brought Billy Clower up from Long Beach to help [teach].” Born in Atlanta, Clower began dancing when he was 10 years old. “By the time he was 17, he had been the first tap dancer on the radio and he was touring nationally. In the 1940s, he began teaching in national convention tours with [other famous tap dancers like] Henry LeTang and Nick Castle. He even danced for FDR.”
Russell went on to manufacture records for dance studios and Billy took over the teaching,” adds Paris. “Russell sold the studio to Billy in 1953, and Billy changed the name to Billy Clower Dance Studio.”
Years later, Clower’s daughter Diane Clower Gilbert took over the studio from her father. When she passed away in 2013, it was thought that the studio would have to shut its doors, but Paris had other plans. “I bought it,” she says matter of factly. “What else could I do?”
With three daughters, Paris had been a parent volunteer at the studio for years, so the transition to owner wasn’t completely out of sync. It was still a big step — one that was motivated by Paris’ oldest daughter, Sierra. “Sierra would tell me that when she grew up she wanted to be like Diane and own Billy Clower Dance Studio.”
Today, Paris handles all sides of the business, from the nuts and bolts to the more creative, such as expanding class offerings to include musical theater and acrobatic dance and launching an outreach program to local schools. She is quick to point out how much she relies on her instructors, who teach everything from ballet to hip-hop and cheer. “I learned how to be creative, get organized, create fundraisers, run talent shows [and] be a strong leader,” Paris says. “Most important, I learned how much I love being a part of things that change kids’ lives.”
Paris is a firm believer in the many benefits of dance, from teaching discipline and how to express oneself to helping ease anxiety and depression. Some skills derived from dance are harder to quantify. “I remember my kids learned to skip at Billy Clower and [they] were some of the few who could do it in preschool,” Paris says with a laugh.
Many Billy Clower students have gone on to major in dance in college and perform professionally, including a few who became Radio City Rockettes. Paris’ daughter Sierra is currently studying dance, kinesiology and Spanish at San Diego State University. “When she’s home she teaches our summer camps” says Paris, who adds that Sierra has always had a knack for teaching. “In sixth grade, [Sierra] started an after-school dance program where she taught (and I wrangled) 32 kids a week.” These days, while away at school, Sierra teaches hip-hop, tap and ballet for two studios in San Diego.
But like her mom, Sierra’s heart is in Ventura at Billy Clower Dance Studio . . . and she still dreams of taking over the studio one day. Paris says, “Sierra will bring everything she is learning back to our community as the future owner of Billy Clower Dance Studio. Rest assured, it will be around for another 65 years.”
Billy Clower Dance Studio, 75 MacMillan Ave., Ventura. For schedule, classes and more information, call 805-643-5036 or visit www.billyclower.com.