Dickinson dance studio 'DFys' the odds

Mar. 13—DICKINSON — No matter which way you look at it: Dance is not only an artistic pursuit; it's an athletic one.

That discussion/debate was put to rest in the late 1970s when Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann told the world that he was taking (GASP!) ballet lessons. He went on to say that it had improved his balance, coordination, core strength and flexibility. And, unless it's to be mistaken, his statistical numbers improved as a result. Nonetheless, that admission changed, forever, the way the sports world looked at something that was mostly consigned previously to a hoity-toity world of tipped-pinkies and refinement.

If you've ever met a dance enthusiast, you know it ... because they've told you how enthusiastic they are about dance.

Well, Nikki St. John is no exception, and — in fact — she's the rule. St. John has been a Dickinson resident since 2003, having moved here from Fairmont, Minn., but she's been participating in dance since she was 2 years old. Her studio is known as "DFy Dance Studio, Defy Your Dance," and it's been open since 2006 at a location between The Grub Tub and Gaffney Floral.

"I've kind of done it all; I didn't go to college for dance — like most people — I went to school for public relations and entered into the military later in life with the North Dakota National Guard and United States Navy from 2004 to 2007," St. John said.

She filled in and taught at various dance studios when she moved to the area, but wanted to open her own studio to provide her own brand of instruction.

"My mindset was: There's so many dance studios in town, and I didn't think I fit in here very well. I'm from the Midwest, but I'm covered in tattoos and a short girl with a military haircut," she said with a chuckle. "So, I was like: I'm going to try it for a year and if it goes, it goes and if it doesn't I'm not really out that much signing a year lease."

But "GO," it did. The studio — known at the time as "Burn the Floor, Diversity in Dance" — took off from 2006 to 2017 and they took advantage of changing trends in dance and "wanted to be leaders and not followers," and St. John took an abstract approach to the discipline.

The studio was featured in a previous business article in this publication in 2016, just before the Covid pandemic —


— which had a potentially disastrous effect on the studio. St. John also had to care for her father in Minnesota, taking trips to-and-from the Land of 10,000 Lakes to be by his side for a week at a time. The studio was shut down due to Covid in March of 2020, but has rebounded since then.

"I never gave up my passions, so I have been — technically since 2019 — driving every month back home 10 hours one way — and managed to have platinum, solid dancers," St. John said. "Right now, I am competing with three dancers, but that's by my choice because my motto when I reopened was that I wanted to work with quality over quantity."

The elite studies side of the studio is run by Cindee Thomas, a Californian who is a former actor, stuntwoman, dance professional and all-around talent. "She's got a vast, vast background in dance, I said, 'This is divine intervention from the Good Lord,' because I'm taking care of my Dad and I need a teacher here," St. John said.

Thomas has grabbed the opportunity and run with it, and with her multi-decade career in dance as a guide — not-to-mention being an actress, ballerina, stuntwoman, teacher and so much more — she is enjoying the new role at DFy. She had never been to North Dakota before, and enjoys it here, particularly as she is able to participate in her passion.

She teaches a certain technique called "Vagonova ballet," which is "a highly qualified way to learn the proper muscle memory, bone and muscle development for young dancers," she said. That style is where the athleticism comes in, as it not only builds that necessary core strength but also encourages longevity and discourages injury through its practice.

"You can remain a dancer for a long time and you don't get any weird malfunctions with your knees, hips, ankles and that kind of thing that goes on if you don't learn it properly the first time," Thomas said.

She had three studios of her own, over the course of her life, but being at DFy Dance has been a blessing for her since 2021. She had a severe spinal injury in the meantime — which should have bound her to a wheelchair — but because of her dance discipline and career and lifestyle she managed to overcome the injury and has been back on the floor since a few months after the injury.

"I didn't do physical therapy or anything, but I did do ballet in bed on my back," she said. "So, I did all my exercises inverted to try and strengthen my legs and then we just continued that way."

Thomas has begun a more serious program for students called "Dickinson Dance Plus," which has an added focus on musical theatre, tap, modern, Fosse, jazz and many other styles of dance all rolled up into one class to provide a dynamic cross-section of the discipline. The classes are on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m. at the West River Community Center.

"I have taught sports fanatics before and the other things that's really important about learning to dance is the stretching, because — let's say you're a baseball player and you slide into the base and you have not stretched — you will rip your groin or your knee or your hamstring or quadricep," Thomas said. "You have to have those muscles ready to do that whole expansion thing in order to prevent injury, so it's really important.

"Same with football, basketball and all of it; it increases your agility and also the muscle-memory for your body to instantly know how to react to a certain situation."

DFy Dance's manager Sherri Mindt, has a daughter named Danica who has participated in dance since she was 2 years old, and even at her young age she has seen growth in Danica's athleticism, confidence and agility.

"Dance has really, really boosted her confidence," Mindt said. "When we moved here from Minnesota, we were looking for studios we wanted to join and Ms. Nikki's studio was the one that we were just so impressed with," she said. "So when we started out here she went from being really shy to just being very confident in her movements and what she wanted to do and now she's very, very passionate about dance and she wants to continue when she graduates.

"And then, also at school, a lot of people are like, 'Dance isn't a sport,' but she has performed for her schoolmates — different things like that — and now they're like, 'Nope, it's a definitely a sport,' and so she's changed their minds around as far as that goes and that's really cool to see."

For more information about DFy and Nikki St. John, please visit