By Michael Romain
MONDAY, MAYWOOD — “There was a little boy from a couple of doors down who used to run across the lawn and jump into my arms,” said Ernie Baumann, who along with his wife Lois Baumann, founded Maywood’s most venerable dance studio, Stairway to the Stars, more than 30 years ago. Since then, there’s hardly been a family in town that hasn’t moved within the institution’s galactic-sized orbit.
Taiyana Shurn discovered Lois Baumann when she was four years old. What began as tumbling lessons turned into a kinship of sorts. Shurn, who studied dance and choreography at Columbia College in Chicago, is now a full-time instructor at Stairway. “I wouldn’t want to teach anywhere else,” she said. “We’re like one big family.”
Dawn Walker Bennett has been married twice and Lois and Ernie have been to both weddings. The couple has been a fixture in her life for 40 years. “They could’ve gone anywhere, but they chose Maywood. I love them with all my heart. Because of them, I compete in karate–I took second in the world!”
Mayor Edwenna Perkins shared her own connection. Her daughter’s godson danced with Stairway. “This is a place where your children are safe,” she said. The Baumanns have provided a stable and safe place for children to play and learn in Maywood for generations.
State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch was one of the kids for whom the Baumanns were a source of comfort, their home a balm of protection. Ernie Baumann fought back tears describing the buoyant boy who, along with other neighborhood children, would play in their yard. Now he was here trying to do what he could to preserve for other children the very same excitement and joy the Baumanns brought to his childhood.
“I am so happy to be home,” said Welch, whose family grew up only two doors away from the Baumanns. “When I first became State Representative in January, the first person to call and say she wanted to talk to me and show me her vision was Mrs. Lois,” he said.
That conversation inspired Welch to start thinking about ways he could help. He discovered that there had been $150,000 of unallocated funds marked for Maywood Fine Arts (MFA), the umbrella organization the Baumanns founded in 1996 to “combat the escalating rate of drug activity, gang involvement, and teenage pregnancy,” according to its website. “But since that was already done, I thought there must be something else I can do, so I spoke to the governor and some other people,” Welch said. “Governor Quinn loves kids and he loves Maywood.”
Welch said he showed the Governor pictures of the Baumanns’ plans for the old Widow’s Home in Maywood and, after some discussion with officials in Springfield, was able to allocate another $150,000 to Maywood Fine Arts, for a grand total of $300,000.
“This is a day we have been dreaming about,” said Lois, a lifelong dancer, who’s been offering instruction and living in Maywood for nearly 50 years. She met her husband Ernie, a tumbler, when they were both in college. Stairway to the Stars and Mr. Ernie’s Flip, Flop & Fly Tumbling School were fixtures on 5th Avenue since 1979. The studio caught fire in 2010.
The Baumanns, though, barely missed a step. “We lost one day of dancing after the fire,” Lois said. Since then, lessons have taken place at First Congregational Church, a block away.
Maywood Fine Arts is planning to leverage the $300,000 as part of a capital campaign to come up with the money to finance a permanent home for Stairway to the Stars. Ernie Baumann said that estimates for building a brand new facility or for rehabbing an already existing one start at $1 million.
Katherine Bus, managing director of MFA, said that the organization’s 25 North Fifth Avenue structure is straining to accommodate its many activities, among which dance is only one. The nonprofit also offers instruction in tumbling, karate, music, drama and visual arts to about 700 children (or more than 450 families), according to Mr. Baumann’s count. About 40 percent of the organization’s revenue comes from affordable tuition fees to pay teachers.
For Mr. Baumann, the teachers are the key to MFA’s success. “When [kids] come back year after year, [they] see the same teacher. That’s how we’ve been able to build a family,” he said.
Ralph Bennett, whose wife Dawn is a karate instructor with MFA, believes that, while the check provided through the work of Rep. Welch is much needed, it still doesn’t quite match the magnitude of the work that the Baumanns have accomplished. “Maywood Fine Arts is a hidden gem in the Chicagoland area,” he said. “No one [in this area] does what they do. They deserve a whole lot more.”
Bennett hopes Rep. Welch’s words prove prescient. “This is just a start.” VFP