When Amy Cuppett Stiverson expressed her fears before teaching her first class at the Cuppett Performing Arts Center, her mother made a confession: She never wanted to be a dance teacher.
Convinced she did not have the skills set necessary to mold young dancers, Alzine Cuppett, CPAC's founder and beloved teacher, at first avoided the career path.
But soon after being pushed into it by a fervent nun at her children's school Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Cuppett could not imagine doing anything else.
"We're both perfectionists, and I think both of us were worried we wouldn't do a well enough job," Stiverson said. "But I think when she got past that, working with the kids, the reward of it becomes almost an addiction and you can't stop."
On Aug. 24, Cuppett, 85, died during her afternoon nap. Cuppett is survived by her six children, Candace Cuppett Payne; Joyce Cuppett Miller; Reid Thomas Cuppett; Gary Michael Cuppett; Gregory John Cuppett; and Amy Cuppett Stiverson; 16 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.
Though her death came as a shock, Stiverson, the youngest of Cuppett's six children and CPAC's managing artistic director, is certain Cuppett died content with everything she has achieved both in her personal and professional life.
"What is most comforting to me, and might be most comforting to other people, is that she had this overall feeling of such joy that she was able to celebrate her 50th anniversary as a very successful businesswoman and an amazing inspiration to so many people, and celebrate her 85th birthday in May," Stiverson said. "She was just very satisfied. She felt like what she was put here to do was finished. After that she was ready to see her parents, and all her friends who have passed, and her brother who died in the war, and her other siblings who all died before she was an adult. Her passing was a surprise but she died fulfilled with what she had accomplished."
Cuppett's resume before opening CPAC includes a dance upbringing in Johnstown, Penn., where her first dance teacher was Gene Kelly and, after his rise to fame, his brother Fred Kelly. She moved to New York City after high school with hopes of dancing on Broadway. After a short off-Broadway career, she auditioned for the Rockettes and was hired on the spot by the founder, Russell Markert.
She left the Rockettes after about three years to marry, as her boyfriend had returned from serving in World War II. She soon had five children, with the sixth trailing behind about 10 years after the others.
Cuppett started giving private lessons in her home on Frederick Street in Vienna in the 1950s, then she and her husband built a house on Old Courthouse Road where a studio was built into the basement, thus starting the Cuppett Performing Arts Center.
The Vienna dance school, now on Park Street, celebrated its 50-year anniversary with a recital in June, and Cuppett sat in the audience as proud as she ever was in her students, family and the more than 75 alumni who had returned to pay homage.
"She was the most touching, influential person in my life, and from the response after her death, I think that's true for a lot of her former students," Stiverson said. "She was very theatrical and animated when she hit the stage. People just loved her."
When Stiverson pulled up to the dance studio three days after her mother's sudden death, she found flowers and notes of condolences in front of the doors.
"I just broke down," Stiverson said. "It was our place, and to see the support right there at our place, it just hit me."
But Stiverson had been receiving that outpouring of support since Cuppett's death was announced, as alumni, friends and family took to Facebook both on CPAC's page and Stiverson's own page to extend their condolences.
- "She will be forever in our hearts and will always live on as a part of us. Her quiet spirit and passion for her faith, family and art left an indelible mark on all who knew her," Vicki Johnston wrote. "We'll find strength in picturing her on her new glorious stage, in a production never before possible."
- All my love and prayers to you and your family, Amy. Nobody knows better than you what a truly exceptional person your mother was, and our grief at this time is nothing compared to yours," Miriam Louick Delacruz wrote. "I do hope, however, that it brings you strength and comfort to know that so very many people loved your mom, and hers is a legacy that will live on forever."
- "Saddened by the passing of a woman who so impacted my life...Alzine Cuppett, my amazing dance teacher/second MOM/motivator and inspiration!!! RIP Alzine...Thanks for the awesome memories...you will always be in my heart and soul!" Karen Laliberty wrote.
- "Mrs. Cuppett was one of the most amazing and influential women I have ever met, and I am so glad to have known her. Her life will be kept alive by her family, friends, and the dancers she helped to become the people they are now," Kacie Waters-Heflin wrote.
- "Mrs. Cuppett was a strong and gentle woman who shared her many gifts with our community. Her spirit and cheerful smile will always be with us," Ann Martin wrote.
- "Mrs. Cuppett was an amazing person who LOVED people--not just the students in her class (who I always thought were very fortunate to be studying with a professional who was extremely talented) but to EVERYONE she met," Mike Davis wrote. "... I am happy that she created the perfect place for her to be in and to work in and that it brought so much joy and happiness to her AND to countless others."
Though the impressive number of messages and emails about her mother's impact do not come as a surprise, Stiverson said she and her family appreciate them more than anyone can imagine.
"We've seen the appreciation for my mom before with the 50th anniversary just two months ago, but it's still so heartwarming and comforting to see the outpouring of affection for my mom and my family," she said.
Cuppett's most tangible legacy will be the dance studio, but she made an impact beyond dance, too, Stiverson said.
"I think her legacy for for those who really got to know her was her extreme selfless giving of herself to others," Stiverson said. "She had an unbelievable, unshakeable faith in God. She was just very generous and very kind and very loving and very endearing, and I think so many people are inspired by her that I would say, above and beyond the studio being her legacy, was the influence she had on all her students, her thousands of students over the last 50 years."
The Future of CPAC
Cuppett became a single mother while Stiverson was still a child. Working to make ends meet, Cuppett dedicated the majority of her time to teaching — unable to afford to hire another teacher — and running the business.
Oftentimes, Stiverson had to sit in on a class in order to spend some time with her mother. But all those hours as both a student and observer of CPAC's dance classes paid off when Stiverson later decided she wanted a bigger role in her mother's business.
"Being 10 years younger than the rest of my siblings, I had a different upbringing than the rest of them," Stiverson said. "My experience wasn't bad in any way, shape or form, it was just different. I grew up literally in the dance school business."
She sees much of her mother in her teaching style and business mindset, and plans to continue to stay community-oriented as the business moves forward — from showing kindness to families, especially single-parent families, who could not quite afford CPAC's rates to providing a safe, family-oriented atmosphere for children when they get out of school.
While CPAC is now very dance focused, Cuppett always envisioned it becoming an all-encompassing school for people interested in musical theater. Stiverson is determined to carry out the mission in her mother's honor, looking to expand to voice and acting lessons.
"She loved musical theater so much," Stiverson said. "She could carry a tune, but she wasn't a singer. She really wanted to make this a place for other people who loved the theater, too."
In the forward for the 50th anniversary recital's program, Cuppett wrote to her adoring students and their families about her love of dance, about the feeling of joy she felt each time she walked into a studio — a feeling she hopes each student who walks into her studio will also find.
"Since many of you will experience the stress and frustration of everyday living, keeping dance in your lives will be your magical place to go. And, I know from experience, there is nothing as remarkable or magical!!" she wrote.
A viewing visitation will be held at Pierce Funeral Home, 9609 Center St. in Manassas from 3 to 7 p.m. Sunday. Rosary and prayer service is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. and the eulogy at 6 p.m. Funeral Mass will be held at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, 8213 Linton Hall Road in Gainesville, at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.
In lieu of flowers, the family is asking for donations to the Alzine Cuppett Straub Memorial Scholarship Fund established for performing arts students. Make checks out to the fund and mail to Cuppett Performing Arts Center, 135 Park St. SE, Vienna, VA 22180. Remembrance donations can also be made toHouse of Mercy, 8170 Flannery Court, Manassas, VA 20109 — one of Cuppett's favorite charities.