Jenny Kehl Hiltbrand
Dance is a tradition in the Kehl family dating back to 1880, when Jenny Kehl Hiltbrand’s great-grandfather Frederick set up a dance school in Wisconsin. “Back then it was called ‘social dancing,’” she explains. “Everybody learned to dance – it was part of your social education.” Kehl School of Dance, the studio Frederick founded and she now owns, is the oldest family-owned school of dance in the country and today boasts three locations in the Madison area, 15 teachers and 650 students.
Kehl Hiltbrand’s great grandfather was very well-known across the nation, and indeed the world, for his dance instruction and helped found numerous dance-related organizations. Leo, Frederick’s youngest son and Kehl Hiltbrand’s grandfather, eventually took over the dance studio from his father and became one of the founders of CNADM, an organization that continues to have a large role in the Kehl School experience. “We all love CNADM because it’s educational based,” she says. “I send my instructors every year, and they all fight to go.”
From Leo, the business transitioned to Kehl Hiltbrand’s mother, Jo Jean, and then, in 1997, to Kehl Hiltbrand herself. “It’s not exactly what I set out to do with my life, but I got the phone call,” she explains. “I grew up dancing, and it is part of my family heritage.”
Today, Kehl Hiltbrand runs the studio in cooperation with two of her sisters, Jeanne Keeler and Jo Ann Uhalt Janus, and the studio provides instruction in every type of dance – from ballet to hip hop. “We’ve always been a really well-established studio, and a lot of Kehl students have gone on to open their own schools in the Madison area,” she says.
The Kehl Studio obviously has seen a lot of “firsts” in the world of dance instruction, and Kehl Hiltbrand has continued the tradition. One of her “firsts” was to be the first studio in the Madison region to have a website, which today seems like a no-brainer but was quite a step forward when it was launched. She also recently started a much-expanded preschool and young child curriculum to build enrollment.
But while making her own mark on her family’s studio has been important, one of the keys to growth for Kehl Hiltbrand has been the studio’s history. “We’ve really built on our foundations and work on keeping our presence as a long-standing school visible in the community,” she explains. “Dance schools are usually built around their founders and their personalities. I was lucky to have a very strong school with a very strong foundation.”
Kehl Hiltbrand sees her school as a family, and that is how she approaches building a curriculum – and even dealing with problems that may come up. “We are a family,” she says. “So how do you support the family? What’s your role in that family? It’s a sense a belonging to something bigger than me.”
Of course, her legacy and responsibility is unlike just about any other studio owner in the country, but it’s something that she finds at once comforting and challenging. “I am very proud to continue to represent my family,” she says. “There are very high expectations for my success, and I want to continue that legacy.”