Photos courtesy of Gasper’s School of Dance
If you’re new to Fargo, there’s something you should know: It wasn’t always like this. We take for granted the bustling city center that downtown has become — filled with trendy restaurants, farmers markets and charming buildings — but not all that long ago, the landscape was quite different.
In partnership with our friends at Tellwell and Kilbourne Group, we’re telling the story of Downtown Fargo’s transformation in a series focused on the pivotal projects and historic renovations that have paved the way for what the neighborhood has become.
EACH STORY WILL ALSO HAVE AN ACCOMPANYING MINI-DOCUMENTARY THAT CAN BE FOUND ON KILBOURNE GROUP’S BLOG: KILBOURNEGROUP.COM/NEWS
A small, concrete warehouse once used to make dentures may not sound like a hub of creativity, but it just goes to show what a little architectural magic can do.
If you walk down seventh street north in Fargo — in the building behind St. Mary’s Cathedral — you’ll see dancers. You’ll see ballet dancers and tap dancers and contemporary dancers, all practicing in the warmly lit windows with an exterior painted in bright blues and purples.
This is Gasper’s School of Dance, now firmly planted in a downtown home that was unveiled in 2005. But it wasn’t always this way. The building was indeed once a dental lab for products such as dentures and dental tools — cold, windowless, thoroughly unappealing.
When its rent went up in 2004, Gasper’s was left looking for a permanent home, and this was the building that caught its eye.
“It was actually right across the street,” says Matthew “Mr. Matt” Gasper, director of Gasper’s School of Dance. “We knew we didn’t want to lose the impact of being downtown, so when we saw it was for sale, we thought, ‘Why not here?’”
The dance school was already teaching more than 200 students in ballet, jazz, contemporary, tap, and other dance forms, and being downtown put them in a central location for students all over the region (and parents loved that they could grab a coffee while waiting for their kids to finish class). Yes, they decided, staying downtown was a must.
Now came the logistical question: How would they afford it?
“I really wanted my parents to own a building, not just rent it,” Matt says. “I said, ‘You’ve been in the community a long time. You should find something and stick your name on it.’”
Rewind a few decades to 1978, when the founders of Gasper’s School of Dance, Kathy and Eddie Gasper, first moved to Fargo-Moorhead. They were self-proclaimed “Broadway gypsies” who met in New York City — he, a renowned dancer himself and a years-long assistant to eight-time Tony Award winner Bob Fosse, and she, a prima ballerina from Milwaukee.
They’d spent years touring internationally and choreographing dances on Broadway, in Hollywood and abroad. Now, they had three kids and were ready to see if they could “make it off Broadway,” as Kathy put it.
“Yes, they decided, staying downtown was a must.”
When Eddie accepted a job as a director and choreographer at Minnesota State University Moorhead, the young family planned to stay in Fargo-Moorhead for just a few years. But they soon realized there was work to be done.
“We came at a very good time,” says Kathy. “Programs like Trollwood were on the rise, and there was a real need for dance to be implemented into these programs in a serious way.”
Kathy started teaching in a church basement and had 90 students within a month. Later that same year, the Gaspers founded the FM Center of Dance and Fargo’s first professional dance company, the Red River Dance & Performing Company.
And that was that. The Gaspers had made their mark, and the magic of Fargo kept them inspired. Young dancers began flocking to receive training from the talented duo, and eventually their studio became what it is today.
This is why when raising funds for their new building, the Gaspers knew they could look to the community that had helped and inspired them since their early years in Fargo-Moorhead. One of those old friends was current North Dakta Gov. Doug Burgum, whose daughter was learning ballet from Kathy at the time. They told him of their dream for the new building, and right away, Doug agreed to help.
Through the Kilbourne Group, which was just a startup at the time, Doug floated the loan on the old concrete building and commissioned architect Chris Hawley and project manager Mike Allmendinger to redesign the warehouse into a dance studio.
“Eddie and Kathy are legends in the performing arts community,” Allmendinger says. “I know Doug really wanted to support them in any way to do their best work.”
So the team got to work.
“When you walk into the building, you know you’re in a place of art and family.”
They gave the studio a bold blue entryway, a drop-off area for students and a slanted ceiling that leaves most people wondering how such a small building can feel so spacious.
“This project was mostly about adding windows and light to a warehouse that had no windows and no light,” Allmendinger says. “It was a challenge, but that was the fun part.”
Having a few years to pay off the loan allowed the Gaspers to get settled and raise the money they needed. Today, they teach more than 260 students, age 3 to 45 years old. The public’s interest has grown each year, prompting them to expand the building from two dance studios to four. Every year, these dancers put on full-scale productions such as the Classic Nutcracker — all right here in Fargo-Moorhead.
“I don’t know if Fargo would have this in their backyard if not for the Kilbourne Group,” Kathy says. “Our goal was to keep the art form of dance as part of a thriving downtown community. They helped that dream come true.”
Of course, with time has come a few changes. Cofounder Eddie Gasper passed away in 2015. Kathy now lives in Florida, and Gasper’s is run by son Matt, who unexpectedly fell in love with Fargo-Moorhead just as his parents had before him.
Teachers from across the country, including warmer states such as Arizona and California, continue to find an interest in Gasper’s, some even moving to Fargo-Moorhead to continue their teaching careers.
Matt attributes their appeal to the welcoming community, the eagerness of the students, the legacy of Kathy and Eddie, and how all of that “magic” is bundled up into their unique home at the corner of seventh street and sixth avenue north.
“When you walk into the building, you know you’re in a place of art and family,” Matt says. “I think that when new instructors and students get here, they can tell this is something special.”
Gasper’s School of Dance
524 7th St. N, Fargo