The woman stood in line with the rest of the mothers and daughters on the second floor of the Dillonvale, Ohio, American Legion, patiently waiting to pay the fare for her daughter’s dance lessons. Wearing a plain, white and flowered print dress with the short sleeves rolled up once, she held the hand of her little tot tightly while her baby girl grew impatient, tapping her heels and keeping fair time with the music coming from the huge, reel-type tape recorder. Her husband was a miner, and the coal recession of 1954 had hit them hard. Her weathered and wearied face showed both despair and a gleam of hope for her prodigy’s future. Now, a year later, she only hoped the offering covered with a red and white checkered dish towel would suffice as defrayment for the monthly fee.
“That will be twelves dollars, please,” Sophie said.
Their eyes met, and instinctively the manager knew the woman’s situation. The mother laid her picnic basket on the table and uncovered a vast array of fresh-from-her-garden strawberries, potatoes, tomatoes, apples and jams.
“That will do,” Sophie Zeakes said.
When Sophie’s daughter asked why she accepted the barter, the wise matriarch simply said,
“For experience, Toni. For your experience.”
Toni, at the tender age of fifteen, was the instructor.
So from this, the humblest of beginnings, Mrs. Toni Zeakes (Zeek-us) Copeland started her adventure in entrepreneurship. As her notoriety for expert teaching and organizational skills grew, so did the attendance. The family moved to Tiltonsville, Ohio, and a larger studio, but that proved short-lived. Finally, they moved to Wheeling and set up shop in the Belot Concrete Building. When Mr. Belot passed away, the family sold the building and Toni—plus her Tonettes, as her students were dubbed—began another search. During all her moves, not one student missed a lesson. Churches, fraternal orders, and those with large homes pitched in to see to the continual education of Toni’s nomadic following.
From there she moved her studio to the Pythian Building, until it became part of the West Virginia Northern Community College, and “Bedouin Queen Toni” had to pack up and do it all over again. Miraculously, the opportunity to rent the whole second floor of a large structure at 1400 Main Street presented itself. Toni and Company quickly occupied it, turned it into a first-class studio complete with practice bars, full-length mirrors and modern music geared to each age group’s needs. Toni thought she had found a home, but the State of West Virginia thought otherwise. That building had historical value and is now the Heritage Center. She had to pack and move, but God was not done with her yet and she landed in Centre Market, right across the street from Coleman’s Fish Market.
I used to take my granddaughter, Hailey, to Toni’s for practice and had a couple of hours to kill until she was done. It seemed to me a sin to be that close and not have a fish sandwich or two, and then browse the shops for books and what-not. It’s safe to say I spurred the economy of the Market, and I dare say I wasn’t the only one. The Zeakes Preforming Arts Center was a money-maker, all the way around the block.
Tragedy seems to find a way to spoil a happy ending, and a fire raged through the building, engulfing all three floors. A lesser person would’ve thrown the dance slippers in the trash, but not Toni. After the lot was cleared, Toni decided to build her own studio to her and her students’ specific needs. Sounds easy enough, but this was 1983 and the banking world was different then.
Toni was married twice and lost both husbands to cancer. Since her beginning, she has kept her maiden name as her business name, which may or may not have been a factor. The formal loan process stalled until Mr. James Everson, president of Citizens Bank in Martins Ferry, Ohio, overruled his board and granted the sum to Toni without question or reservation. They were both way ahead of their time.
After the studio was built a local doctor wanted to bring his daughter for classes. Toni said sure, and he came with her in the cutest outfit, complete with a diaper. He told her of a concept called a “Toddler Gym” where the little ones were helped to do somersaults and other exercises geared to their limited abilities. It quickly caught on.
Gladys Van Horne wrote the Society Column for the Wheeling News-Register and decided to do a story on Toni. As she took the tour she noticed the babies, their attendants in action, and enquired about it. When she wrote her article, Gladys referred to it as the “Diaper Gym”. And it stuck.
Fathoming all the information she had shown me, I knew Toni had a secret to her success.
“How would you define your philosophy of teaching?” I asked.
Toni thought carefully for a few seconds.
“My goal has always been to instill self-confidence in all my students through discipline, which nurtured the natural grace and poise they all have. This is what my parents taught me and I passed it on.”
The awards and honors she and her Dancing Tonettes, a.k.a. the Wheeling Rockettes, have garnered over the years could constitute a small novel, so I asked what she was most proud of.
“The award I received from a President,” she said, quickly.
“Really? Which one?”
“President Ronald Wilson Reagan. It’s called the Gold Medal Award for Business Success and Contributions to the Community.”
What could possibly top that? I thought.
“Anything else?” I asked.
“Well, the fondest memories I have is every Wheeling Christmas Parade we marched in. That even beat out the parade we did in Connecticut.”
“In Connecticut? Deep in Yankeeland?”
Every July 4th the town of Bridgeport, Connecticut hosts the P.T. Barnum Parade. The year was 1979 and there were two hundred marching units present. The Tonettes and four other groups were the only ones to be asked to stop by the cameras and do their show live. For that, they were awarded a plaque.
“Please, show me more,” I said as I became hooked.
She lay before me signed and sealed Letters of Congratulations and Accommodations from Representative Robert E. Mollohan, Governors John D. Rockefeller IV and Joe Manchin.
Suffice it to say, Toni and her instructors have been invited and heralded from Atlantic City to Disney World for their professionalism. Here’s some of their long list:
- Tony Grant’s Steel Pier, Atlantic City, N.J.
- Gimbel’s Thanksgiving Parade, Philadelphia, PA.
- Thanksgiving Parade, Cincinnati, Ohio.
- Patrick’s Day Parade, Pittsburgh, PA.
- L. Hudson Thanksgiving Parade, Detroit, MI.
- Holiday Parade, Charlestown, W. Va.
- Kentucky Derby
- Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, Washington, D.C.
- Indy 500, both race and parade, Indianapolis, IN.
- Walt Disney World Parade, Orlando, FL.
- Performed in 2005 at Riveria Maya, Mexico.
- Preformed at one Disney Cruise and two Royal Caribbean Cruise.
- And, of course, every Wheeling Christmas Parade.
Surveying the vast array of photographs covering the whole, dining room table, one picture caught my eye.
“Who are these ladies?” I asked.
“Those are four of my former students who went on to bigger and better things. Left to right are Susan Bachman, Cheryl Sine, myself and my daughter Soozie, Greta Gates and Dana Prebeg.”
Susan and Dana went on to found the River City Dance Works in Wheeling, while Cheryl is the Dance Director at Oglebay Institute. Greta is presently the Director of Performing Arts at the Linsly School, formerly a military institute but now a private academy.
I found Toni to be a gracious host and an open-minded individual. Towards the end of this interview I felt comfortable enough to ask her one last question.
“Toni, is there anything you would change in your life?”
Without hesitation, she said:
“Not a thing! God has blessed me many times over with family, children and grandchildren. My daughter, Soozie, has let me live my dream longer by working side by side with me. With her talent and business expertise, we retired after one hundred and one years combined, teaching thousands of Ohio Valley students our love of dance. What more could I want?”
And that about sums Miss Toni up.
Feature image by Wallis. All other pictures courtesy of Toni Zeakes