At Rio Dance, Fall in Love with Yourself

Madeline Axtell thought creating a dance studio for adults in the Flathead Valley was "way too good to be true.” Then, she made it happen.

By Denali Sagner
Madeline Rio Axtell of Rio Dance Studio in Whitefish on May 14, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For Madeline Axtell, Rio Dance Studio came out of a dream. 

Axtell learned to tap dance as a child, falling in love with the movement and rhythm of the art form. In college, she choreographed for a tap company and participated in a musical theater program. When it came time for college graduation, an impossible crossroads appeared in front of her: become a professional dancer, or quit forever. 

“Why do I have to stop doing what I love because I’m now an adult?” she remembered thinking. “That seems so unfair and silly. I have so much in me that I still want to say and create and do.”

Choosing not to become a professional dancer, she filled her life with other types of movement — yoga, cycling, hiking —  in her adult life. Nothing, however, quite fulfilled the part of her that dancing once had. 

“You are taught and trained to engage with your body and your emotions through dance,” she said of being a young dancer. “Then that goes away, and you’re like, ‘Okay, now what? I don’t know how to commune with myself in that same way without just dancing.’”

After nearly a decade without dance in her life, Axtell decided to embark on a journey. What if she could create a space in the Flathead for adults to dance and reconnect with their bodies?

Following years of dreaming, renovating and negotiating, Rio Dance Studio opened its doors this spring, providing what Axtell describes as a judgment-free space that is “made sacred by the rhythms that charge the room, the breath that fills the furthest corners, and the humans that live life within and outside its walls.” Rio offers drop-in and semester long classes for adults, including tap, ballet, yoga and baby dance class. For its founder, it is more than just a studio, but a home for the community, movement and expression that can be so difficult to find in adult life.

Axtell graduated from Penn State University in 2013, where she received a degree in kinesiology, or the study of movement. After working a handful of seasonal jobs in Utah and Colorado, she moved to the Flathead Valley with her husband in 2018. She worked for small businesses and became a certified yoga instructor through a training program at Love Yoga

At Love, Axtell said she “totally fell head over heels with watching adults fall in love with and feel their own bodies again.”

During yoga, Axtell saw the power in helping people reconnect with themselves through movement. The feeling that accompanied yoga instruction, she said, planted a seed for what would soon become Rio. 

Axtell floated the idea for Rio on a phone call with her mom, casting it off as a faraway dream that was “way too good to be true.” 

In response, her mom said, “If something is too good to be true, that sounds like a great place to start.”

Axtell got to work. 

Madeline Rio Axtell taps in Rio Dance Studio in Whitefish on May 14, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

She started with a 25-page business plan, outlining market projections, studio needs and long-range goals. She quit her job managing the bar at Spotted Bear Spirits, which she called “a dream job,” and dove headfirst into Rio. From the business plan came location searching, which landed Axtell at a converted warehouse between Kalispell and Whitefish. With no neighbors, her teachers can blast music, and there’s ample room for jumping, spinning and tap dancing. 

After the space was secured, Axtell took out a small business loan, an unintentionally momentous occasion. Axtell’s mom told her that she had just become the first woman in their lineage to take out a loan in her own name. Prior to the 1988 passage of the Women’s Business Ownership Act by Congress, women were required to have a male co-signer to obtain a business loan. 

“Here I am just trying to scrape together the money to open this, meanwhile I’m disarming the patriarchy,” she said. “It was really special.”

Axtell and her husband set to work installing special dance studio flooring. The floor itself is maple hardwood, perfect for the sounds of tap shoes, and is laid over springs to add bounce. At nearly $30,000, Axtell jokes that the floor is “worth more than all of our cars put together.” Friends came over to paint the studio walls. Axtell’s husband built a bench and cubbies. Axtell recruited teachers. 

Finally, on March 19, Axtell opened Rio to the public.

Today, Axtell is joined by seven instructors who teach burlesque, modern movement, line dancing, hip hop, breakdancing, tap, ballet and rhythm. Axtell herself also teaches yoga, including a morning class guided by the poetry of Mary Oliver. 

Axtell’s clientele is wide-ranging — grandparents learning to tap dance, 20-something former ballerinas returning to their roots, adult mom-and-daughter duos. She prioritizes accessibility over accuracy, teamwork over talent. 

“I want you to be greeted by name. I want you to see diverse body types and ages,” she said about the experience at Rio. 

The studio owner draws a distinction between Rio and the fitness industry. Classes at Rio are not a high-intensity workout. There are no “barre” or “sculpt” or “shred” classes. It’s a space for creative expression, for community, for experimentation. 

“I want it to be a place where your body is celebrated as art.”

For Axtell, the goal is not to create a space for dance within the four walls of the studio, but to allow dance to seep out into the living rooms and landscapes and dirt roads of the Flathead Valley. 

“I don’t want people to fall in love with Rio,” she said. “I want them to fall in love with themselves. If you’re not coming to Rio, I hope it’s because you’re dancing everywhere else.”

Learn more about Rio Dance Studio by visiting their website or calling (406) 719-6565.

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