When Christiana Bitonti, owner of Peconic Ballet Theatre in downtown Riverhead, had the idea to open her dance studio, she was told it would never last. Nearly five years later, she’s still out to prove her detractors wrong.
With 12 performances per year and dozens of packed dance classes every week, Ms. Bitonti is demonstrating that her studio is fulfilling a need in the community.
“I wanted to open out east because I loved growing up out here and I wanted something that I didn’t have,” she said.
A native of East Moriches, Ms. Bitonti has been dancing since she was three years old. As a student, she traveled as far as New York City to take professional classes and she wanted to make similar training available locally.
She opened in 2012 with 14 students and the program quickly grew, with more than five times as many students enrolled today.
“It’s really been an amazing journey so far,” she said.
Ms. Bitonti graduated from St. Joseph’s College with a double major in psychology and speech communications. She later earned a master’s in counseling from New York University. Throughout school, she continued to dance on a professional level, working with a performing arts company that put on shows across New York City and Long Island.
In 2009, she combined her two passions — dance and helping children — by creating a dance residency program in Westhampton. She held rehearsals and recitals at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center before opening her dance school two years later, operating briefly in Patchogue before moving to East Main Street.
Despite its name, Peconic Ballet Theatre offers a range of classes from hip hop to tap and, of course, ballet. Some dancers have found the studio to be a second home, and take classes there each day of the week.
“When I come to dance it’s really just my safe place and I can just let go of everything else that’s going on in my life and I can be free to be who I am,” said 12-year-old Selena Pereyra of Westhampton. “I learn so much from everybody here and they’re all my role models and I love to dance with them. They’re like my family.”
Ms. Bitonti’s dancers say she has created a community where everyone is there for each other and teaches them that there is no “best dancer,” there are only best versions of themselves.
15-year-old Caleigh Cantalupo of Wading River said Ms. Bitonti is one of the most inspiring people in her life.
“I learned so many life skills and [gained] confidence that I never had before I came here,” she said.
Caleigh added that while Ms. Bitonti is a huge influence for many of the dancers who see her daily, there is also a lot she does behind the scenes. In addition to running the studio, Ms. Bitonti created the Peconic Ballet Foundation in 2013, aiming to provide a dance experience for kids who would not otherwise have the opportunity. For this effort, she works with school districts to supply students with necessary gear and they participate in a 20-week dance course at Peconic Ballet Theatre that ends with a performance.
She is currently working with the William Floyd School District on a production of “Alice and Wonderland, which will be performed at the district’s middle school next Tuesday and Thursday.
Ms. Bitonti also helps run a program called Dance Express in which she partners with East End Disability to teach dance classes to people with disabilities. She said this had been a goal since she opened in Riverhead, and she was finally able to achieve it last year.
While Ms. Bitonti wears many hats, her students will say she focuses the attention on them rather than herself.
“She’s so perfect; everything should be on her because she made this,” said 13-year-old Mia Seitles of East Moriches. “She made everything. This is hers.”
While all of her students are passionate about dance, and some even plan to dance in college, Ms. Bitonti said all she wanted was to create an environment that gives people the opportunity to excel.
“I’m so excited if they become dancers,” she said. “But wherever their dance journey takes them, I want them to use those tools to be the best version of themselves and feel that they’re the best of themselves.”
Ms. Bitonti said making the move to open in Riverhead is one of the best choices she’s made, because the community shares her enthusiasm.
This past year she collaborated with East End Arts and Martha Clara Vineyards to create Art Barre, a fall event series featuring a gallery exhibit by EEA artists and professional dancers performing for the community. She said she looks forward to continuing with that event this year and expanding her foundation’s work.
“There’s a year-round population that can really benefit from the arts and just bringing that out more,” Ms. Bitonti said.