‘We’re all family’: Local dance studio produces Miss Dowagiac, Miss Niles

Published 7:45 am Friday, February 9, 2024

DOWAGIAC — Natasha Griggs and Amelia Rodgers are used to sharing the stage as members of the Miss Michele & Co. dance studio. Now, the two teens are excited to be sharing the spotlight and responsibilities in a different light this year as Miss Dowagiac and Miss Niles 2024. 

Griggs and Rodgers were both crowned in January with both pageants taking place the same day and time. For both girls, that day still feels like a dream.

“It hasn’t even sunk in for me,” Rodgers said. “It’s still crazy to me.”

“It still feels so surreal,” Griggs added.

MMC owner Michele Winchester-Greer was proud of the girls’ achievements.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s exciting and it’s a huge opportunity for the studio and it’s huge for our girls. Just the fact that we do have a strong following in Niles is huge. (Niles and Dowagiac) have two very special girls representing. It’s very nice for us.”

Griggs, a Dowagiac Union High School senior, is the President of Rotary Interact, secretary of Student Senate and community Relations Chair of National Honors Society and participates in sideline and competitive cheer, tennis and journalism while being dual-enrolled at Southwestern Michigan College. She also enjoys reading, photography, puzzles and sudoku. After high school, Griggs plans to attend a four-year college and study biochemistry before going on to get her PharmD degree. 

Rodgers is a senior at Niles High School and is dual-enrolled at SMC. She competes on the Niles girls golf team and is a member of the varsity cheerleading team. When she is not in school, Rodgers volunteers to clean local parks and serves food to the homeless.

Founded by Winchester-Greer in 2005, Miss Michele & Co. is a dance studio teaching dancers from ages two and up to college-aged. Based in downtown Dowagiac, MMC has dancers from all over Michiana including Dowagiac, Decatur, Marcellus, Niles, Edwardsburg, Eau Claire, Watervliet, Benton Harbor, Sister Lakes and South Bend, Ind. 

A Dowagiac native, Winchester-Greer was an Instructor for Miss Kathy’s School of the Dance in Decatur and Flints Dance Studio in South Bend, Ind., before she made the decision to open MMC in her hometown. Classes began out of the Federated Covenant Church before Winchester-Greer was able to establish roots in downtown Dowagiac.

In addition to the dance studio, Winchester-Greer, a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, also serves her community as an employee for the Pokagon Band Tribal Government Tribal Council office.

Griggs and Rodgers both enjoy dancing for MMC and credit their dance instructors for encouraging her to participate in the pageant.

“I really think part of what gave me the confidence was just coming and having a place where I know I was loved and supported,” Griggs said. “It really made me feel like I had the confidence to do anything at the end of the day, just having this family here for me behind it all.”

“Being here, it feels like family and they make me feel so confident that I can do anything,” Rodgers said.

For Winchester-Greer, who has worked tirelessly to create a family atmosphere at her studio, their words were music to her ears.

“To hear both of them say that, it’s huge,” she said. “It makes my heart happy and I am just very proud of both of them and proud of my staff. We always encourage the girls just to be who they are and just be confident and strong. When they take ballet class with Maddie and (Juliana Stanger) that is a big step too, because it gives them the confidence and the stage presence.”

While Rodgers and Griggs are not the first members of MMC to attain pageant royalty status, they are the first to hold the highest crown in two different communities. According to Winchester-Greer, 15 MMC dancers have placed in local pageants since 2007, including four pageant queens. Her eldest daughter, Madelynn “Maddie” Winchester, became the first MMC student to place in a pageant when she was named Miss Entrepreneur in the 2007 Miss Outstanding Teen Cass County Pageant and is now an instructor. Juliana Stanger, who danced for Miss Michele & Co. as a student, was crowned Miss Dowagiac in 2019.

Now an instructor on staff, Stanger remembers the confidence she gained while performing for the studio and aims to pay it forward with her students.

“Having Michelle and Maddie teaching and just instilling that confidence that we can go up on stage because we’ve done it already,” Stanger said. “Having them just supporting us and telling us, you have to give it a try and see what happens was really helpful.”

New queens on the scene

While both girls were rendered speechless after being crowned the queen of their respective communities, Rodgers and Griggs admitted that their thoughts quickly turned to each other.

“I remember I had gotten crowned and three seconds later, one of the teachers here had come out to say congratulations and I turned around and said ‘how did Amelia do,” Griggs said. “It was the first thing on my mind; It was so wonderful. We had made so many jokes about being sister queens and for it to really come true was so special.”

“I remember after we walked out from backstage, I looked at my sister Nora and said ‘how did Tasha do,” Rodgers said. “‘Did she win?’”

A snow storm prevented Maddie from attending the Miss Niles Pageant. With the studio performing at the Miss Dowagiac Pageant as entertainment, Winchester-Greer and Maddie had a front row seat for Griggs’ big moment.

“Maddie started crying when Amelia was crowned because Maddie was supposed to be at Miss Niles,” Winchester-Greer said. “As soon as Tasha was crowned, Maddie and I ran right down the steps and ran right to her mom.”

When Rodgers and Griggs saw each other at practice for the first time since their pageants, they had one thing to say.

“I walked in and Tasha was sitting right there and we both looked at each other and said ‘oh, hey queen,’” Rodgers said. 

While the two newly-crowned queens will be making memories representing their communities with their respective courts, Rodgers and Griggs are looking forward to experiencing their reigns together.

“It’s nice to have someone I can talk to about everything going on,” Rodgers said. “‘Oh, this happened today,’ ‘my hair didn’t stay up,’ ‘my crown is falling.’”

“It’s nice to have someone to go through it with,” Griggs said. “You’re close with your court, but I think even just being ‘Miss’ is a little bit different and with it being senior year and my last year of dance, being able to go through it with somebody who really gets it is so wonderful.”

Since being crowned Miss Niles and Miss Dowagiac, Rodgers and Griggs have enjoyed representing their communities at local events with their respective courts of honor.

“It’s been so fun getting to know this community and being able to represent this community,” Griggs said. “The pride and support we’ve received so far is outstanding and I am so grateful, but also the laughs that I’ve had today just interacting with the kids and the communities, the ‘I gotta get my wave in while you’re walking down the street.’ It’s just such a valuable memory.”

“I’ve really liked getting to know my court better,” Rodgers said. “We did know each other pretty well but now I’ve gotten a deeper connection with. Being able to represent my community and just being able to stand out and know that I’m the one that everyone looks at is a special feeling.”

‘We’re all family’

For Griggs, Rodgers and MMC members past and present, MMC is not just a dance studio. It is also a home away from home where members share their love for dance and experience the highs, lows and everything in between as a family.

“When I come here, I feel loved and not the odd one out,” Rodgers said. “We’re all friends, we’re all family, we all get along. It’s nice.”

“We are always laughing here,” Griggs said. “It’s just part of the environment. This love and this kindness that we show to each other. This is a place where we all build each other up, and I think that that’s been the biggest thing here for me.

While Winchester-Greer never set out to become a producer of pageant queens, she believes the skills and lessons she instills in her dancers go beyond the dance floor.

“We always have the girls go in with an open mind,” she said. “We work on speaking as well because it’s not just about dance. Some girls aren’t going to be professional dancers. I want them to be strong in whatever field of study that they want to go into. I’m just focused on making sure that they are confident within themselves and confident in their skin.

“Here, we say ‘educate, motivate and inspire,” she continued. “My teachers and I instill within the girls to be confident with themselves and to be kind. We talk about being kind to your parents and making sure they do their chores and their homework. It’s just about family values. I just want them to be good citizens and good humans.”

If there is a “secret ingredient” in her dancers’ success outside of Winchester-Greer’s studio, it is happiness.

“The expectation we have is as soon as everyone walks through that door and everyone’s greeted that we want everyone to be happy,” she said. “I know it sounds super cheesy but life is too short. I want to make sure that the girls are leaving Miss Michele and Co. happy, confident and making sure that they leave Miss Michelle & Co. learning everything they possibly can about dance and just being solid humans.”

While the two newly-crowned queens will be making memories representing their communities with their respective courts, Rodgers and Griggs are looking forward to experiencing their reigns together.

“I’m also really excited and I am so incredibly grateful to the studio for everything,” Griggs said. “I definitely don’t think I would have gotten this opportunity without this studio.”

“I’m just really excited for this year,” Rodgers said. “Me and Tasha – we get to spend it together. (This studio) has changed me as a person. I really like it here.”