Scenes from Happy Feet Dance School performances, including co-director Caitlin Bechelli at 2015 Winterfest, bottom right, and founder Cece Bechelli, bottom left. Courtesy images.

Happy Feet Dance School founder Cece Bechelli recently completed a master’s degree in Humanities at San Francisco University, a move driven in part by her desire to more deeply connect her organization to the history of dance, particularly the roots of rhythmic tap dance, Happy Feet’s specialty.

Now, on the cusp of Happy Feet’s 40th birthday – the longtime Mill Valley resident has been teaching kids and adults to dance since 1978 – Cece Bechelli and her family are an integral part of local dance history.

Happy Feet kicks off its 40th year with a wide array of tap, jazz, and ballet classes for beginners and continuing students ages three through adult on Sept. 11, a season that will culminate with a 40th anniversary celebration on Sunday, June 3rd at the Marin Center. 

“We are so blessed to have had the opportunity to teach so many wonderful students in this community,” Bechelli says. “It’s especially rewarding to have so many children start with us as little toddlers and stay with us all the way until high school graduation. Not only do our students develop into well-trained beautiful dancers, but we get to know our students as confident young adults by the time they leave for college. We are so lucky!” 

Bechelli opened Happy Feet in 1978 in the building that contains Marin Theatre Company on Miller Avenue, and then moved one year later to a 2,600-square-foot, bowling alley-shaped former auto repair garage on Montford Avenue right off of Miller. They’ve been there ever since.

Happy Feet has long been a family affair. Bechelli’s three children, Matt, Caitlin, and Kelsey “basically grew up at Happy Feet,” she says, all teaching dance in high school and college. And Caitlin Bechelli, who started dancing at the age of two at Happy Feet, taught there during high school and graduated from UCLA in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in World Arts and Cultures/ Dance, is the school’s co-director. 

“Having Caitlin as my co-director is a huge blessing,” Cece Bechelli says. “She brings a young, vibrant energy to Happy Feet and is a joy to work with everyday.”

Sheri Bechelli, Cece’s sister-in-law and friend from their childhood dance school in San Francisco, is one of Happy Feet’s long-time instructors, while her daughter, Brea, grew up dancing at Happy Feet, taught dance during high school and is now headed to the University of Oregon, where she will major in dance.

During her course of study at SF State, Cece Bechelli researched and wrote about tap’s history, including its African and Irish roots. “I was lucky enough to study with many of the late great tap masters such as Charles “Honi” Coles, Fayard Nicholas of the famed Nicholas Brothers and Gregory Hines,” she says. “Their stories were fascinating and my interest in tap’s history grew as I learned from each of these incredible dancers. Tap is an American indigenous dance form and its story runs directly parallel to American history.”

Bechelli developed a lecture film series on tap’s history and her master’s thesis is titled, Women of the Tap Renaissance. “It’s fun to be able to share tap’s incredible history with our students at Happy Feet.”

The 411: Happy Feet begins its 2017-18 school/dance year on Sept. 11. with an array of tap, jazz, and ballet classes for beginners and continuing students ages three through adult, including a Tiny Toes parent participation class for two- to three- year-old children. Happy Feet dancers will be performing at at the 2017 Winterfest on Dec. 3. MORE INFO.