The future home of the Marin Conservatory of Dance at 365-367 Miller Avenue.

PictureMarin Conservatory of Dance founder Melinda Neal, at top right, with her daughter Leilani, along with scenes from classes at the current studio at 448 Miller Avenue. Courtesy images.

While there has been plenty of innovation, pivoting and amazing feats of resiliency by Mill Valley businesses and nonprofits during the Covid-19 crisis, there hasn’t been a plethora of unconditional, feel-good stories.

​Melinda Neal, however, is on the brink of one.

​The longtime professional ballet dancer and revered Bay Area ballet instructor opened the Marin Conservatory of Dance on Miller Ave. in 2018, filling a void for a solely classical ballet-focused conservatory in southern Marin. The program grew steadily and organically within its small space at 448 Miller Avenue over the next year-plus, and then Covid hit, halting the ability to gather, safely, inside a dance studio. 

Sensing the long-term nature of the crisis, particularly its unpredictability, Neal bought a stage so her students could dance, safely, outside. She also expanded upon her already strict drop-offs and pick-up protocols, prohibiting parents from parking or lingering, having submitted all required paperwork in advance of their child’s classes.

“That’s the ballerina in me,” Neal says. “In our world, everything is always done with strict protocols, and the parents have totally bought into it.”

That policy has additional benefits beyond keeping logistics simple, Neal says. “We get their full focus and attention, especially the younger ones,” she says.

Along with a much-lauded curriculum, those protocols have driven growth for the dance school, and Neal and her daughter Leilani, who runs the school with her, have decided to take the next leap: nearly tripling the square footage of their school, from approximately 1,100-square feet at 448 Miller between Red Dragon Yoga and the 24-7 Fuel station to nearly 3,000 square feet in a pair of spaces at 365-367 Miller Avenue between Tea Fountain and Kitty Charm School.

In December, the Mill Valley Planning Commission unanimously approved Neal’s request for a conditional use permit to move into those two spaces, and she plans to fully do so by March

Neal, a fourth generation San Franciscan, was the ballet director at Roco Dance’s studios in Tam Junction and Fairfax for more than seven years. In 2017, She decided to retire after 16 years as a professional dancer and get her real estate license. The plan was to teach two days a week and focus on being a real estate agent.

“But the idea of creating my own space – I just couldn’t get it out of my head,” she says, putting real estate on hold and opening Marin Conservatory of Dance. “I made the leap,” she says. “I feel like this is my calling.”

At the Dec. 8 hearing, commissioners made it clear that they wanted to minimize the constraints on the dance school, allowing Neal to work within standard hours of 8am to 9pm and expanding Neal’s proposed class size from 10 to 15. The spaces met parking requirements and also have permission to use the parking at 55 La Goma St. behind the building during non-peak hours, when the school mostly operates. The property also has bike racks for students, and parents will be required to proceed into the one-way driveway between Tam Bikes and Tea Fountain, drop off their kids, and move along. Ditto for pick up.

“We want to move into a bigger space to give our dancers a little more room and allow us to maintain social distancing,” Neal told the commission. “We want to think about everyone’s health and safety safety moving forward. I plan to grow this program in an efficient way that maintains our goal of quality instruction.”

“I’m thrilled to see kids have the opportunity to participate in greater numbers here than in your current location,” Commissioner Jon Yolles said.  

“This is clearly an excellent addition to the Miller Ave streetfront,” added Commissioner Alan Linch added. 

“We’re definitely planning on making the school a staple here in Mill Valley,” Neal said.