Bethany Sanders is only 24 years old, but already has 21 years of dance experience  and is quickly gaining a reputation as a passionate teacher and choreographer.

The Pleasant Valley High alum started taking tap and ballet lessons when she was 3 and hasn’t stopped moving since.

Bethany works full time as a special education teacher at Pleasant View Elementary.

“I absolutely loved it, and added theater to the game when I was 11,” Sanders said in a recent interview. After 5th grade, she started doing theater at Center for Living Arts in Rock Island, and her first musical was “Grease” in 2008, when she was 11, and she performed with Center for Living Arts through junior year of high school.

When the national tour of “Wizard of Oz” came to the Adler Theatre, they used local children for munchkins (around 15 of them), and Bethany was in that cast, in the fall of 2009. “That was really cool, kind of the same thing Circa did with ‘Joseph,’ that same year, they were auditioning for kids’ choirs. So Center for Living brought a kids choir for that. So many cool opportunities.”

Center for Living Arts owners Dino and Tina Hayz “are absolutely the best; they’re so good with kids,” Bethany said. “They’re awesome at what they do. I still have a good connection with them.”

For “Wizard of Oz,” the kids had rehearsed with Dino and Tina ahead of time, and just the day of the show with the touring cast. “It was a really cool experience,” Bethany said. She never performed in the “Nutcracker” ballets at the Adler, and that was her only experience on that stage, so far.

“I just got the bug,” she said of theater, noting she danced in college and did community theater. She was an elementary education major in special ed at University of Northern Iowa, from which she graduated in 2019.

Her favorite high school show was “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (she was Miss Dorothy), which they took to Iowa Thespian Festival at UNI. “It is a dance heavy show.”

Bethany got interested in special education after going on a mission trip during her junior year at P.V. to Haiti, visiting an orphanage that had children with disabilities.

Bethany played a munchkin in the national tour of “Wizard of Oz” at the Adler.

“When I was there, I was like, oh my gosh, this is what I have to do,” she recalled. “That launched me and that’s what I knew I wanted to do. In college, I started a group in the community with and without disabilities. I would pair them with college kids and we did weekly dance classes. I found opportunities for us to perform at different events across campus. That was my sophomore year of college and it just kind of took off.”

Bethany won a national award for the group and later turned it into a nonprofit organization, Shine On, Inc.

Their goal is to “spread the love and joy of the arts to as many people as possible,” according to https://shineoninc1.wixsite.com/shine/about-us.

​“We strive to be all-INclusive so that no one is EXcluded. We want everyone to be able to be in a space where they can learn and grow from each other,” the site says. “So much beauty comes from interacting with people who are different than you. We are working to create a world that focuses more on character and heart rather than on surface level attributes.”

“It was not the intention to make it a huge thing,” she said. “I didn’t want someone to take it and turn it into something it wasn’t. I also put together kind of a kit. I wanted to help others start the same program at their school if they wanted to. For a little while, Ambrose had a group, for like a semester.”

Bethany’s first show was “Grease” at Center for Living Arts, at 11.

Shine On won the “Most Promising New Student Organization” award in 2016 at UNI and Sanders was recognized with the “United for Acceptance” award through PACER’s National Bullying Awareness Center.

The chapter at UNI is still going strong, Bethany said, and there also has been a chapter at Olivet Nazarene University outside Chicago. In two summers (starting in 2017), she did similar workshops for theater in the Q-C – the first summer at the Village Theatre in Davenport, puppetry and dance. The next summer she did it at Spotlight.

“I just kind of merged my passions that way, too,” she said. “Now it’s my job as well. Something I’m really passionate about is giving people that opportunity to perform and learn from each other.”

One parent told Bethany that Shine On wasn’t going to be profitable since it’s a free program to participants, but she doesn’t intend on making that her career. “It’s something I do on the side, but it’s a very humbling experience for sure, and something that’s kind of cool that I totally credit the college I went to for giving me the opportunity.”

“My big passion is, I want to make sure kids with and without disabilities are there, because it’s so important they learn from each other,” she said. “My other big thing is, people who buddy with them, learning to interact with people who are different from them.”

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Shine On students are typically ages 5 to 15, Bethany said, noting she loves the Penguin Project of the Quad Cities, led by Dino and Tina Hayz, which also pairs students with special needs with student mentors.

Brennan Hampton rehearsing with Hillary Erb for “Billy Eliot.”

Her first teaching job was a K-3 special ed resource teacher last year at Rock Island’s Earl Hanson Elementary. This year she’s at Pleasant View Elementary, Bettendorf, working grades 3-6 special ed.

Her six students meet in a combination of online and in person. “It’s a very different job,” Bethany said. “My kids are with me all day; it’s a lot different for sure. This job is a lot more what I specialized in college for, a little more up my alley.”

“I absolutely love the kids I work with,” she said. “I love – sometimes it takes a long time to achieve a goal we’re working on, but once we do, just the excitement of it is great.”

Meeting her true love in theater

Bethany not only loves theater, but she met the love of her life – Adam Sanders – doing theater. They met doing “West Side Story” in 2017 at Quad City Music Guild, and started dating about a month after the show closed.

Adam played Judas in Music Guild’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” (in March 2019) and they both were cast in 2020’s “Mamma Mia!,” which was postponed to this summer.

Adam, now 22, earned his bachelor’s in psychology from Western Illinois University in May, and is studying for his master’s at the WIU-QC campus in school counseling. The couple has been intensely involved in the Spotlight Theatre, Moline, starting by performing in their first open house in May 2018, and Adam starred in the theater’s first main musical, “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” that October.

A scene from “Billy Eliot” at Spotlight Theatre, Moline.

Feb. 28, 2019 was a big date in Adam and Bethany’s story. That Thursday, after school he told her to meet him at the Spotlight to sign a contract for “Billy Elliot” – the musical he would direct

Adam proposed to Bethany on the Spotlight stage in February 2019.

and she would choreograph. Adam had the song “Falling Slowly” from “Once” playing, and he proposed to Bethany on stage.

“It was special and intimate – just a random Thursday, which it needed to be,” she said.

Besides helping in the house at Spotlight during shows, “Billy Elliot” (with music by Elton John) was the first show she worked on, starring 14-year-old Brennan Hampton in October 2019. Bethany has choreographed at North Scott High School in Eldridge. She was supposed to be in “Oliver” this past year, which was canceled with the rest of Spotlight’s season.

Adam had not directed before, and at 21, was one of the Q-C’s youngest stage directors ever. “It was a cool experience,” Bethany said. “It’s a big cast and was a big show, for sure. It was a challenge, but we loved how it turned out.”

“It was a great learning experience for both of us, and we feel it was a really good first try at doing it,” she said. It was an ideal show for her to do, since she loves working with kids.

“The kids we worked with were so professional and awesome to work with,” Bethany said of the Spotlight’s “Billy Elliot.” “We talk a lot about how kids are a lot different than adults for sure.”

Adam directed “Billy Elliot” at the Spotlight, and Bethany choreographed.

She began at North Scott in spring 2019, and prepared to do a show in March 2020, which got canceled.

Adam and Bethany planned for a July 25, 2020 wedding, with a reception at the Spotlight. Their original invite list was about 530 people; then they had to deal with Covid.

Adam and Bethany Sanders on their wedding day, July 25, 2020.

“We were going to have our reception at the Spotlight; Adam proposed there as well. It’s just a special place for us,” she said. “Then Covid hit in March, and we thought we’d be fine by July.”

At the end of May, they needed to make a decision. Bethany said they didn’t want to move their wedding date. The most important thing was getting married, and the party was just a perk. They scaled back the guest list to around 70 — just the wedding party and close relatives (including grandparents, aunts and uncles).

The wedding was at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Bettendorf, where Bethany’s father is one of the pastors and he officiated it. They did a reception at a large hall in the church.

“It ended up being really nice,” she said. Adam and Bethany sang “Falling Slowly” for their first dance.

While they took a short trip to New Orleans as a mini-honeymoon, Adam surprised her again the day after Christmas. They left at 2 a.m. for a flight from O’Hare, and in the car, Adam told Bethany they were going to Disney World for a week.

“We had masks and social distanced,” she said of the airport and flight. At the Florida theme park, they felt safe, she said. “With them limiting capacity, it doesn’t feel crazy for sure,” she said from her hotel there, noting masks were required at Disney. Bethany and Adam had been at Disney World in March 2020 as well, before things shut down, since they

Adam and Bethany Sanders made sure their wedding and reception were Covid safe.

have friends who work there.

Teaching for Spotlight children’s program

While Adam has taught for some children’s theater camps at the Spotlight, Bethany will be a new instructor for its next S.K.I.T. (Spotlight Kids in Training), with classes starting Feb. 1.

In the program, children (K-2) will learn foundational acting, singing and dancing skills while putting together a 20-minute preshow for Spotlight’s 3rd-8th grade musical theater production, “Peter Pan Jr.”

S.K.I.T. students will be do a very timely musical about turning lemons into lemonade. They will join in a fairytale frenzy when Chicken Little, the Three Little Pigs, Humpty Dumpty, the Cat with a Fiddle, Little Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue and a host of other characters are having a bad day.

Adam and Bethany met in 2017 doing “West Side Story” at Music Guild.

But with the help of a cheerful Mother Goose, discover how they learn to make the best out of life’s ups and downs. This clever 20-minute musical features five original songs in a variety of musical styles, easy rhyming dialogue, and choreography.

Spotlight co-owner Sara Tubbs, who will teach the 3rd-8th-grade group, is thrilled Bethany is joining the team. “She’s so great with kids. She’s so friendly and welcoming,” Tubbs said. “The kids are gonna have a great time with her for sure.”

Sara’s husband Brent (co-owner of the Spotlight) said “Billy Elliott” was his favorite show the theater’s done so far. They will cap the children’s program at 25 kids for “Peter Pan” and 15 for S.K.I.T. “Peter Pan” also will be split into different groups to rehearse, Tubbs said.

“Our theater is huge; it seats 600 people, so we’ll be able to spread everybody out like crazy,” she said. “We usually have a group on the stage; sometimes we’ll rehearse in the reception hall. Sometimes, we’ll rehearse in the dressing room as well. We’ll get all the kids spread out and have them wear masks and everything.”

“It’s always something I’ve been so interested in,” Bethany said of teaching children’s theater. “I loved being a performer and I’ve never been on the staff side of it to this extent. It’s the flip side of what I got, and especially the little kids, and so it’s the first experience I get to give them, which is awesome.”

The Spotlight’s K-2 kids’ program plans to do a short musical about turning lemons into lemonade.

Regarding the Spotlight overall, Bethany loves that they have something for everyone.

“They have the community theater; they have the kids camp, another opportunity for people to perform in the Quad-Cities,” she said. “Especially now, when we’re missing it so much, it makes us realize how much we love it. I just love the atmosphere.

“The moment Adam and I went there, we felt so welcomed, which is why we continue to do so much there,” Bethany said. “Brent and Sara, they’re really amazing. They work with us; they’re so accommodating. They want what’s best for everyone too. The vibe that’s given off from them is so welcoming – I’ve just really enjoyed it. We love we can be involved there, and we still love doing stuff at Music Guild, too, just being able to have those different opportunities is awesome.”

Sara said in 2020, they had one summer camp in person and in the fall went totally virtual. “We were very careful; everybody wore masks and shields and the whole shebang. In the fall, we just decided to go virtual,” she said. “We thought it would b*e easier with everything going on.”

“I think everybody is just really burned out on the virtual stuff,” she said. “Our plan is to hopefully start out in person. That would be great if that’s what happens. But if we have to start virtual, and then meet in person, we have a plan for that, too.”

Sara Tubbs co-owns the Spotlight with her husband Brent.

In the summer camp, they had 26 students (split into two groups), and fall was just four kids, Tubbs said.

“We’re going to do all the protocols – going to wear masks, distance them, things that they’re doing in school, we’ll do in our classes,” she said. In the summer, they were only allowed 50 people in the audience for the kids’ showcase.

Bethany is assisting Lily Maynard in the S.K.I.T. class, and Tubbs, Becca Johnson and Maynard will teach “Peter Pan.”

The “Peter Pan” class costs $275; meets Tuesdays from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. starting Jan. 19. The plan is to begin in person, but they have a plan if they have to begin classes virtually until they can meet in person, Tubbs said.

Performances are planned April 23rd at 7 p.m. and April 24th at 2:30 and 7 p.m. In the event that the theater cannot have an audience for the performances, the production will be recorded. All students will also receive a show T-shirt; be sure to include your student’s sizes when registering.

The Spotlight offers a $50 sibling discount for each additional sibling enrolled in the 3rd-8th grade musical theater class.

S.K.I.T. will cost $150 and meets Mondays from 5:30-6:30 p.m. beginning Feb. 1, with the plan to begin in person. They offer a $25 sibling discount for each additional sibling enrolled in S.K.I.T.

If Covid mitigations in Illinois are too strict to have the performance as a pre-show, they will simply perform their show for families and friends the last day of class, on April 19. This will be decided no later than March 29. In the event they can’t have an audience for the performance, the show will be recorded.

To register or for more information, call 309-912-7647 or visit www.thespotlighttheatreqc.com.

 

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.