When Dee Hohmann was 3 years old, her mother asked her a question that, as it turned out, determined the course of her professional life.
“Dee,” she said. “Would you like to take dance classes?”
“I said, ‘I don’t know, Mommy,’ Hohmann recalled. “So, she signed me up anyway.”
In August, Hohmann, known as “Miss Dee” to her students, will celebrate 25 years as owner and director of the Dubuque Dance Studio and Gymnastics Club, where she first began taking lessons under the guidance of then-owner Carolu Digman Welbes.
Welbes launched the studio, opening the business on Iowa Street in 1953.
“We always called her Miss Digman,” said Hohmann, who took over business operations in 1996. Hohmann’s husband of 35 years, David, co-owns the studio. Their daughter, Alicia, is the director and choreographer.
At the current location on University Avenue, five studios host dancers and gymnasts for lessons and practices. The business was a family affair from the beginning with sons Austin and A.J. being involved.
Austin coached, while A.J. worked in the office. Once her sons were in high school, they became interested in other sports and had interests outside of the studio. Alicia continues to work with her mom and dad, and is the studio’s competition coach.
“She’s happy and excited, and she’s quite the gem to have,” Hohmann said. “We work well as a family. It takes a special kind of relationship to work side by side.”
Hohmann was working an office job after college and was engaged to be married to David when she got a call from her former dance instructor.
“I grew up dancing at this studio, and majored in dance education at University of Iowa,” she said. “Miss Digman called me up and said, ‘You need to not be sitting at a desk. You need to come and work for me.’ She took me under her wing.”
Hohmann worked with Welbes for several years as a co-instructor and taught classes at a second location on Central Avenue a few nights per week. In 1996, Welbes was ready to retire and brought an ownership proposal to Hohmann, who took over the studio in August of that year.
After the transition, Hohmann had a conversation with her mentor.
“I asked her ‘What made you choose me?’” Hohmann said. “I know what I’m doing, but there were people who could’ve just walked in and written her a check. She said, ‘There was no other choice. You’re going to make it a success.’ I didn’t see that in myself in 1996. I just knew I loved dance. I loved gymnastics. I loved the opportunity, and it was a good choice for my family.”
Hohmann estimates that 800 dance and gymnastics students per year have come through the studio in the past 25 years.
“Quite a few years ago, we were at a show and I looked around,” Hohmann said. “All of the coaches were alumni from the studio. It was great to see that they loved it and enjoyed it that much to carry on with it.”
Hohmann said several former students, both under her tutelage and that of Welbes, have gone on to have clubs or studios, or have a profession related to dance or gymnastics.
“That’s a huge compliment to us,” she said. “We’re really proud of the program and what we’ve been able to do.”
Technology has come a long way in 25 years, and Hohmann’s business has benefited from it, both in the studio and outside of it.
“When I first took over ownership, we still used vinyl records,” she said. “We went from vinyl to cassette to CD, and then we added the computer. And now we can Bluetooth to whatever speaker is there. Technology has really taken us to a wonderful place. With social media, I can see all of the advancements (of former students) and all of the fun they’re having.”
In addition to the business of running an award-winning dance studio and gymnastics club, Hohmann has given back to the community by donating her time and talent teaching ballroom dance to students at what was then Central High School and working on dance and movement therapy with residents of Hills and Dales. She also has been a volunteer adjunct dance instructor at University of Dubuque.
“It’s a way for me to step out of my ordinary day and experiences and work with students on a different level,” she said.
Students have performed on cruise ships, at the halftime show during the Orange Bowl and at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Locally, they have made appearances at Mathias Ham Historic Site, the Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, nursing homes and have performed at events including DubuqueFest, the Catfish Festival and the Dubuque County Fair.
Hohmann said when her students present programs outside of the studio, they learn more than just how to perform.
“They’re talking to people and learning how to carry on a conversation,” she said. “At the nursing homes, they’re speaking with residents and learning how to look a person in the eye and talk with them. And that’s an important skill to have.”
As the business approaches its silver anniversary, Hohmann reflected on how her mother’s actions in response to a 3-year-old’s indecisive answer to a question became the first stepping stone to her future.
“We want our kids to do what they love, but if they don’t know what that is, we need to encourage them,” she said. “If I’d answered differently, my life would be very different.”