At half past four on a Tuesday afternoon, Daria Melendez, dressed in signature black, is putting 12-year-old Toni Marie Gomez through some extra paces in an empty classroom at John Leggio's Center for Performing Arts.
The rhythm on Toni's grapevine — a traveling tap dance step — is off. She needs to be in synch before an upcoming recital.
"You're too early, too fast," Melendez said as the two dance to the count of eight before a mirrored wall. "Just slow it down — move with the groove."
Then Melendez shows how. There's a click-clack of the feet and a shoulder roll that ripples down her back, arms and out her hands.
At 50-something, Melendez still has it.
"The best place for her — the happiest place for her — is when she's on the stage, when she's dancing," said Nelson Melendez, her husband of 28 years.
"It's in her blood," said studio owner John Leggio. "It's just that way with true dancers."
In her younger days it drove her to seek opportunity in New York and L.A. These days the dancer has created a piecework kind of career teaching what she knows to would-be dancers, young and old.
There's tap and ballet classes for tots and teens at various studios; the weekly ballroom lessons for couples she teaches with her husband at a local gym; the direction she gives to the hormone-charged women cast in the laugh-out-loud productions of Menopause the Musical.
"She's a great teacher. She breaks it down so it's easy for you. She's a little tough, but in a good way. She just wants you to get your steps," said Toni, who has been taking dance for three years and knows every class with Melendez ends with a "thank you" and a handshake.
"She's old-school, so she has the best sense when it comes the real New York tradition (of dance) that people don't do anymore," Leggio said. "She's tough, firm and very serious about her job."
"She is just a fireball of enthusiasm," said Neal Gardner, the general manager for GFour Productions. He hired Melendez as a choreographer director for Menopause and the 2011 Tampa production of the sister show, Motherhood the Musical. "She has all this energy. She's precise, professional. She been there, done that. Most of all, she's really good at what she does."
Melendez has been at it since the age of 3 when she first became enamored with the sound of a new pair of noisy tap shoes. Then she was Daria Atanian, one of three children and the only daughter of Anthony and Florence Atanian of Worcester, Mass.
Dance started as a diversion, a way for her mother to get her out of the house and away from her father's unpredictable behavior.
"My dad was bipolar and it was the '50s and they didn't know what to do about it back then," Melendez said.
Slip on a pair of dancing shoes and the bad times were history.
"Everything is beautiful at the ballet," Melendez said, citing a line from her favorite musical, A Chorus Line. "You dance there, you make friends there, you forget what's going on at home there."
Dance class brought refuge and an emerging talent that was fostered by her mother, who carted her daughter to Boston for private lessons. At 8, she won first place in a Boston TV station's popular local talent show, Community Auditions. When she was a senior in high school, she opened her own studio and ran it successfully for three years.
Then, prompted by her cousin, Eddie Mekka, who had landed a role in The Lieutenant in Manhattan's theater district, she decided to give it all up for a shot at the big time. She was 21.
"My parents drove me to New York to set me up in an apartment, paid my rent for six months and told me I was on my own after that," Melendez said. "It changed my life. It was the right thing."
Mekka worked regularly and eventually landed the role of Carmine Ragusa on the '70s sitcom, Laverne and Shirley. Things were tougher for Melendez, who is 5 feet tall. She continued training, went on countless auditions and waited tables to support herself
"I really wanted to do Broadway and I did get a few things, some off-Broadway stuff and a couple of Broadway shows that opened and closed quickly," she said. "But my size was against me. Broadway is all about appearance — how everything looks — and I was too short."
She was building her resume, taking advantage of free ballroom dance classes offered for potential teachers, when she met her future husband. Nelson Melendez was working as a ballroom dance teacher and salesman at Fred Astaire Dance Studio in the Gotham Hotel on 55th Street and Fifth Avenue.
She was smitten. He was somewhat aloof.
"He was the top dog there. He smelled very good and he was straight," she said. "As soon as I saw Nelson — as soon as I danced with Nelson, that was it."
"We dated casually," Nelson said.
She had a hankering for the man, but it was the '70s and the movie business was hot on dance — particularly disco — after the success of Saturday Night Fever. She left for the West Coast and eventually got an audition with Sylvester Stallone who was directing Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever.
She didn't get the part.
"I was too short — way too short," she said.
Nelson came calling and she moved to Fort Lauderdale where he was then living. The two married and had a daughter, Bianca, who is now 21. Melendez got to work as she always had, taking teaching and choreography gigs at the Fort Lauderdale Ballet Company, La Mistique Dance Company and creating dance numbers for marketing functions for Tupperware, Lipton, Met Life and Barbizon. And she taught kids in local studios.
Then came Menopause the Musical.
For the last 10 years Melendez has taught the show's comical choreography to casts in Toronto, Las Vegas, Boston, Atlanta and many other cities in the United States.. In August she'll head to Washington, D.C., to run actors through the 25 Menopause musical numbers, including My Thighs; Change, Change, Change; and I'm Flashing.
"Dance has taken me to a lot of places, but I've never been to D.C.," Melendez said. "I'm really looking forward to it."
No doubt, it's good work when you can still get it.