Gene Leyden will present her 23rd annual dance recital, "Let Us Shine!" today and Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at The Historic Ashland Armory. This will be Leyden's final recital before her retirement from teaching.

Featuring more than 150 dancers, ages 3-13, the show will consist of folk and ethnic dances from around the world. The audience will be entertained with "story dances" of The Shoemakers and the Elves and Pandora's Box, along with dances celebrating Finland, swing dances and bebop. As always, there will be a multitude of dancing fairies, unicorns, buzzing bees, sunbeams, rainbow gypsies and crazy hat dancers.

Leyden has been teaching dance in Ashland since 1984. Some of her current students at The Dance Space on Hersey Street are the children of previous students. Her classes offer experiences exploring the elements and concepts of dance, creative self expression and choreography, as well as folk and ethnic world dance.

Leyden's goal has been to make dance fun and accessible to everyone.

"Self-esteem for the dancers is at the top of my list," she said. "I make the classes non-competitive so that everyone is a star because I want the kids to have a love of dance forever. I truly believe that folk dancing is one of the best experiences for young children.

"They learn a pattern, which usually repeats so they can quickly experience success," she continued. "There are also many socialization experiences in folk dance; they learn that working together helps make the dance go smoothly."

Being backstage with the dancers is her favorite part of the recitals.

"Their eyes get huge with anticipation and they are just so excited to perform," she said.

When asked how she has come up with ideas, dances and costumes for 23 years, Leyden said, "It's a lot of creative inspiration. It is especially generated from the kids as we creatively explore all the basic concepts of dance and movement. I do recycle dance ideas, but never in the same form or structure as before. I am always amazed how the recital takes on a life of its own &

its own spirit."

The outfits students wear bring more rewards, but at a price.

"Costumes are a great challenge to put together without costing a fortune," Leyden said. "Karen Delsman has been my creative sewing person for many years. Sometimes we start with an idea or a piece of fabric and off we go. I couldn't do a recital without Karen."

What does Leyden plan to do without 11 weekly dance classes and a yearly recital to prepare for?

"I am looking forward to spending more time with my grandson and my daughter, who's having her second baby in July," she said. "I would also like to take a nice, long vacation to visit my other daughter, who is a dance teacher in Spain."

Starting with the Summer Dance Program in Lithia Park, Cassie Richards will be taking over Leyden's classes. Richards has been co-teaching with Leyden this past year so that the children will be familiar with her and the transition should be smooth. Leyden plans on helping Richards next year and will be a familiar sight in her classes.

The "Let Us Shine!" recital is free and open to the public. Donations at the door are suggested. This year, the dancers have been raising money to help Diana Banda, a senior at Ashland High School who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in March.

The Ashland Historic Armory is located at 208 Oak St. Leyden can be reached at 482-5501 or by e-mail at GeneLeyden@aol.com.