MADE in Lake County: Emily Winkler and Juliet Stephenson of Dance Academy of Libertyville

Libertyville, IL

MADE is a paid partnership with Little Lake County.

Welcome to MADE in Lake County! MADE introduces you to the people and stories behind local Lake County businesses. Today it is our pleasure to introduce you to not one but two hard-working moms balancing their careers, their artistry, and their families with true grace.  We are honored to introduce Emily Winkler and Juliet Stephenson of Dance Academy of Libertyville.

MADE in Lake County: Emily Winkler and Juliet Stephenson of Dance Academy of Libertyville

There’s an old adage that you should never go into business with family.

For the students at Dance Academy of Libertyville, it’s lucky that co-owners and cousins Emily Winkler and Juliet Stephenson like to march (or rather dance) to the beat of their own drum.

These cousins grew up together right here in Lake County, Juliet in Libertyville and Emily in Grayslake.

We’ve been very close since we were little. We were like siblings.

Emily Winkler
Dance Academy of Libertyville, Emily Winkler
Juliet in the Center, Emily to the Right – Image courtesy of Juliet Stephenson

I sat down with them recently over coffee and bacon gouda sandwiches, while the two cousins gleefully reminisced about late-night phone calls to the radio station trying to get their songs played.

Juliet started dance at the age of four under the tutelage of Elisabeth Campbell in Lincolnshire (who danced with the Radio City Music Hall Ballet in the 1940s), while Emily danced in Libertyville under Lisa Sheppard and Vicki Carvelli.  After college, both cousins continued to perform professionally as well as teach locally in Lake County, while Emily also worked as a Social Worker with DCFS, and Juliet worked in parks and recreation in Highwood. Though both ladies were trained in dance from early ages and have been close all their lives, they never danced together on stage until after college during a 1997 performance of Hello, Dolly! at the Stage Right Dinner Theatre.

dance academy of libertyville, Emily Winkler
Image courtesy of J. Stephenson

Juliet always had a passion for teaching and knew she wanted to one day own her own studio,

I always enjoyed teaching more than I ever enjoyed performing… When I was 16 at my home studio, she let me be a teacher’s helper and that’s when I fell in love with teaching.

Juliet Stephenson

After working at Dance Academy of Libertyville for five years, the opportunity to own her own business presented itself when the previous owner transferred out of state.  Juliet and another teacher, Isabele Elefson, took over the studio in July 2004.  When Isabele also moved out of state*, it opened the door for new leadership, and Juliet knew exactly who she wanted to call.

At the time Emily was a new mom, still teaching and performing as a dancer while living in Chicago and generally running herself ragged. According to Emily,

(Juliet) called me and said, “I want you to be my partner, Isabele is moving,” and I said “No!” I don’t want to do that I have it great. And then my husband and I talked it over and he said, “Really? You have it great? You’re trying to do all this and perform. How about stability?” And I said,”Ohhh…stability.”

Emily WInkler

But Emily had other concerns about partnering with Juliet,

I didn’t want it to ruin our friendship and our family. We spend holidays together, we always have.

Emily Winkler

Shortly thereafter, Emily was convinced and cousins became business partners.  Juliet recalls with a laugh,

…then I sucked her up here to Lake County. I got her out of that urban jungle.

Juliet Stephenson

Owning her own studio proved to be the perfect lifestyle change for Emily and her family.

It’s exhausting. Keeping yourself in physical shape… the hours of rehearsals, plus taking class. So much coffee and Diet Coke. And the late hours. If I was doing a concert gig, I’d get home at one or two in the morning and that baby gets up and you’re up with them until six in the morning.

Dance Academy of Libertyville, Emily Winkler
Image from Dance Academy of Libertyville on Facebook

Has working with a relative been difficult? Emily answered,

Honestly, it has turned out to be a perk because when you want to be  “I don’t wanna talk to you,” you can’t. You have to work through everything… it keeps you in check more than normal.

Juliet expands on their dynamic,

…if we have a disagreement about business, we’ve learned how to keep it business.  I’ll call her two hours later and I’ll say, “Ohmigawd did you see that thing on Ellen?” We can totally flip the switch.  We’ve developed that over the eight, nine years that we’ve been in business together.

That familial feel overflows from their personal relationship into the studio and is shared with their students and faculty.  They’ve both been part of the community they teach in for so long, that one of their great joys is to teach the children of friends who they grew up with, while also watching many of their former pupils become dance teachers themselves.  Juliet says,

In Libertyville, I feel like a lot of people cycle back and I’ve been here my whole life, and so have my parents. It very much regenerates itself and everyone comes back. I have several students who I went to high school with their parents.

Dance Academy of Libertyville, Emily Winkler
Image from Dance Academy of Libertyville on Facebook

We’re definitely a family. Our students feel like family. We hear that a lot from our parents. They love that, especially when they get to high school, they worry about their kids socializing in high school, but they spend so many hours at the studio it’s like a second home. We have kids that’ll be in our highest levels, seven different kids that go to seven different local high schools and they’re best friends for life, and they don’t even go to school together. They just went to dance together, which I think is really awesome too.

Emily shares,

It is a really good influence, and all of our kids that come out (of DAL)  aren’t even dancers, the majority of them go on to do different things. But they still do (benefit) because they’ve had that discipline and that training and they’ve had to be able to learn time management. They’ve gone on to be doctors and dentists and it’s amazing. That’s what dance does for you.

Emily and Juliet follow the trajectory of many of their students, because they see them as their kids too.  Many of their former students frequently come back to visit.  Juliet says,

That’s probably my favorite part. Someone will pop in that’s like 26, 27 that we taught all those years ago, and they’ll just pop in and say “Hey, I just wanted to stop in and see the new studio,” or “I wanted to see if I could take a class,” and it still feels like home to them.

Emily adds,

They’ll come back and just hang out. It’s just a good environment and we try to make it a good, supportive environment for everybody, whatever their path may be.

Juliet concludes,

So when they grow up they’ll look back and they’ll have fond memories of their time in dance school, whether they dance or don’t.

It helps that both are so devoted to teaching and come from a long line of teachers.  Despite their many responsibilities as business owners, they both make it a point to log in classroom time and teach multiple nights per week.

That is why we are there. That is why this exists.

While many students pursue careers outside of dance, those that do are quite distinguished.  Their students have gone on to perform with the Sarasota Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, and the Eisenhower Dance Ensemble, to name but a few.

Dance Academy of Libertyville, Emily Winkler
A current DAL student meets DAL Alumna Danielle Brown, a principal dancer with the Sarasota Ballet

It’s easy to see why so many people have come to think of Dance Academy of Libertyville as a second home, and that’s truly what makes DAL a successful business.  Spending just one morning with these two powerhouses, you can see how their relationship is the cornerstone of their success.

Dance Academy of Libertyville, Emily Winkler
Image courtesy of Emily Winkler

While both ladies teach classes, Emily is considered “The Creative” and handles public relations, advertising, and marketing. At any one time, she has a million ideas floating through her brain.

On the opposite end, Juliet is “The Bean Counter” and is primarily in charge of human resources.  Just sitting down with them, you can tell that their respective roles fit their individual personalities perfectly. This yin and yang couple is a marriage of frenetic energy combined with cool decisiveness.  Juliet says that for her,

Everything has to be organized and lined up in a row and Emily is like, “I have this idea! You know what would be fun?” And I’ll say “Maybe we have to reign this in a little…”

It’s fun to watch them together, especially when they high five and shout in unison about their new favorite pastime,


These ladies are currently on a mission to visit all the hot yoga classes in Lake County to find their favorite.  When you juggle running your own business with raising a family, having an outlet to unwind is essential.

Dance Academy of Libertyville, Emily Winkler
Image courtesy of Emily Winkler

Juliet has a 7th grader, 4th grader, and 1st grader, and finds herself being a taxi driver most days, shuttling her children back and forth from activities, so balance can sometimes be a struggle.  Emily’s two daughters are younger, and often join her at the studio when she teaches a class. Emily admits,

I think we’re very fortunate because other than teaching, we can make our own hours. So we can work at home, get up, work for four hours and bang out all this stuff and then go help with a field day at school. We have that luxury.

Emily and Juliet are truly an inspiration to be around, not only as businesswomen but as working moms and as mentors helping to positively shape young lives.  We want to share that inspiration with you…

Dance Academy of Libertyville
746 E. Park Ave. (Rt.176), Libertyville, IL 60048
(847) 247-1327 | [email protected]
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Meet other local businesses that are MADE in Lake County!

By Loralie

When Loralie isn’t out exploring with her two pint-sized adventurers you’ll often find her in front of her computer plotting to take over the world (or at least Lake County.) She appreciates good friends, good food, expensive shoes and parents who make two lanes in the drop-off/pick-up line at school. Her spirit animal is The Hobbit. She invites you to join her on her quest for unique distractions, diversions and deliciousness in this county we call home.

* Isabele Elefson currently serves as Associate Director at Dance Academy of Libertyville and Artistic Director of Ballet Theatre of Illinois, a ballet company in residence at Dance Academy of Libertyville.

Disclosure: Dance Academy of LIbertyville is our featured Business of the Month. This series is part of a paid promotion partnership with Little Lake County.  If you are interested in featuring your locally-owned business in our series, please contact the sales team.

MADE in Lake County: Emily Winkler and Juliet Stephenson of Dance Academy of Libertyville

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