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From Santa Monica to Europe, 'Funky Divas' Engages Kids  

By Michael Aushenker
Special to the Lookout

April 19, 2011 -- Arrows on a succession of pink and lavender signs lead up the driveway along the side of a house in the leafy Upper Bienveneda neighborhood of Pacific Palisades to the backyard.

There – amid colorful toys, soft foam props, and stuffed animals – a dozen children take turns bouncing on a trampoline. Later that afternoon, they'll take dance lessons and sit in a circle for story time.

Welcome to spring break camp at Funky Divas and Dudes, a business that provides dance lessons at Santa Monica after-school programs and at Shutters at the Beach in late August and during winter break.

Funky Divas is the brainchild of Santa Monican Dana Marie Lazzareschi and downtown Los Angeles resident Kelly Lyans.

Kelly Lyans and Dana Marie Lazzareschi. Photo courtesy of Funky Divas

It’s often a problem to engage children ages five to seven, who are famously restless and easily bored, but not for Funky Divas and Dudes.

The month of April has been devoted to spring break camps. Party themes include Disney princess parties, pajama parties, pop star and fashion show parties, even a “Wicked”-themed party.

Depending on the motif, activities might include dance routines, glitter makeup and hair sessions, pillow sack races, hula-hooping, and, in the case of the music video party, a DVD for each kid with a copy of their clip.

Lazzareschi and Lyans’ venture has also hosted fundraising parties benefiting charities such as Race to Erase MS, P.S. Arts (this fundraiser for public schools was held at Santa Monica Airport’s Barker Hangar) and Planet Hope.

This is Southern California, land of large mansions and great weather, which is conducive to such a business over, say, Ohio, right?

Actually, for two years, Funky Divas’ other city of operation was seemingly unlikely Cincinnati.

“We would love to get it going as either a chain or a franchise but we haven’t found a good match yet so we’ve let it grow organically,” Lazzareschi said. “But [Cincinnati] was a really good experience.”

Here in Los Angeles, Funky Divas has a small staff to do office work and help fulfill the company’s busy year-long calendar.

In addition to Santa Monica schools, Funky Divas has worked throughout the westside and up the coast in Santa Barbara. There have also been one-off gigs out of state, even out of the country.

“It’s a 24/7 business for us,” Lyans said. “Every few months, things happen that we have so many exciting things, meeting new people, going to exciting places. We have traveled to New York City and the Hamptons to do Funky Diva things. And also to Belgium [at a] tennis club for kids [close to Brussels].”

“Living in Los Angeles, having celebrity clients, word gets around,” Lazzareschi said. “We’ve been very blessed.”

Clients and their kids attending Funky Divas parties have included Teri Hatcher’s daughter Emerson, Ray Liotta’s daughter Karsen, and Amy Brenneman’s girl. Reese Witherspoon brought her little Ava to summer camp about five years ago, when Funky Divas was holding scavenger hunts at Shutters.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s daughter Roxy has also tasted the Funky Divas experience and Funky Divas recently did the 11th birthday party for Miley Cyrus’s younger sister, Noah.

“I got to meet [dad and country musician] Billy Ray [Cyrus],” said Lazzareschi, sounding like an excited schoolgirl herself. “I grew up loving him! I was in high school, listening to ‘Achy Breaky Heart!’”

The entertainment industry, in fact, indirectly provided the impetus for the company’s inception nine years ago.

“Both of us were auditioning in the industry,” Lazzareschi recalled. “Kelly was going on dance auditions, I was going on acting auditions. We started teaching dance to kids as a source of income rather than waiting tables…It just grew and grew into camps and birthday parties.”

Lazzareschi and Lyans met while working for another company at a bar mitzvah. Lyans, who grew up in Ventura and studied dance at Chapman University in Orange County, comes from a family of dancers.

Lazzareschi was working as a research analyst at KCAL 9 News. She also played a villainess on the KCAL weekend kiddie show “Critter Gitters.” She portrayed Sarah Oakley, a fictional descendant of Annie Oakley.

“I was a bad girl,” she recalled of her recurring five-episode role. “I wanted to steal animals and start a circus.”

Originally from Marin County, Lazzareschi, who double-majored in screenwriting and dramatic arts at UC Santa Barbara, now lives in the Ocean Park area.

“Pretty much every Sunday, I go to Venice Beach,” said Lazzareschi, who also enjoys the Saturday Farmers Markets, the Promenade, and Main Street traditions such as Urth Caffe and sushi at Chaya.

The young women said they feel most rewarded while on the job, Ultimately, their goal is not to make professional dancers out of the children but just to get them to dance and enjoy life uninhibited.

The best part of the job is “when I give back to the kids; how it makes them feel…,” Lyans said. “Especially the kids who are a little shy.”

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