It's early morning and a sleepiness hangs over the studio as students enter, alone or in quietly chatting pairs. A pianist, yawning, arranges...

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It’s early morning and a sleepiness hangs over the studio as students enter, alone or in quietly chatting pairs. A pianist, yawning, arranges her music as dancers peel off layers of clothing, tie up hair and claim a spot on the floor. The teacher, a tall blond man wearing sweatpants and an affectionately tolerant expression, takes silent attendance, puts away the list and nods. Class has begun.

Daily class is the backbone of a dancer’s life — and, perhaps, a mirror of that life. It begins simply, with stretches and bends; gradually grows more complex; builds to a big finish and ends with applause. The specific steps may vary, but the structure stays the same; infinitely challenging, comfortingly familiar. For a dancer, it is home.

At 49, Wade Madsen has spent his adult life as a dancer in that mirror — taking class, teaching class, making dances, receiving applause. And while doing that, he quietly became something else: a Seattle institution. He arrived in the 1970s, when what’s now called “the Seattle dance community” was born; and he’s still here now, inspiring the young dancers who look to him for a model of a life in dance, well lived.

“I think there’s an entire generation of dancers and choreographers in this town whose identity and aesthetic direction have been strongly shaped by Wade, first as their teacher at Cornish and then by continuing to work with him,” says Kitty Daniels, chairwoman of the dance department at Cornish College of the Arts. Madsen has been on the faculty at Cornish since 1985; he and Daniels have been friends for nearly 30 years.

Madsen has performed and toured with nationally known modern-dance companies, such as the Bill Evans Dance Company and Tandy Beal & Company. He’s traveled around the country to teach and to dance, but it’s Seattle where he’s made a life, establishing a reputation for the flowing beauty of his technique and the theatricality and breadth of his creative work. Other dancers and choreographers, some with bigger names, have started careers here and then flown east for the dance mecca of New York. Madsen stayed, put down roots, made a home.

“I think that if your call is toward national prominence, if in a sense, fame and fortune is the most meaningful thing in your life, then you make choices based on that,” says Daniels. Diana Cardiff, a dancer who has worked with Madsen many years, concurs. “To do that, it takes this kind of person that he doesn’t really want to be.”

“On some deeply intuitive level, for Wade,” says Daniels, “community is lifeblood.”

Class begins with dancers on their backs on the floor, stretching their arms and legs in an ever-growing X, arching their pelvises, sighing as muscles slowly wake up. “Think about the image of separating the muscles,” says Madsen, dreamily. “Maybe they’re not glued to the bone, but maybe floating around the bone.”

Watching Madsen dance, you get a sense of the human body’s infinite range of possibility. His endless limbs fold and unfold like origami, flowing through the movement, never hesitating. When he sways, he’s so loose you wonder whether he’ll fall; when he leaps and lands, it’s as if the floor is soft as a pillow.

Even when he sits at a table, some part of him is dancing: an eyebrow, a hand, a puckish smile. He’s a dazzlingly handsome man with spiked-out blond hair, an elegantly long face, two tiny silver hoops in his left ear, deceptively sleepy blue eyes that miss nothing. His posture is never rigid, but fluid; a man perpetually moving through warm, friendly waters.

Though Madsen has the ease of someone who danced his way out of the womb, his formal training began relatively late. Growing up in Albuquerque, N.M., he was the third of four children in what he describes as a Jack Mormon family (“you can drink Coke, and you can curse, but you go to church”). He was his grandparents’ 50th grandchild; their family reunion later filled a gym. His father, an engineer, and his mother, a homemaker and painter, still live in New Mexico. Madsen speaks affectionately of his parents, though they know little of his work and world. To them, “I’m just Wade, their son.”

His creative mother urged her son to express himself, and young Wade took art classes and enjoyed dancing along with “American Bandstand.” He took a disastrous jazz class in junior high — his pants ripped, and he was mortified in the way that only young teenagers can be. “I thought, ‘I’m never going back!’ ” he remembers. And he dropped in once to his sister’s ballet class, just like the song in “A Chorus Line” (“One morning Sis won’t go to dance class/ I grabbed her shoes and tights and all . . .”), and enjoyed the movement, the sensation of flying.

But that was about it, until Madsen entered the University of New Mexico with dreams of making it as an actor. A movement teacher advised him to consider becoming a dance major, but he wasn’t sure. Then something unexpected happened: A tumor developed in his throat, requiring surgery. Doctors said he might never speak again above a whisper. “I thought, ‘I guess I’m supposed to be a dancer,’ ” Madsen says. He was 20 years old. (The voice did eventually come back; a trademark rasp, but warm as melted chocolate.)

A period of improv — in which the students follow their own inclinations, moving spontaneously to create a dance — brings the class gradually to its feet. Madsen, his eyes half-shut, creates shapes as intricate as calligraphy. On all fours, a leg goes up, then droops like a broken wing. Around him, the students punctuate the floor; each lost in their own shapes.

In the university’s theater program, Madsen was assigned to be stage manager for the Bill Evans Dance Company when the group came to Albuquerque for a workshop. “I looked over in the wings, and there was this tall skinny guy with very, very short shorts and very, very long legs,” remembers Evans, now in his 60s and a visiting professor/artist in residence at State University of New York.

Watching from backstage, Madsen saw something he liked. Determined to join this company one day, he threw himself into dance classes, including a stint at Albuquerque Dance Theater.

Evans, an innovative dancer and choreographer often described as the grandfather of Seattle modern dance, was something of a Pied Piper. He moved his company to Seattle in 1976, dazzled by “the incredibly rich physical environment, the beauty of the place.” Dancers arrived in Seattle in droves during those years — Madsen, Pat Graney, Llory Wilson, Daniel Chick, Nancy Cranbourne — some to dance or study with Evans, some drawn to a new dance mecca.

Back then, apartments were cheap on Capitol Hill; the Russian Center on 19th Avenue East could be rented for $600 a month. The Bill Evans School (which became Dance Center Seattle upon Evans’ departure in 1984) was established there. The late ’70s was a rich time for dance in Seattle — On the Boards, a still-thriving haven for contemporary dance and performance, was founded in 1978 by a group of local artists, and in 1977, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell took over a youthful ballet company then called Pacific Northwest Dance, and now internationally known as Pacific Northwest Ballet.

And Madsen settled in — dancing, teaching at the school, making costumes, happy to be present at the birth of a genuine community.

On their feet now, the dancers follow Madsen in a series of exercises designed to strengthen and extend the limbs and muscles. Feet brush the floor as legs swing from the hip, swooshing into the air; toes point and flex swiftly as the limbs become warmer and more articulate.

Since settling in Seattle, Madsen and his career have followed a winding but focused road. He’s created a niche for himself while dabbling in other genres. That early theatrical training didn’t go to waste: Madsen has appeared at the Seattle Repertory Theater and Chicago’s Goodman Theater, acted in the films “Crocodile Tears” and “Threshold,” performed a long-running lounge act “Phoenicia and Vic” with actor/singer Victor Janusz (in which Madsen struts in elegant drag), been filmed as a dancing fisherman in an Ivar’s commercial and a costumed turkey for a turkey jerky ad, and, with three Cornish dancers, appeared on “Star Search.” (They got 2½ stars.)

Through all of this, he continues to perform, to choreograph, to teach. Making a living as a dancer in Seattle — or anywhere — is not easy. (Most dancers have a day job, or a second source of income.) Madsen’s professorship at Cornish provides stability, as well as other rewards. Asked what he’s learned from his students, his answer is thoughtful: “I’ve learned patience, learned to listen to what’s being said, to watch what’s being said. I’ve learned compassion, clarity, entry into a whole other creative world.”

Madsen in class is a low-key but focused presence, moving quietly from student to student, assisting with a hand placed just so, or a careful word, gently challenging them to challenge themselves. He teaches modern dance technique at Cornish four days a week and also teaches open classes at Velocity Dance Center one night a week.

Many of his students are new to modern dance, learning to speak in a fresh voice, studying history (Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan) and listening to Madsen in class. Modern, he says, “is about finding your language of movement. Ballet is its own vocabulary, it’s a series of steps that have been here for hundreds of years. Modern dance is more self-expression.”

To his students, he’s giving not only hints of the technique he’s refined but an example of a life lived in dance. “It’s important that (Cornish students) have faculty who are modeling that type of day-to-day real life, living the role of the artist,” says Daniels. “So, to see that Wade is out there in the community as an active artist, and to see that the people he’s working with are Cornish graduates, it sets up the message right away that you have a future in this field.”

At Cornish, he also teaches choreography, helping young dancers shape their own expression. In class, students take turns demonstrating their work. Madsen watches carefully, lounging on the floor, and elicits comments from the classroom, creating an analytical but warmly supportive environment. “I love watching you perform,” he tells a young woman, who smiles shyly. “I feel like I’m getting to witness the doorway to a gigantic building.”

Bodies thoroughly warmed up, the class focus moves to longer combinations and travel across the floor. Madsen demonstrates a tiny leap, pushing up on one arm from a curled position; a little electric pulse, like his legs were suddenly set free. In lines, the dancers try to emulate his smoothness, occasionally finding a moment to soar.

For a working choreographer, challenges are many: money, space, dancers, audience. Madsen has over the years choreographed some 160 works, from solos to large-scale pieces. Often he has worked with producing organizations: for 12 years with John Vadino’s Allegro! dance series; occasionally with On the Boards. Lately, he has more often self-produced, presenting concerts of his loosely formed company Wade Madsen and Dancers at venues such as Broadway Performance Hall and Velocity, around the corner. He has been commissioned to create dances for numerous companies, such as the local groups Co-Motion Dance, D-9 Dance Collective and Spectrum Dance Theater; and continually makes solo dances that provide a showcase for his own well-honed style.

Earlier this fall, he presented the new solo “Snake” as part of the Men in Dance festival. Dressed only in a pair of flowing, shimmery pants, Madsen coiled and shimmied across the floor, arms melting up and down in serpentine possession. It’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off this combination of technique and theatricality, and that’s where Madsen’s years of work come into play: He’s created his own artistic identity. (No one has arms longer than Madsen’s; when, in “Snake,” he lunges and extends his arms as if reaching, it seems that the beautiful, ever-growing lines he’s creating extend to the horizon.) It’s a broad aesthetic, encompassing everything from lyrical, exquisite joy-in-movement to spoken-word dance theater to comedy.

Cardiff, who’s danced in many of Madsen’s pieces, offers a description of his style. “His movement is flowy, but it has these sharp edges to it. It’s liquidy without being unclear — it doesn’t disappear into the ether, but makes a shape. It all comes from deep inside and out through your skin, as opposed to some movement that’s put on to you and you try and mimic it.”

Alison Cockrill, another dancer and longtime friend, adds, “He’s always effortless, even the things that he tries to make effortful. It’s so authentic, he comes back to it because he can’t help it. At the same time, he’s so aware of movement. He knows exactly how he is in space, all the time.”

Daniels says she’s often wondered, looking at Madsen, “what does the inside of that mind look like? My sense of him is this tremendous wonder, so many areas of life, he just seems to draw on so many different sources. That’s why he went toward theater and film — the scope of his creativity is so huge and so multidimensional and layered.”

For his dances, Madsen’s creativity is awakened by a variety of sources: a piece of music, a student’s gesture, a book recommended by a friend (“Don Quixote,” which led to the Madsen piece “Don’s Party”). He remembers being inspired by Vivaldi for one of his favorite pieces, “The Waiting Line,” choreographed in 1994 — a time when he had lost a number of people in his life. “The music led me down the path. I didn’t know what the piece was going to be, but it unfolded, about spiritual beings waiting in line to have a human existence.”

These days, Madsen is at work on a large-scale project, “The Four Elements,” rehearsing about 16 dancers in its parts: “Air,” “Earth,” “Water” and “Fire.” He’s producing it himself and hopes to present it next July, perhaps at Broadway Performance Hall. The dancers, all professionals, have been devoting Tuesday nights to rehearsal for some time now; a level of commitment that’s indicative of the esteem Madsen holds in the local dance community. “That’s one thing about Wade,” says dancer Cockrill. “People want to work with him so badly, because the movement feels beautiful.”

It’s a Tuesday night, and the mood is mellow in the vast Velocity studio. Madsen chomps on an apple as dancers swoop through the movements, talking to themselves. The choreographer — chatty and friendly, never the tortured artiste — wanders through the group, taking time to talk to each individually. The dance they are forming is “Air,” inspired, Madsen says, by “how smoke hangs, how it has an identity and a shape.”

A dance is formed from a million nuances; and while Madsen’s group faces many challenges (not the least of which is that several dancers are missing, phantom presences in the room), you can see something beautiful emerging. In one section, a slender, ponytailed woman wafts from one dancer to another, as if blessing them; in another, groups of dancers move in a complex harmony, working out traffic patterns as they shape the lines of their bodies. Some of them smile, not an audience-ready smile, but the quiet kind that reflects the joy of doing what one was meant to do.

Energy is at its highest as the class quickly learns its final combination; a big, intricate dance complete with jumps, spins, sudden changes of direction. Music pours from the piano as the dancers — now sweaty, and stripped down to tiny tank tops — attack the dance. Madsen watches, counting, leaping with them even as he stays on the ground. “Five-six-seven-eight . . .”

For other kinds of artists — say, musicians — middle age can mean increased virtuosity, a deeper understanding of one’s instrument, a profound artistry that only years of experience can bring. For a dancer, whose body is his instrument, the onset of years can bring a frustrating conundrum: as artistic ability and vision deepens, physical ability may decline. An over-40 body may not leap as fearlessly as it did at 20; an injury sustained in middle age may recover far more slowly.

Madsen, who will turn 50 in the spring, has long been defying the odds — he dances with the verve and range a man half his age might envy. Daniels, smiling in astonishment at her friend’s abilities, has seen many dancers retire before 40. Those who remain past that age, she says, “become more and more articulate at making every motion meaningful. With a lot of people, that’s the replacement — you’re no longer able to do quite as much, but it doesn’t matter, because you have a richer, deeper way of moving. What’s extraordinary about Wade is that he has both — he’s deepened his artistry at the same time that he’s maintained his physical facility. He’s just an inspirational dancer.”

In Madsen’s case, this hasn’t happened by accident: he’s dedicated to an intricate physical regimen: gym, swimming, weights, Pilates, chiropracty, acupuncture, physical therapy, a careful diet, an ever-present water bottle. Nonetheless, he still battles injuries, particularly a long-term back injury that’s causing his disks to flatten, shrinking his previously 6 foot 2 height by a good half-inch.

“You have to constantly move, be active all the time,” he says, stretching out on the floor of his cozy Capitol Hill apartment (which he owns, after 10 years). It’s a peaceful, airy space, with a view of the Seattle skyline, autumn-red walls and a painting of flowers, made by his mother.

Though his off-hours pleasures include movies, theater, bargain shopping, and time spent with friends (including his boyfriend of nearly three years, clothing designer/artist Macks Leger), Madsen devotes much time to staying in shape. Martha Graham, he notes, famously danced into her 70s, and as long as “the want and love and need” to be a performer and choreographer are there, he says, he wants that as an option. Madsen ruefully notes a friend’s observation that a dancer has two deaths: the regular one and, before that, the one that happens when you quit dancing, losing a level of your identity.

That’s not to say he doesn’t anticipate things changing in the next few years. He hopes to not self-produce any more after next summer’s concert; perhaps it’s time to formally create a company, with a board of directors. He may need to return to New Mexico to help his aging parents. He’ll likely do more theater work, even a return engagement of “Phoenicia and Vic.” But undoubtedly, he will keep dancing, finding challenge and inspiration in movement.

The clock signals that class must stop, as dancers gasp in happy exhaustion. In the tradition of dance classes everywhere, the final moment is that of applause, as students thank their teacher for the experience they have shared. Madsen applauds back, smiling. He’s not looking in the mirror, but you can see him reflected in it, looking perfectly at home.

Moira Macdonald is The Seattle Times movie critic. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.