Backstage Dance Studio

Backstage Dance Studio co-owner Mary Harper works with students Hannah Farkas, 5, left, and Madison Speaks, 5. (Photo by Nate Pesce / May 30, 2012)

Sisters Diane Andrews and Mary Harper have been dancing since they were 4 years old and teaching dance since they were in high school. Now at the ages of 54 and 47, respectively, they still have the same passion for the art that they had when they were young.

"I love it just as much," Harper said. "Even if I'm tired, when I walk in a dance class, I forget everything and I'm in the moment. I've never taken a break from dancing."

And the way it's going, she and her sister never will.

In 1987, Andrews and Harper opened Backstage Dance Studio in Columbia in a former 7-Eleven building in Bryant Woods, teaching toddlers and teenagers.

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After a fire destroyed the studio in August 1993, they reopened permanently a few months later in a much larger 4,600-square-foot space in the Gateway Plaza shopping center.

Now, 25 years after the first studio opened, the sisters have seen their business grow from 39 students to more than 600 dancers. To celebrate its success and anniversary, Backstage will have a special recital and program June 9 and 10 at Centennial High School.

"We'll have a 45-minute show, with lots of dancing, a special video presentation, awards and I promise, people won't be bored," Andrews said.

Backstage has expanded from just the two sisters running the studio, to having 16 instructors, an administrative staff and four sales employees in their dance supply store.

The sisters attribute their success to a number of factors. They said they added new dance styles, such as zumba, when they came along; they mix up the warm-ups and routines daily; and keep the studio music up-to-date. They and their instructors also go to New York City or Los Angeles every summer for a week of training to stay current.

"There are a lot of studios in the area and parents want the best, so we can't rest on our laurels," Andrews said.

The sisters also point out that beyond new dance styles, they've tried to keep up with other changes that have hit the industry over the years, such as the fact that dancers have to be more athletic these days.

"Four years ago, we started doing cardio and weight conditioning for our teams that compete," Harper said. "The pace of dancing is much faster now and the physical demands are ten times more demanding than when we were growing up. It's all about stamina and the body has to be in great shape, so we added that training."

Being located in Columbia has helped the company's longevity as well.

"I think being in Howard County with its slew of young families and professionals, helped us (during the recession)," Andrews said. "The last thing most professionals give up is their kids' stuff. Some may have cut back on the number of classes they took — two versus five — but they stayed and have come back to the point that we've experienced a growth spurt."

Sitting in one of their four spacious, brightly-colored dance studios and still looking fit, Andrews and Harper recalled the long hours and grueling workouts they endured that got them to where they are today.

Getting an early start

They grew up in Detroit and as preschoolers studied under noted dancer and chain studio owner Julie Adler, who with Joe Tremaine, founded the nationally recognized Tremaine Dance Competition.

"Our parents wanted us to be in a challenging studio and it was hard work, but we loved it and studied everything," Andrews said.

Because they said they excelled in all dance forms from jazz and tap to ballet, the two began teaching dance classes at a young age.

"I started teaching dance classes when I was 16 years old. We could teach at a younger age then," Harper said.