By Gwendolyn Glenn
11:59 AM EDT, June 7, 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.
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.
Although she was an English major at Madonna College, in Michigan, Harper continued studying and teaching dance as an undergraduate student. So did Andrews, who studied dance and psychology at Mary Grove College, in Detroit.
"I thought I was going to go into dance therapy, but after college, I went to Las Vegas and took classes with casino dancers and got a job in Ito, Japan, in a Vegas-style show for six months," Andrews said.
Shortly after that, it was Andrews who made the move to Columbia first.
She had gotten married, and in 1984 she moved here because of her husband's work. Soon afterward, she became pregnant and said, "My husband worked long hours and I was stir crazy. Plus, I was missing dancing, so I looked for a job at a studio. There were only three in the area at the time and I didn't feel I fit in with them."
It was at that point that Andrews decided to open her own studio in Columbia. Not wanting to go it alone, who better to run it with than her sister, who was a senior in college at the time.
"I was in the middle of practice teaching and I didn't like it, so I decided to quit school and go to Maryland. It wasn't a hard decision when Diane asked me to come," said Harper, who came to Maryland in May 1987.
"And in June, we signed the lease in Bryant Woods," Andrews said, finishing the story. "We put my baby, who was 1, in the back seat and drove around, passing out fliers in parking lots, putting them in mail boxes and on cars and people responded."
They opened with nearly 40 students, but had 125 by the time the studio's first annual recital was held nine months later.
"There was a need for a studio like ours and we promoted our jazz style of dance as being West Coast — more current, hip and cutting edge in our advertising," Harper said. "I think we had a great response, too, because we were young, fresh, passionate and we both tapped well. We grew fast and had to turn people away."
'Mentors for life'
Samantha Gersham of Columbia started at Backstage at 4 years old and took lessons from 1994 to 2008. She said her parents were attracted to the studio because of its broad range of dance styles.
"I took jazz, ballet, lyrical and later hip-hop classes at Backstage. A lot of studios are good at only one style, but Backstage is well-rounded," Gersham said.
Gersham performs in musical theater productions in New York, where she lives, and currently is in a production of "Aladdin" at the Tuscan Center in Irvine, Utah. She credits her prowess as a dancer to the years she studied at Backstage.
"I studied in college, but I owe my technique to Backstage," Gersham said. "They got my style, understood how I learned and challenged me above my ability to get better. I also felt they wanted us all to be better dancers and it was not just about the money we paid. They had an ability to make you have the time of your life. It was so much fun and they're my mentors for life, my extended family."
Diane DeSantis' three daughters started out at Backstage as preschoolers and two are still there, taking 10 to 18 classes during the school year, plus summer lessons. DeSantis pointed to the family atmosphere of Backstage, where Harper's and Andrews' children also took lessons alongside the other students, as a reason she stayed with the studio. She also was impressed with the instruction.
"It's a rigorous program and although they treat you like family, they don't let my girls slack off, but they have to perform at 150 percent every day," DeSantis said. "My girls have been transformed into excellent dancers and win top awards. My youngest won a break-out artist award at a workshop in D.C. in March."
Many of Andrews' and Harper's students have done well in competitions. The trophies throughout the studio attest to that and in July, they hope to do well at the national showstoppers East Coast Competition in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Last year, their students danced during a Washington Wizard's basketball game and at Madison Square Garden during a New York Knicks game.
Many of their former students are dancing professionally, they said, some run their own studios others have worked for Harper and Andrews, who no longer teach six days a week, but only one full day and one half day. .
In reflecting on their careers, Harper and Andrews admit it's been a lot of hard work and that although they are not old, they sometimes feel that way when they see their former students' children in their classes.
"That's actually special though because their parents were with us through childhood, high school and now we're teaching their children," Harper said. "This is a second home for all of them and we're still passionately trying to continue to inspire. I wouldn't change a thing about what we've done here, except, I would've omitted the fire."
Tickets for Backstage's 25th anniversary celebration and recital at Centennial High School on June 9 and 10 at 3 and 7 p.m. are available at the studio and the school on the day of the event. Adult tickets are $13 and $10 for children 8 years old and under. Proceeds will benefit the Casey Cares Foundation for terminally ill children.