Not long after they began living their dream of owning a dance studio in their new hometown of Columbia 25 years ago, two sisters from Michigan watched that dream go up in flames — the seven-alarm kind.
Six years before tragedy struck, Diane Andrews and Mary Harper had decided to combine their artistic and entrepreneurial skills and become studio owners and artistic directors. Ready to take that leap of faith in June 1987, they rented a space and hustled to spread the word.
“No one knew who we were,” recalls Harper, who had followed her older sister from Michigan, where they had cultivated reputations as performers and teachers. “We canvassed the area and stuffed mailboxes with fliers.”
The pair found an affordable site in Wilde Lake near Bryant Woods Elementary School. There were only two or three dance studios in the area then, and only one was located in Columbia, so they figured they had a good shot at success.
In September 1987, Backstage Dance Studio opened its doors with 35 students. The sisters had been hoping for a larger number, but they drew on their characteristic high-energy approach and got down to business. Their charismatic brand of talent and optimism paid off.
“We grew quite fast, and had 125 students performing in our first recital,” Andrews says. “Growth was pretty consistent.”
But their years of smooth sailing were interrupted on Aug. 1, 1993, when their studio burned to the ground in the middle of the night.
“Someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail into the pool house nearby,” Andrews says. “We followed the fire trucks to the scene to see 9-foot flames.”
The timing of the disaster couldn’t have been worse. A classroom addition to the two-room studio had just been completed the day before and the final payment made to the contractor. A session of summer camp was set to begin later that very morning.
“We began calling everyone at 5 a.m. and offering refunds,” Harper recalls.
But through the behind-the-scenes magic of The Rouse Co., which was their landlord at the time, and the sisters’ own determination not to let catastrophe derail their young studio, “we were only down for a week,” Andrews says proudly.
“We moved into carpeted offices above a bagel shop,” Harper says. “We couldn’t really teach on carpet, but we made do.”
Then they moved at the end of August 1993 into the former Columbia exhibit center on Lake Kittamaqundi. It took a lot of hard work to install a temporary dance floor, she says, but they ran the studio from there from September to January.
Adds Andrews: “If the studio burned down today, I wouldn’t have the strength to deal with it.”
The sisters, who now live in Ellicott City, grew up with five other siblings, children of a mother who loved to dance. They danced “their whole lives,” Andrews says, and their family even performed together on occasion.
“Who’d have thought that we’d still be teaching together 25 years later?” she says to her sister.
Today both women are married with families of their own. Andrews has three sons, ages 26, 20 and 17, who started dancing at age 4 and stopped in their early teens. Harper’s 16-year-old daughter is a lifelong dancer and a member of the studio’s show troupe team. Her 12-year-old son has never danced formally.
The pair moved from the exhibit center in January 1994 into their current quarters at The Shops at Gateway Plaza off Columbia Gateway Drive, where they have three dance rooms and a dance supply store. They employ 12 teachers to instruct 600-plus students ranging in age from 2 to adult, using an 8-1 ratio.
Harper says they take their time hiring teachers to find the right fit since everyone on the staff works so closely together. “We all get along really well,” she says.