Those who remember taking up dance as children — often at the insistence of well-meaning moms — recall all too well the pressures that can easily develop, including an unhealthy compulsion to compare oneself to others.
She started out at 4, absorbing the lessons of modern dance — "you learn a lot about your feet," she says — and stayed with it through her teens, when she was first exposed to the teachings of Russian classical ballet.
It was the late 1940s, and the feel of the techniques transformed her.
"I just loved those shapes your body could make, including arabesques [positions taken on one leg, the other extended to the rear]," Owen says. "I loved the beauty and the harmony of it, the way one movement flowed into the next."
She had enough talent to dance semiprofessionally — she rose to the position of soloist with the Civic Ballet of Washington — but let her career languish when she got married and had a family. She returned to dance, mainly as a teacher of children, as a young adult.
When she reached her 50s, Owen says, she decided to return to dance as a form of recreation, but she encountered an all-too-common dilemma: The only classes available to someone of her age included students in their teen years and up.
The instruction in such classes, she says, skews heavily toward the younger dancers, and so do the exercises.
"They asked for a bunch of different kinds of jumps in the center of the floor," she says of one. "I was excited; I could have done those things in my 20s. But it was too fast and complicated."
She left frustrated.
Owen came to a conclusion that has affected hundreds of dancers at Maryland Hall over the past 16 years.
"People who want to dance [when they're older] need a class that challenges them, but that lets them go away feeling good about themselves," she says. "Otherwise, what's the point?"
Any group that has been together for a while develops a personality of its own, and in this one, a single class member has emerged as a sort of symbol.
Owen clicks the remote control in her hand, switching the music on the boom box to a slow march, suitable for practicing battement tendu — a movement in which the dancer slides a foot forward or sideways, lifting the heel off the floor and stretching the instep.
She directs the class's attention to a woman gently gripping the barre at the end of one row, her face a picture of serene concentration.
Laverne Papian extends a leg, establishing a clean line from hip to extended toe, all at a 45-degree angle.
At 86, she's the oldest student of the class and probably the most widely admired.
"She's my inspiration," says Lynn Yarbro, 66, of Arnold, who has created a passable approximation of the gesture. "I'd love to be doing what Laverne is doing when I'm her age — staying active and enjoying life."