The music is throbbing, and Eva Anderson is hard at work. While a group of dancers glides to Latin rhythms across a rehearsal room floor at the Howard County Center for the Arts, Anderson watches intently for any missed beat or flubbed step.
"One-two-three-four, five-six-seven-eight," Anderson murmurs to herself as she taps one tennis shoe-clad foot. "Yes, yes, that's it."
For more than 25 years, Anderson has commanded the Eva Anderson Dancers Ltd., a company that has become almost synonymous with African American dance in the region. Part choreographer, part mother figure, Anderson has been the driving force behind the company, which has displayed a longevity almost unheard of in Maryland dance circles.
"It's such an inspiration to the rest of us, " said Ellyne Brown Downs, co-director of the Columbia-based Aurora Dance Company, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary with a performance at the Columbia Festival of the Arts Thursday and Friday. "To see a black company be around for so long is nothing short of amazing, and it's all because of Eva."
Her company has toured Europe, Anderson has choreographed scenes for Barry Levinson's movie "Avalon," and her influence has been felt throughout Maryland's dance world. She's taught dance at Howard Community College and Goucher College, and often has served as a dance juror for the Maryland State Scholarship Board.
Sitting in her Columbia home, surrounded by family photos and African art, she cuts a majestic figure in her flowing blue blouse, with matching pants and scarf containing her curly, black hair.
She can't remember a time when she didn't love music, she said. Growing up the daughter of a Presbyterian minister in Chester, S.C., during the 1930s, Anderson was encouraged to learn how to play the piano.
"I was born during segregation, and there was no place for a black girl to take dance lessons," she said. "Piano lessons were considered acceptable. There wasn't always music in the house like there is in homes today."
After seeing a 1943 touring production of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" featuring the original cast, young Eva knew what she wanted to be. "Before that, the only dancing you would see was in the movies," she said. "It made a huge impression on me."
But Anderson didn't receive formal training until she received a dance scholarship to Bard College in New York at age 16.
She studied for three years under Zoe Warren, a follower of modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, but Anderson didn't want to restrict herself to any one style.
So she studied classical ballet with teachers from American Ballet Theater and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and African dance with Olatunji, a noted Nigerian drummer and dancer. That diverse training helped her develop a unique style that fuses modern, ballet and African dance.
"I assume that people, when they know you are a black company, assume that you will do a 'black thing,' whatever that is," Anderson said. "Everything I create comes from a black experience because I am a black woman with a black mind. But there are no limitations."
Through it all, Anderson has created a balance, raising funds to keep her company going even as she and her husband of 47 years, businessman H. Humbert Anderson, have raised three sons.
"Maryland is a hard state to have a professional dance company because the majority of people are more supportive of music and visual arts and dance is sort of the stepchild," said Anderson, who employs dancers on a per-performance basis. "Dance companies have failed left and right, but through luck and staying close to the community, we have survived."
At a rehearsal for performances tonight and tomorrow at the Columbia Festival of the Arts, Anderson puts her group of dancers through their paces. Sweat pours from their lean bodies as Anderson has them run through each piece twice.
"Stay up stage, Monique," she calls over the music. "Push yourselves through, keep moving."
Branch Morgan III is an original member of the company who still dances for Anderson. Morgan, a foreign language and dance teacher at Southwestern High School in Baltimore, said Anderson has nurtured his talent over the years.
"I believe in what she does," he said. "She's a traveler, and we are getting all types of international flavors in the dances because of it. I am thinking of leaving the nest to start my own project, and she has been very supportive of that."
Gwen R. Barnes said Anderson allows for a great deal of input from the dancers.
"It's not a typical style of dancing because we do a lot of acting," said Barnes, who has danced for Anderson for two years. "She adjusts to everyone's needs and realizes that each dancer brings something to the performance, so she wants you to put a little bit of yourself in the movements."
Junetta Jones, a coordinator for the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture has known Anderson since the 1970s when her dance company was in residence at Gallery 409.
"Eva would always bring in these top-notch choreographers from New York, and at the time, not many other people were doing modern dance in the area," said Jones, who was director of the gallery. "She is an excellent, excellent choreographer."
Anderson said the future holds a lot of promise for dance, which is attracting a broader audience these days. And while she still teaches ballroom dancing, Anderson said she has scaled back performing with her company to focus on what she loves.
"I am a choreographer," she said. "That is who I am."
What: The Eva Anderson Dancers
Where: The Rouse Theater in Columbia.
When: Tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $15 and $10