The program has trained ballerinas talented enough to perform with the Moscow Ballet. Broadway dancers and respected instructors have gotten their start there.
But now the future of Towson University's Children's Dance Division is in question, with its longtime director resigning, many of its teachers quitting and university administrators announcing that changes are in the works.
Hundreds of children, ages 3 to 18, are enrolled in the popular program, which has grown into a respected adjunct to the university's dance department. But the number of college dancers has increased, too, leaving university administrators to say they must try to squeeze both programs into limited space.
"We need to really start talking in serious depth about issues that really haven't been discussed in many years: What is the role of the Children's Dance Division in the university, and in the dance department? Is there a way to support both?" says Kit Spicer, dean of Towson University's College of Fine Arts and Communications.
To some parents of young dancers in the program, the questions sound ominous.
"We're afraid we're going to lose this," said Linda Lotz, whose 14-year-old daughter has been dancing with the program since she was 8. "There really isn't anything else like it. It's been such a loving, supportive program. It's amazing how they develop these children into beautiful dancers."
Parents of children in the program met with university officials last week and plan to meet again today. At a recital Sunday, parents collected signatures on petitions that call for the program to be maintained.
Established in 1981 by Helene Breazeale, a professor emeritus who spent 32 years on the university's dance faculty, the Children's Dance Division offers 80 courses weekly for boys and girls.
Many of the older students perform in the annual December and June concerts held in Stephens Hall. And some students have also been invited to perform with the Moscow Ballet when the company is in town, and with other dance troupes.
The program also has a reputation for including students with disabilities, and those of various sizes, shapes and skill levels, parents say.
Towson University also offers a preparatory program for young musicians, a summer theater program called "Silver Penny," and classes for children and adults at the Center for Community Arts, Spicer says. But none is more popular than the Children's Dance Division, he says.
It's so successful, Spicer says, that "it's too big at the moment for us to support."
The university needs to be able to provide dance majors studio time to rehearse, he says. At the same time, the number of students at the university is on the rise; by fall there were will be 2,000 more than there were three years ago. Many of them want to take dance courses to fulfill general education requirements, Spicer says.
In the fall, there are expected to be 120 dance majors, double the number from just two years ago, says Spicer.
A projection of the space needs of the dance department and the Children's Dance Division shows that there simply isn't enough to accommodate everyone, according to Spicer.
Still, the summer and fall Children's Dance Division programs will only have to be slightly smaller, Spicer says.
But by fall of 2008 or spring of 2009, he says, he expects the children's program will only offer about 70 percent of the classes it does today.
The reaction from parents has been emotional. Some say they've felt blindsided by the situation. Others complain that university administrators aren't communicating clearly.
And many are devastated by the loss of Gloria Lang, who resigned this month after serving for 23 years as the director. Some of the 14 teachers have also quit in recent weeks, though Spicer declined to say how many.
Spicer also said he would not provide figures for the revenue generated by the children's classes, which average about $200 per student per class, beyond saying that revenue has been declining over the past several years.
"I don't think [administrators] realize what it means to all of us," says Cathy McFeeters, whose 13-year-old daughter is completing her fifth year of classes. "My fear is that we've invested these five years to reach the pinnacle of the performance level that won't exist as we know it today."
The students and faculty have also become a family, says Lotz.
"It's my daughter's whole life outside of school," she says.
At the same time, Lotz says, the parents "want the university to be healthy."
A parent advisory group is being formed to talk about such options as scaling back some offerings or moving the program off campus to allow for future growth, Spicer says.