A passion for dance
Janie Williams, the owner and director of the Stars Dance Studio, got up for the second time to shut the door as a gust of wind blew it open.
“Our building is a little bit older,” she said. “But it serves its purpose.”
The second floor has done more than that, though, as number 6A has been the home of the Stars Dance Studio — and Williams’ dream — for the past 20 years.
“I never really planned on opening a studio,” she said. “I was actually a legal secretary for a few years.”
The corporate world could not contain Williams’ passion for dance, honed over the years of experience since she was a child. She grew up in a family of nine, moved around quite a bit, and finally landed in Eagle River in 1980. Even with that hectic lifestyle, her parents always found time for her to dance.
Williams said it took three years to fully detach herself from the secretary gig and commit herself to dance.
“It kind-of fell in my lap, to be truthful with you,” she said. “When I first started teaching through community schools, the head teacher at Gruening Middle School contacted me and said they were interested in starting a dance program.”
Williams was only 25 at the time, with a newborn and 3-year-old at home, but she agreed to teach lessons on Saturdays. Kids loved it, parents were interested, and soon she had enough dancers to open the studio.
Twenty years later the studio is still going strong, with more than 180 dancers and numerous trophies lining the walls. Williams shrugged and confessed she had nothing really special planned for the 20th anniversary but, “we do have a recital in May. I thought it might be fun to have a slide show added to it.”
Through opportunities for dancers, performances and competitions, Williams’ home-grown studio has displayed Eagle River talent in a myriad of ways over the past two decades. In the past few years alone the dancers performed on the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line to the Mexican Riveara twice.
“The cruises were awesome,” Williams said. “We did two 30 minute shows. We did solos, team dances like hip-hop and jazz, and character dances.”
Her elite team — comprised mostly of teenagers — recently attended the Alaska Spirit Coaches Association in October 2011 and won first place in both their division and overall.
“It’s great to win,” Williams said. “But you go there and you learn from it. Even if you don’t win, you get the experiences.”
In December 2011, her dancers were background performers for local rapper named Blaack when he opened for rap star Nelly at the Sullivan Arena.
“It gave them a taste of what it would be like to make dance your career,” she said. “The girls loved it. We had an amazing time.”
Williams’ gray eyes sparkled behind her glasses as she talked about her dancers. In the beginning, Williams only had 11 to her name — and two of them were her nieces — but as her studio grew in reputation and skill, dancers of all ages came to learn there.
“Right now, our biggest age group is probably the 5-8 year olds,” Williams said. “It just seems like we can never keep enough classes for them.”
The next age group — 9 to 12 year olds — are right behind the youngsters in numbers and the teenage group comes next. Also, any adults who would like to learn the art of dance are welcome.
“We offer adult hip-hop and jazz, as well as tap,” Williams said.
There was even an adult country-dance class that Williams taught herself. What’s more, the studio has been home to many generations of dancers.
“A lot of my past dancers have had kids who take dance classes here,” said Williams. “I joke that I have pictures of them dancing — blackmail pictures! It’s been really fun.”
Over the past 20 years, Williams said the studio itself hasn’t changed much but the style of dance has.
“At first we didn’t even offer ballet at our studio because no one wanted to take it,” she said.
She said Alaska didn’t have much of a calling for it, as opposed to places like California or Florida, and that the kids thought ballet was boring. A few competitions outside of Alaska changed the minds of her performers though.
“They were just blown away by how technically correct other dancers were,” she said. “And I told them, ‘It’s ballet, guys, we need ballet.’”
After that, ballet was a core class. It’s part of the package deal: if a performer wants to be part of a dance team, they must have a ballet class incorporated into their schedules. The studio soon added tap to the class offerings, as well as hip-hop and tumbling.
As for the future, Williams just wants her students to continue dancing and having fun at her studio.
“It’s great to see a beginner dancer who’s really shy the first year, then you get to see in the next few years how they grow more confident and soon become this amazing dancer,” she said.
She said there aren’t too many pitfalls to having a studio.
“It does get stressful,” she admitted, before smiling. “But I have some amazing workers to help me.”
There are no big plans in the making for her Stars Dance Studio, Williams said. It might expand, or it might not.
“We’re just going to see what happens,” she said.