Every studio has a story. And when two or more are gathered in a 15-mile radius, behind-the-scenes drama and regional rivalries often figure prominently in their histories. In a small town in northeastern Massachusetts, however, the story is quite different. Instead of a tale of stolen students or cutthroat competition, it's a story of love: An act of nature, unexpected kindness and devastating illness resulted in a remarkable friendship between two studio owners.
From a Flood Comes a Friend
Like many good stories, this one starts on a rainy night. Jane O'Donnell enjoyed Mother's Day 2006 with her family, aside from one nagging worry. It had been raining continuously for three weeks, and her dance studio, Center for the Performing Arts (CPA), was located in the basement of a building near the Shawsheen River in North Andover. But weather reports finally promised clearing skies, so she turned off her phone and went to bed. The next morning, she had five messages, all from her landlord. “I knew I was in trouble," says O'Donnell, who rushed to the school only to see tap shoes and CDs floating inside. The river had crossed a parking lot, crashed through a glass door and filled the studio to the ceiling.
Devastated, O'Donnell began contacting her students, telling them not to come to class. Then she got a call. It was Debbie Lamontagne, owner of the nearby North Andover School of Dance (NASD), offering help. The two women had only met once before, at a tap workshop taught by Brenda Bufalino in New Hampshire. When O'Donnell, taken aback by the offer, replied that she didn't yet have a plan, Lamontagne said she'd bring over keys to her studio (just five miles from CPA) and double up her classes so that O'Donnell could use NASD's space for her own classes.
For the CPA recital a few weeks later, Lamontagne lent O'Donnell everything she needed (including tap shoes and CDs). “I had never in my life known that kind of unconditional kindness," says O'Donnell. As CPA's recital drew to a close, a screen lowered and, to the strains of Billy Joel's “The River of Dreams," a slideshow illustrated the flood's damage. As the images faded to black, a message appeared: “The river took our studio but not our spirit. We'll be back."
The Road Back
Recovery would not be simple; the school had taken a significant financial hit. Although the landlord had flood insurance and O'Donnell had both renters' and loss of business insurance, neither of those covered the contents of the studios. (She later learned she needed flood insurance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency—FEMA.) “I had to put in new floors, new mirrors, new barres, new computers, new everything," she says. “It was probably about $100,000." Enrollment dropped as other nearby studios (there are six in North Andover, which has a population of 28,000) poached students. “There were dance teachers in the area who took advantage of the fact that my studio was a mess," says O'Donnell. “The dark side of being a studio owner is that some people will rejoice at someone else's misfortune."
Lamontagne encouraged O'Donnell not to give up, proposing a performance fundraiser—starring both studios' students—to help pay for a new computer for O'Donnell. “Debbie said, 'We're going to raise money and help you get back on your feet, because you have a gift to share,'" O'Donnell says. “It would have been easy for her not to—we would have been one less studio to compete with. She showed me that you have to put yourself out there when the opportunity arises." They called the fundraiser “That's What Friends Are For."
It was an apt title—a great friendship had blossomed between the two women. “It's nice to have a friend who does the same thing and has the same concerns and the same joys," says Lamontagne. “I like having somebody to bounce ideas off of and share stories with." O'Donnell describes them as “like Lucy and Ethel. I'm crazy Lucy and she's Ethel—relatively more reserved, but always there for the fun."
The studios, while close geographically, each have a different focus: NASD has a competition team and CPA does not. “It's a whole different mindset and philosophy," says O'Donnell. “So it worked! She would help at my recital, and I would help at hers. It was a wonderful opportunity for our students to see that different studios don't have to be enemies."
In 2009, O'Donnell was backstage at NASD's recital when Lamontagne learned that she had breast cancer. This time, it was O'Donnell's turn to be a source of support. “What I lost in the flood was stuff, material things that could be replaced. It was inconvenient, and it was expensive," she says. “But when Debbie was diagnosed with breast cancer, that put everything in perspective. Stuff can be replaced. But your best friend can't."
During Lamontagne's multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, O'Donnell cooked meals, called every day (“Even when I felt like I was dying, she made me laugh," says Lamontagne) and did everything short of teaching classes at NASD—she didn't want to cross the line. “When a few teachers who are on 'the dark side,' as we call it, found out she had cancer," says O'Donnell, “they moved to the same town and tried to take advantage of the fact that she was sick. I helped her through that."
Love Is in the Air
Lamontagne's son Leo moved home that August from Chicago, where he had been dancing with Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, to help his mom. He started teaching and helping out at NASD, and, predictably, there were a few bumps in the road; mother and son occasionally butted heads. “I said to my mom one day, 'We're going to kill each other if we work together like this every day,'" says Leo, with a laugh. “I asked, 'Doesn't Jane have a daughter who works with her? I'm going to take her to lunch to find out how they're not killing each other.'" Leo and O'Donnell's daughter Meghan immediately realized how much they had in common and started dating—though they didn't reveal their relationship to their mothers for quite a while.
“We knew!" protests O'Donnell. “Mothers' intuition. I would call Debbie and say, 'Your son was at my house last night, watching a movie.' And she'd say, 'Meghan came over here today.' I told Debbie, 'This is going to end one of two ways: They'll end up together, or they'll break up and one of our kids' hearts will be broken. So we have to pinkie swear that our friendship is going to remain intact.'"
On May 2, 2014—almost eight years to the day since the flood—Leo and Meghan were married in Captiva, Florida, in what O'Donnell calls “a beautiful destination wedding." Ever the studio owner, she adds, wryly, “The timing was crappy, because it was a month before the recitals, and we were a little stressed. But it was beautifully choreographed, and we had awesome lighting and music—all the things we're really good at."
Both children are considering eventually taking over the management of their mothers' studios, and the two women are getting used to being family as well as friends. “We're still figuring out how to be family in businesses that technically compete with each other," says O'Donnell. “But I like to think that we are Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks in the same town. We can offer the same thing and cohabitate."
As their story continues to unfold, both families look with anticipation to the next chapter and marvel at the twists and turns that have shaped their story. “Whoever thought a little bit of rain could turn into so much good?" says Leo. Adds Lamontagne, “I made a phone call one night, trying to help someone I really didn't know that well—and it ended up turning into a great friendship and a love story."