Dance Teachers Trending

These Two Studio Owners Forgot They Were Competitors and Became Best Friends

Debbie Lamontagne and Jane O'Donnell. Photos courtesy of Lamontagne and O'Donnell

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.


Debbie's jazz class. Photo courtesy of Lamontagne.

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."


Jane's tap class. Photo courtesy of O'Donnell.

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."

Role Reversal

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."


Breast Cancer Walk in 2009. Photo courtesy of Lamontagne and O'Donnell

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."


Friends became family when Lamontagne and O'Donnell's kids married. Photo by Daniel Doke, courtesy of Lamontagne and O'Donnell.

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."

On a cruise to Nassau. Photo courtesy of Lamontagne and O'Donnell.


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."

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jacqueline Chang, courtesy of Ailey Extension

Marshall Davis Jr.'s introduction to tap dance began at 10 years old at African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, where his father is director, in Miami, Florida. Training began in sneakers and dress shoes that Davis Jr. did his best to get sound out of. "My father was reluctant to invest in tap shoes, because he thought it was likely I would change my mind about dancing," he says. But it didn't take long before Davis Jr.'s passion for tap became undeniable, and his father bought him his first pair of tap shoes. Just one year later, Davis Jr. became the 1989 Florida winner for the Tri-Star Pictures Tap Day contest, a promotion for the movie Tap, starring Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. Through that experience, a new tap-dancing future was opened.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: Are there good sources to find replacement dance teachers? When I go through standard employment services, I get people who are not properly trained or lack experience.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Courtesy of Susan Jaffe

Throughout Susan Jaffe's performance career at American Ballet Theatre, there was something special, even magical, about her dancing. Lauded as "America's quintessential American ballerina" by The New York Times, Jaffe has continued to shine in her postperformance career, most recently as the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She credits the "magic" to her meditation practice, which she began in the 1990s at the height of her career. We sat down with Jaffe to learn more about her practice and how it has helped her both on and off the stage.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Reviewing a simple recording of your voice when you're teaching can help you hear how you sound to your students. Taking the time to play back your instructions, corrections and compliments throughout class will help you find any weak spots as well as recognize some of your strengths. It's a great technique to help you evaluate your instructional ability and make improvements, and pat yourself on the back for things you are doing well. Plus, it's super-easy to do!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Including ballet competition standout Alina Taratorin (photo by Oliver Endahl, courtesy Taratorin)

Congratulations to the 39 talented dancers just named 2020 YoungArts award winners! This year's group of awardees includes several familiar faces from the competition scene.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo by Brian Babineau, courtesy Burghardt

When Alicia Burghardt entered Dean College in Massachusetts as a freshman dance major, it hadn't occurred to her that the Boston Celtics had a dance team. A competition kid with aspirations for Broadway, Burghardt never imagined herself as an NBA dancer. But by the time she was finishing her senior year, she'd not only joined the Celtics Dancers, she was choreographing a number for a major playoff game. And after finishing her rookie year, surrounded on that TD Garden parquet floor by uproarious fans, she couldn't help but stay for another. "It's unbelievable performing for Boston fans," she says. "They're so loyal to their team. It could be third quarter, down 20 points, and they're still cheering."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
"The Greatest Show on Earth." Photo by Brenda Rueb, courtesy of Vona Dance

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending

"No formal training. No dance studio. No mentor," says Erik Saradpon about his beginnings in hip hop.

"I think that's why I'm especially tough on these guys, because I don't take the relationship for granted," he says, referring to his students. "I'm like a dad to them. I had a shortage of role models in my life. I wanted that so badly. I project that onto my kids."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
From Coppélia. Photo by Toshi Oga, courtesy of MOGA

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Nanette Grebe/Getty Images

Have you heard the story about the dancer who needed a double hip replacement…at age 16?

It's not an urban legend—just ask iconic choreographer Mia Michaels. In a video series about dance injuries, produced by Apolla Performance Footwear, Michaels tells the tale of a teenage comp kid who pushed so hard she ended up in surgery.

That dancer's harrowing story was one of the inspirations for the Bridge Dance Project. The new initiative—brainchild of Jan Dunn, co-director of Denver Dance Medicine Associates, and Kaycee Cope Jones, COO of Apolla—aims to connect members of the competition and commercial dance communities with dance science experts. While many academic and professional concert dancers have benefited from recent advances in dance medicine, that information hasn't made its way to most of the young students in convention ballrooms. And as the technical demands on those students increase, so does the number of injuries.

We talked to Dunn and Jones about how the Bridge Dance Project was born, the initiative's long-term goals, and why young competition and commercial dancers should make injury prevention a priority.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Jessica Kubat (center) with her studio staff. Photo by Vincent Alongi, courtesy of Kubat

Jessica Kubat's path to becoming a studio owner wasn't typical or glamorous or the product of a family business, handed down. When she opened MJ's House of Dance in Lindenhurst, New York, this past summer, she had just turned 40, was a mom of three, and had worked at two different studios long-term. Over the last two and a half years, she'd painstakingly saved up $25,000 and had gone to the Small Business Development Center at a local college on Long Island for help creating her business plan. Her area was moderately saturated with studios, so she spent considerable time planning what would set her school apart—live musical accompaniment, for one—and hired a marketing director nine months before the business even opened. It was a methodical, careful approach—Kubat calls it "the old-fashioned way"—to opening a studio, and it's paid off: She started summer classes with 75 students and is well on her way to reaching her first-year enrollment goal of 250 dancers. "When I turned 40, I decided that it was time to do something bigger," says Kubat. "I always wanted to own a studio—it was just never financially available to me."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
From "Boston—Our City." Photo by Rachel Hassinger, courtesy of BalletRox

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox