Dance floor hidden for 24 years brings back 54 years of memories

Brennan LaBrie
blabrie@ptleader.com
Posted 8/7/19

On July 16, Becca Spencer stepped into the studio in which she had grown up, dancing from the age of 7 and then teaching later on, for perhaps the last time.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

E-mail
Password
Log in

Dance floor hidden for 24 years brings back 54 years of memories

Posted

On July 16, Becca Spencer stepped into the studio in which she had grown up, dancing from the age of 7 and then teaching later on, for perhaps the last time.

With a team of instructors and friends, Spencer took to rolling up the dance floor and removing the ballet bars and mirrors of O’Meara Performing Arts Academy, which sits on the second floor of the Odd Fellows Hall building above the Uptown Theatre on Lawrence Street.

As they rolled up the black mat floor, they exposed the plywood beneath it, across which were written names and messages in black Sharpie, some of the names regulars at the studio since Joan O’Meara started it in her basement in 1965. Around the outer perimeter of the room, where the plywood lay exposed, the names of dancers from this past season, the studio’s 54th and final, could be found.

Spencer, like many of her fellow instructors and the students she taught, had joined the studio in elementary school. Many others got their start in the pre-ballet class open to 3-year-olds, continuing to dance through high school and further into their lives as part of the adult tap class.

“It was emotional, to say the least,” said Spencer, now 22, on the tear-down process. “Seeing everything so empty is very impactful. We could definitely feel Joan’s presence in the studio.”

The studio saw a decrease from 180 to 70 students in 2018, said Erin O’Meara, who took over the studio from her mother Joan in 2015.

O’Meara had moved to Palm Desert, CA, in 2017 to be with her mother in the last months of her life, but had returned to Port Townsend seven times to teach and manage the studio. This past year, the fall in enrollment meant she couldn’t cover the studio’s expenses, including paying the 11 instructors, whose classes she could no longer cover herself if she wanted to cut costs. Now a Pilates and workout instructor in Palm Desert, she had to work extra to cover the studio’s costs, until it was no longer feasible.

“The last thing I wanted to do was to have to close my mother’s legacy,” O’Meara said. “The dance studio meant so much to me. I grew up in it. It was my life for 41 years. It was extremely hard for me to have to close our dance home and absolutely heartbreaking.

“It tore me apart knowing I was closing something that has meant so much to so many. Watching the students and community cry at our very last show in June was really hard and nearly broke me.”

“The last year, it was chaotic,” Spencer said. “But it was very emotional and everyone was there for each other. We’ve all been through the same thing...it was a crazy ride.”

Former dancers, some of whom had trained under Joan O’Meara in the basement era, returned to the studio to take classes in order to help the studio out and be there for the young dancers, Spencer said.

“It was just really cool to see everyone in the community step in and be up there for us all,” she said.

Over its 54 years, the studio had eight homes. After moving the operation out of her basement, Joan O’Meara rented spaces across town including the Jefferson County Fairgrounds stage, the post office, Key City Public Theatre, and the Port Townsend Athletic Club. Her favorite classes to teach were ballet and tap, and she continued to teach while pregnant with Erin and her other daughter Kim. Her daughters danced and later taught under Joan. Erin’s first year was the final year at the Athletic Club, and the 23 years following that, she taught ballet, jazz, tap, lyrical, hip hop, tumbling and workout classes in the two studios uptown. She taught up to six classes a day at the studio, nine a day during the time she taught dance at Port Townsend High School as well.

“It meant the world to me giving the love of dance to kids and adults,” O’Meara said.

O’Meara estimates she saw thousands of students pass through her classes over the years. She’s seen students go on to dance school, careers in the performing arts, and owning their own studios. For a period, the studio had over 200 students and had to open a satellite studio in the building that now houses Alchemy Wine Bar.

And it wasn’t just girls -- the studio saw plenty of boys over the years, with the most being the 19 boys O’Meara taught in her 19th year as teacher.

“I would say that teenage guys came there for girls, that’s how it usually works,” she said.

Both O’Meara and Spencer called the studio a home, a sentiment they believe is shared by everyone else who spent a few years dancing there.

“Our studio was a family, a second home, a safe place,” O’Meara said.

“It was a place where I could go and not think about my life elsewhere,” Spencer said. “I wouldn’t be a dancer today if it wasn’t for Joan O’Meara. My family didn’t have the funds to pay for classes, so my mom worked in the office in order to pay for classes.”

Rosie Carey, 19, joined the studio at age 7. Before joining, she described herself as “painfully shy,” but that the first time she went on stage with her classmates at the studio, she could feel something about her change.

“From that point on I just developed everything that I love about myself, like being really good with kids and feeling like I have a little bit of control over the way I feel,” she said. For over a decade, the studio gave her a “safe space” to develop a feeling of confidence and control in her life.

Marge Abraham, a 1943 PTHS graduate, approached Joan O’Meara about opening up a dance studio in 1965, and danced with O’Meara until this past season, enjoying tap and musical theatre the most.

“It was very joyous,” she said of her 54 years with the studio. “If you didn’t feel too sharp, by the time you went up to the studio you felt really good. It was just really good vibes. Joan was very special.”

Jan Klockers Boutilier was one of the people who signed the plywood floor in the 1990s. She had signed her daughter up for tap at age 5, and later began tap lessons herself. Her daughter grew up dancing with O’Meara and her sister Kim, before graduating and moving away. Meanwhile, Boutilier stayed with the studio, joining Joan O’Meara’s musical theatre dance group, the “Fantabulous Follies,” for its 10-year run.

“Joan believed in me, a shy girl, and that made me want to step outside my comfort zone to make her proud,” Boutilier said. “I grew so much over the course of our time doing the Follies. We performers were a family and Joan was our leader, and she really believed in us. I know I will never experience anything with this intensity and duration again, but feel so fortunate to have had this wonderful and growing experience in my life. She gave so much to our town and to the youth and adults here.”

Spencer, along with other dance instructors, are meeting to discuss opening up a new studio in town, to which Spencer hopes to bring the “culture of family” of their former dance studio. They are currently looking for a temporary rental space “just to get some sort of classes going, so we don’t lose any of the students that we have, until we can find a more primary location.”

However, she said it will be odd dancing anywhere else in the future.

“I’ve only ever been in this studio, the one above the Uptown Theatre,” she said. “And I’ve literally shed blood, sweat and tears in that building.”

She said she will miss “how that building felt, and even though it sounds kinda corny, the way that building smelled, and walking up those dreaded stairs. But it was home for years.”

Comments

2 comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
Marge Samuelson

Sorry to see the studio close. My son and daughter were students of Joan & her daughter Kim. The yearly performance was always an exciting time. Joan was so creative, doing a lot of the sewing of costumes. Her husband and former son-in-law always were there to help with the props etc. Truly a family effort. I still have some of the costumes. One of my favorite performances was at Grant Street School where my son played Oscar the Grouch (very hot costume, and had to be sprayed with water frequently). Kim had a group of teenagers that performed together during their high school years, my daughter was part of the group. Lots of great memories. Joan was a very special person who was always so cheerful and full of life. This was a well written article Brennan, thanks for the memories.

Wednesday, August 7
Fred Camfield

Joan's older brother, Dick Wiley, managed the Uptown Theater in the lower part of the building. Very much a family enterprise.

Monday, August 12