Each year in June, as the school year draws to an end, Charlene Harris, owner of Charlene's School of Dance, isn't thinking about summer vacation. She is, instead, finalizing dances, putting the finishing touches on scenery, and preparing to mesmerize an eager audience, once again, with a celebration of another successful year in dance.
The studio is packed with stage props, costumes and accessories, and other essentials required to effectively demonstrate the hard work and commitment of her students, her teachers, and herself. And it takes three big nights of performances to effectively present the kind of extravaganza Charlene's School of Dance is known for.
"When I was growing up, no one ever came to see my recitals because they were horrible," Harris explained. "I was determined to put on a show that, even if you hate dance recitals, you could at least tolerate it."
Charlene's recitals are among the best in demonstration of creativity, skill and technique. Theme driven in choreography and plot, they also hint at a strong spiritual backing. It is evident that Harris gets much of her inspiration from her foundation in faith.
A lot of preparation goes into each recital, Harris explained. In fact, planning for the next year begins the moment the last dancer saunters off stage on the final performing night.
"It is very much a team effort," she said. She used to carry the entire load alone. But now, Charlene's has four additional instructors, all of which she trained as students. They include Alana Intini, Stacey Curci, Jenna D'Angelo, and her daughter, Madison Harris.
"It is a lot more fun with other teachers," Harris said. "They have relieved a lot of pressure off of me because five sets of eyes are a lot better than one."
Many of her dancers, in fact, have been with the studio for years, some were as young as 3-years-old when they started. And Harris has watched them grow from curious mirror-huggers to serious dancers with amazing technique and grace.
This year's recital is scheduled for June 21-23. But instead of planning a quiet recovery on June 24, Harris and her team of instructors and competitive dancers will be on their way to national competition in Tampa.
"This year there is no break between recital and competition," Harris said. But the competitive team is used to extreme dedication. They are molded in commitment and recognize that at Charlene's, competition is serious business.
The Competitive Team consists of 62 dancers, ten of which encompass the "pee wee" team with students as young as 4. "This is our first year doing the younger ones," Harris said.
Charlene's dancers have competed in three competitions this year, consistently placing at the top with every dance entry. "Our group numbers usually place Platinum," Harris said.
"We got, in either the junior or senior division, the top score in all three competitions," Alana Intini said.
While competition is not required, Harris does encourage dancers that demonstrate a real strong commitment to their dance careers. "We don't hold formal auditions," she explained. "But the teachers watch them throughout the year for specific skills and already know who they want to invite for the next year."
The team has traveled as far as Chicago, Pennsylvania, Los Vegas, and Louisiana to compete. This year the national convention is in Tampa. "We try to stay in state every other year," Harris said.
A serious commitment to the art of dance runs through Charlene Harris' blood. She began her own career at the tender age of two. "I started at the Art Linkletter Dance Studio in Tampa," she reminisced. She was a dedicated student until she opened her own studio in Spring Hill in 1977.
"I had around 70 students that first year," she remembered.
Charlene's School of Dance moved to their current location, just west of Linden, on Spring Hill Drive in 1987.
Her enrollment has grown consistently, with 180 currently taking instruction, as the focus of her studio took shape. While the students clearly enjoy dancing, demonstrated in their zealous smiles and dramatic, technically sound performances, they understand that dance is also a very solid commitment.
They spend a great deal of time at the studio, practicing ballet, tap, jazz, acrobatic, lyrical, music theory, and hip hop. Classes are 45 minutes long and many students take several.
Charlene's School of Dance is regimented with expectations of its dancers that build more than a love for the craft. Physical fitness, balance, teamwork, responsibility, creativity and commitment are all part of the life skills the studio instills in its young dancers.
Many of Harris' former students have gone on to pursue careers in dance. Several have opened their own dance studios, performed for national companies or joined athletic teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneer Cheerleaders.
Ella D'Angelo, 8, began dancing for Charlene when she was 3. "I really like musical theater," D'Angelo said, "because you get to act and dance." D'Angelo, whose mother, Jenna, is an instructor, is also one of the competitors.
Charlene Harris' motivation is fueled by the progress she witnesses in her students that, she says, is mastered over time.
"Because we are very picky and technical, they've all got to do it a certain way at a certain time to a certain beat," she said. "When they can do that, it just happens. You can see it happening. It's all part of the magic."
Biz at a Glance
Name: Charlene's School of Dance
Location: 12530 Spring Hill Drive, Spring Hill
Telephone: (352) 683-3996