As Patricia Ann Dance Studio gears up to celebrate 50 years in business this month, it's amazing to think that the school almost never happened.
As a girl, founder Elaine Forestier took ballet and tap. As a teen, the Illinois native traveled all summer, dancing professionally at state fair shows. As a young woman, she danced in clubs across the country as part of a six-person Chicago troupe. Later, she taught ballet and tap lessons on the side.
But by 1961, Forestier was a divorced mother of one. Ready for a new chapter in life, she moved to Florida to be near her sister.
No more dancing. Or so she thought.
She said she went to about 40 places to apply for other kinds of jobs, "and they wouldn't hire me because I had a 2-year-old, and they said if she got sick you'll have to leave," Forestier recalled.
"So I thought, 'I have no choice' " but to start dancing and teaching again, she said.
"My sister said, 'Thank goodness. That's what you really can do.' "
And so began Patricia Ann Dance Studio, which has grown from a one-room school attached to Forestier's home at 1260 Friar Tuck Lane to include a second location at 941 Douglas Ave.
The business is a family affair. Forestier's daughter — and the studio's namesake — Patricia McNally is an instructor. McNally's husband and two sons, all performers, also are active with the studio.
Six days a week, more than 200 children and adult students visit the studio to practice plies, shuffles and splits. Hundreds of others are touched each year by the choreography that Forestier and McNally perform for local high schools, community theaters and other groups.
School alumni have gone on to teach, to appear on Broadway and on reality television, to own dance businesses and to perform abroad.
Forestier, who's been dancing since age 5, says she has hardly noticed the years whizzing by.
"My life has been working in the studio, doing the best I can," she said. "But I never thought about it. I just did it."
It's a milestone that community members say is remarkable.
City officials say Patricia Ann Dance Studio is among the oldest businesses in the city. The Dunedin City Commission recognized the school at its meeting last week.
Forestier and her family will celebrate the studio's golden anniversary during the school's annual graduation recital this month. The special program will feature revised dance numbers from the school's early days until now.
"To reach a milestone like that is such a measure of success," said Lynn Wargo, president of the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce. "(It shows) that they have been doing something right, meeting a need in the community, and all you can do is offer them congratulations."
Initially featuring one teacher — Forestier — teaching three students ballet and tap, the studio now has eight instructors and has expanded its offerings to include jazz, lyrical and hip-hop. Master choreographers also offer workshops in specialized genres, such as African dance.
Forestier, 89, still teaches tap and occasionally ballet.
McNally, 52, teaches mostly ballet but can "pinch-hit" in other genres. The former Broadway actor, whose credits include Sophisticated Ladies and Cats, met her husband, Ed McNally, while touring in New York.
Ed McNally is a 61-year-old landscaper, deli cook and occasional community theater thespian who's done stints on the soap operas One Life to Live and Loving. He helps students infuse their dance numbers with dramatic effects.
"Mr. Ed," as the students call him, says Forestier's success is "historical," especially considering the obstacles that led her to open the business.
"A single mother has a business for 50 years in Pinellas County. Something's got to be said for that," he said. "It's a definite stroke for feminism."
The McNallys have two sons. Zach, 21, is a dance major at State University of New York-Purchase College Conservatory of Dance. Dacey, 16, is a sophomore concentrating in musical theater at Gibbs High School's Pinellas County Center for the Arts. Both are award-winning students of the dance school.
After taking lessons since age 6 from Forestier — known as "Mom" at home but as "Miss Elaine" in the studio attached to their home — Patricia McNally occasionally misses dancing professionally herself. But she enjoys teaching because she gets a kick out of passing on her expertise.
"They're more confident. They're at ease with their body image," she said of the ways her students benefit from dance.
Her son Dacey, an aspiring musical comedian, fondly recalls learning his first steps of tap from his grandmother and credits dance with giving him the confidence to step onto the stage.
"Even people who are firefighters and cops can enjoy arts because we all have a right side of our brains," he said. "When lawmakers try to cut arts from schools, they don't realize they'd have really crappy movies."
Dunedin dance student Lexa Armstrong, 12, who's been taking lessons from Forestier and McNally "for as long as I can remember," considers the studio her second home. She's there nearly every day, taking eight classes a week and working on team numbers on weekends.
"I like that I can express myself and be with my friends at the same time," Lexa said. "And the teachers can relate to you in ways other than dance.
"It's a great institution. I feel it'll go on much longer."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.