On a sun-baked Saturday afternoon, two big parking lots behind George Washington High School were jam-packed, and more cars lined almost every inch of the driveway around the school.
Inside, about 200 parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings sat in a darkened auditorium to watch the performances unfold at Penn Academy’s spring dance recital. On the brightly lit stage, each parting of the curtains brought a new set of costumed dancers who waited, frozen in place, for the music to begin. Once it did, girls of all sizes and shapes danced their practiced routines to the music’s beat.
But this year, the 30th anniversary of the founding of the dance academy, a surprise was waiting in the wings.
It is tradition for recent alums to return to dance at the spring recital, and right before intermission, they took the stage and began their number. But before you knew it, they were joined by a dozen older alums who had come back to honor their beloved teacher, Dance Director Pat Kaminski.
Nineteen alums in all packed the stage, dancing in unison to upbeat tunes, including “Stray Cats” and Donna Summer’s “What a Feeling!”
Each was wearing a yellow T-shirt marked with the year in which she had started dance classes at Penn Academy.
“I’m so shocked,” Kaminski said as she joined the young women on the stage after their performance. “I haven’t seen some of these girls in years and years.”
The alums had practiced their dance routines three times in secret to carry off the surprise. Among those who returned were two of “the Price girls,” Jamie Tritz and Stephanie Price. A third sister, Melissa, lives too far away, in Texas, to come and a fourth sister, Alexis, is still enrolled in the academy.
Jamie Tritz, 30, of Douglasville in Berks County, had the number 88 on her T-shirt because, as she explained it, she started classes in 1988.
“I loved it so much,” she said of her time at the academy.
“I never stopped being involved,” said another alum, Melissa Mulhern, 32, of Academy Gardens. “I have a daughter who is 4, and she dances.”
“I loved coming to dance practice. [Pat] made it fun. I loved being on stage. My family would come. My sister and I still watch the home videos of us dancing as little girls.”
Asked why she came back for this recital on April 20, Erica Zanczuk, 28, of Morrell Park, responded with two words. “For Pat.”
Zanczuk said Kaminski “was a big inspiration to me and a lot of people I grew up with. It was a big thing growing up.”
Zanczuk was the only girl in her family of four children, and she became close to the other girls from St. Dominic’s Elementary School who were also in her dance classes.
“We went to school together, came here together, we became sisters,” she said.
After the intermission, the current senior class showed a video compilation of their dance recitals. The electronic scrapbook showed the girls as they grew from tiny dancers through awkward middle school years to polished young women all dressed up for their graduation pictures.
“We became more than just dancers, we became a family,” the narrator said.
Kaminski, who watched the video from a front-row seat in the auditorium, got a lump in her throat.
“I hope I’ve had some good impact,” she said. “A lot of these girls are in each others’ weddings. They’ve stayed friends all through the years.”
Her daughter, Pamela Kelble, of Academy Gardens, noticed the faint red marks trailing down the length of her mother’s right arm, and asked what that was.
“The girls were kissing me,” Kaminski said, pointing to the lipstick reminders her dancers had left behind.
NO DRILL SERGEANT
Earlier, in an interview in her Academy Gardens home, Kaminski was quick to point out she’s just the opposite of a hard-nosed, drill-sergeant type teacher when it comes to dance.
“I’m nothing like Abby,” Kaminski said with a laugh, referring to Abby Lee Miller, the demanding and short-tempered instructor on Lifetime’s popular TV show, “Dance Moms.”
Instead, Kaminski said she seeks to make each dancer her best with encouragement and personal attention.
Kaminski has been the director of Penn Academy Dance since its inception in 1983, when she started the dance group out of a clubhouse at the Penn Academy Athletic Association, at Academy and Willits roads.
Through word of mouth, Kaminski said more dancers joined each year. A former dancer herself, she made the effort to start a dance group, she said, simply because she “always loved it.”
“It’s time consuming,” Kaminski said of teaching her dancers in addition to her full-time job as an agent at Polonia Bank. “You have to like it.”
It’s clear she does. She choked up with pride when she talked about memorable dancers from her three decades of teaching.
“I love it, I love the kids,” she said. “I am so proud of them. They look like Broadway dancers,” she said.
Their success is not without challenges, she said. Penn Academy accepts girls of all shapes, sizes and levels of skill.
“All of our students are not Rockettes, but we try to figure out a way to get each girl involved and make her get better,” Kaminski said.
Especially in dance and ballet, where physical thinness is often revered, Kaminski said Penn Academy embraces girls for who they are.
“It really gives them confidence and brings them out of their shell,” she said. “The girls support one another.”
Penn Academy accepts girls from 3 to 18 years old, and the cost is $100 for the season, which runs from September to April. When the girls graduate from the academy, Kaminski said, it’s always heart- wrenching, because both she and the girls become very attached to the program and to one another.
As she looked ahead to the recital, she predicted “this year’s going to be emotional, because the class that’s leaving is mine.” The girls had been under her tutelage from when they were 3 or 4 years old — the “little divas,” she called them. ••
Reach Lillian Swanson at 215-354-3030 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Mikala Jamison at 215-354-3113 or email@example.com