We all perform a delicate dance with our families during our lifetimes. But for Tamie Griffith, that dance has been her business for 20 years.
As founder and owner of 5678 Dance Studio in Modesto, Griffith has turned a small sister act into a thriving enterprise with more than 650 students. She and her older sister, Danette Tomasello, opened the studio in 1994 when they were 16 and 19, respectively. The teenagers started out with little more than a $1,000 loan from their grandfather and a lot of determination.
The siblings ran the business together all those years until Tomasello fell sick and died in February 2013 from a virus that attacked her liver and kidneys. Griffith said her sister’s death hit her family and their students hard. But she was determined to carry on the legacy they’d started together.
“I didn’t think of ever closing it,” said Griffith, 36. “I know it is something she’d want me to continue. It’s only been a year, and this time of year is hard because of the recital and everything. For 20 years, it’s always been her and me.”
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Each May, the studio has its annual recital for all of its students. This weekend is the 20th anniversary recital, split into six public performances that conclude today with three shows at Modesto Junior College. The studio has dancers from 18 months to 73 years old.
While starting a business as teenagers is one thing, keeping it successful for two decades is something else entirely. Griffith was a junior at Beyer High School when she opened the studio with her sister, who had graduated from Davis High the year before. Both had danced since they were little girls, and through high school. Opening their own place was something they’d always dreamed of doing together.
“We used to get the kids in the neighborhood together and put on a big dance recital at the end of the summer,” Griffith said. “We were always kind of overachievers. My sister and I had the passion to teach and continue to learn.”
That first year, they enrolled 86 students. By the second year, it grew to 120 students, and the following year doubled to 240. Three years after opening, the sisters added a second room to their studio, in the Frontier shopping center in north Modesto. They eventually outgrew that space and moved across the parking lot to their current location. Today, there are three studios in one space, plus an adjacent auxiliary studio, for close to 6,000 square feet of total dance space.
The smallest dance studio, used largely for the mommy-and-me classes, is as large as the sisters’ entire first studio.
The school has grown largely through word of mouth. Classes are offered in ballet, jazz, tap, contemporary, hip-hop, lyrical and musical theater for boys and girls. The studio also has a competitive dance team that goes to conferences and competitions.
Students like seventh-grader Lily Wong, 12, can’t wait to go to the studio. Wong started with the school when she was 2 years old and is now there four nights a week for jazz, hip-hop, ballet, tap and contemporary dance classes.
“I enjoy how much fun I have while I am dancing and hanging out with my friends and learning new dance steps,” said Wong, who will be honored as a 10-year student at the recital this weekend. “I like the people there. I have a lot of friends and the teachers are nice. Tamie is very nice – she pushes us hard to do our best. I just like hanging out there and feeling welcome.”
Griffith and her sister grew up in the studio alongside their students. Many have been with the school for years, and one has been with them for all 20. Modesto resident Liz Borba started there when she was 5 years old, shortly after it opened. Now, at age 26, she teaches there full time.
“It’s like a second home here. All the girls become a family and they’ve created a family atmosphere,” Borba said. “Tamie and Danette had more of a nurturing style as teachers. They treat you like one of your own kids.”
Over the years, Borba has become Griffith’s right-hand-woman, helping run the studio and classes alongside her. Still, Borba marvels at how young her boss was when she started it all, and how she’s been able to keep it growing all these years.
“At that age (when I started lessons), I didn’t even know how old they were,” she said. “But now, thinking back, there’s no way I could have been able to do that at their age. It’s amazing.”
But Griffith is quick to say they didn’t do it alone. First there was their seed money from their grandpa, and the rest of the family chipped in whatever way they could. Their mother, Janet Downs, was their receptionist for years. When they started, she would work at Macy’s during the day, then after her shift rush back and work the front desk for her daughters. The rest of the family helped as well – their younger brother served as janitor and their father did their construction work in those early years.
Four years into running the studio, the sisters were doing well enough to be able to pay their mother a salary so she could quit her Macy’s job. She was with the studio until she passed away in 2011 from cancer.
“My mom was everyone’s second dance mom,” Griffith said. “We didn’t grow up with a lot of money. Our family didn’t say, ‘Here is a dance studio, go run it.’ We just had the drive and wanted to do this. And they supported us all the way.”
Now a mother of three boys, two who dance in the studio and the youngest 8 months old, Griffith has come a long way from when she and her sister taught all the classes themselves. The studio has 12 instructors and 18 assistant student instructors who teach between 75 and 80 classes each week.
“These students, these instructors – I’ve become friends with so many of them,” Griffith said. “I’ve been to their weddings and baby showers. These kids are like my own kids.”
She also teaches her sister’s two children, a 3-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy.
“Our motto has always been, ‘Dance the dream,’ ” Griffith said. “This was our dream, to open this studio. I want to continue to grow. There’s always something to improve and strive for. But that love and passion for dance that we had when we started has stayed with us – stayed with me.”