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Dance Was Her Saving Grace

A young dancer started her studio three years ago. Today, the East Bay Dance Company is one of the most popular schools in the region.

Ashley Enea plans to retire at 30 – or at least have that option.

It’s an ambitious goal, especially considering she got a relatively late start in the dancing world. She was 13, insecure and unfocused. She'd spent five years sitting on the sidelines, watching her friends in dance class after school, wondering if it was “too late” to try.

One day, she dove in. She studied ballet, jazz, tap, lyrical, cheerleading and, her passion, hip-hop. Within a year and after countless hours practicing to catch up with her peers, the San Ramon native surpassed them, becoming a dancer who could hold her own on a national level.

Dancing was the first thing in life to capture her attention, Ashley said. Dyslexia made school a struggle and sports never interested her the way they did everyone else in her family.

“Nothing clicked,” said Ashley, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed bundle of Type-A energy. “Then, after seeing my friends in class and watching what they did, all their routines, I started to think, ‘I could do this.’ ”

So she did. And the rest of her life fell in line. Her grades picked up and her outlook brightened. She began to consider becoming a professional dancer, despite the fact that many of her peers had a decade of experience on her.

Today, the 27-year-old is director of , which she founded three years ago with a little financial backing from her family. It was a move that followed a long list of professional accomplishments: She was a nationally recognized choreographer, had performed on stage with Davy Jones from The Monkees, and danced at the opening ceremony of Disney’s California Adventure theme park and for a show on Princess Cruise Lines.

“It’s been amazing,” Ashley said. “But teaching really became my passion. I really have a way with kids.”

After graduating with honors from Cal High in 2002, Ashley went to Diablo Valley College to take general ed classes while she figured out what to do in life.

“About then, I was telling my friends that I think I’ll pursue this dancing thing professionally,” she said. "That's when I started seriously considering it as a career."

A couple years later, Ashley transferred to St. Mary’s College, where she majored in dance. She supported herself through school by working as a dance instructor at East Bay studios.

Teaching at different schools and under various directors, Ashley picked up a lot of knowledge about how to run a studio. She learned a lot about how to run a business from her mom, Sharon Enea, who founded in San Ramon nearly three decades ago.

“Eventually, I just took what I knew and decided to do this myself,” said Ashley. “I took what I liked best about each studio and combined it to make mine.”

For one thing, Ashley’s students don’t wear anything provocative.

“If I won’t wear it, they can’t wear it,” said Ashley, who normally wears sporty tank tops and tights to class. “That’s the rule.”

It seems sensible enough, but that simple guideline sets East Bay Dance Company apart at competitions, where it’s common to see toddlers in midriff-exposing tops or preteens without tights under super-short booty shorts. Basically, Ashley wants her students to be taken seriously, not ogled like a go-go dancer.

“We have people come up to us saying they really appreciate our age-appropriate costumes,” Ashley said. “Because it’s about the talent … about dance.”

It’s also about the students. That’s another lesson Ashley learned about the competitive world of kids’ dance: Sometimes the parents try to live vicariously through their children and will bully or pay their way to see their pride and joy on center stage.

“We’ve had parents offer to pay us so their kid can get a solo,” Ashley said. “We don’t do that. We audition.”

Apparently, that’s an unusual stance. Lots of studios let parents pay hundreds of dollars if they want their student in a lead role. It’s another way to make money, but Ashley isn’t interested.

“We want kids to get the message that they have to work hard,” she said.

Money can’t buy talent. And that’s a hard concept for some dance moms who put “Toddlers in Tiaras” parents to shame, Ashley said.

Thankfully for Ashley, the bulk of such parents went to another studio after a disagreement.

“I don’t need that,” she said. “I have plenty of business without all the drama.”

When the studio opened on Alcosta Boulevard, near the , Ashley had one student, the landlord’s granddaughter. For a while, she was the only dancer.

Sharon tried to help her daughter’s business with a marketing blitz: Postcards and fliers all over town. Everyone who came into Enchanted Florist, a tiny but popular shop in south San Ramon, left with a brochure about the studio.

Membership picked up dramatically after that first year. Now, with about 400 students, Ashley’s school can be more selective about who can sign up.

Waiting lists are good for business, particularly in an affluent area such as the San Ramon Valley.

Even without that element of prestige, the studio's made a name for itself. Ashley's dancers have received awards normally nabbed by more established studios.

"The success we've seen in three years normally takes 10 years to accomplish," said Sharon.

The professional growth Ashley's seen in the past few years has accompanied tremendous personal growth.

As director, she's learned how to counsel girls about body image, enact a "stern but positive" coaching style, manage a team of five instructors, stand up to blatant age-ism from some parents and deal with the around-the-clock stress of owning a business.

It wasn't always easy, but she never entertained the thought that things wouldn't work out, she said.

"I just felt like there was this big mountain ahead of me and that I just needed to start climbing," Ashley said. "I knew there was a huge reward on the other side."

At a glance

For more about East Bay Dance Company, go to www.eastbaydanceco.com or call 925-867-3232. The studio is at 12901 Alcosta Blvd.

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