Stephanie Powell dances with a type of graceful power: sweeping leaps, precise spins and twirls, and rhythmic sways that suggest a certain natural flow and cadence.
She moves this way after countless hours of practice, sore body parts and bruised feet, small studios and expansive concert stages here in Baltimore and nationwide. Powell moves this way after nearly three decades honing her craft as a dancer, teacher and award-winning choreographer.
"Sometimes, it's hard to believe I've been dancing this long," says the 45-year-old Powell, who will mark her 20th anniversary teaching dance during a concert with her Stephanie Powell Dance Company tonight at Towson University. "I dance almost every day, and I am still excited about my work, and my students," she says.
There are very few people in the Baltimore and Maryland dance community who are not familiar with Powell's name and top-notch reputation. Over the years, she has left her stamp on an estimated 6,000 youngsters and adults, providing instruction through places like Towson, the Baltimore School for the Arts, Arena Players, DARE, city arts programs and through her own private dance schools.
Busy and in demand, Powell flew to Los Angeles last spring to receive a prestigious Lehman Award for her innovative choreography and teaching, and later this summer will go to New York to teach at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre.
Meantime, she has racked up grants and awards from such entities as The Maryland Arts Council. She has been invited to perform at festivals and workshops all over the country. Closer to home, she has been a member of one of the state's premier modern dance troupes, the Kathy Wildberger Dance Company, has danced at AFRAM and Artscape and has a concert slated for October at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Pretty impressive stuff for a woman who never took a dance lesson as a child and did not receive her first formal dance training until age 18.
"I could always do popular dances and the latest steps, but I didn't grow up dreaming about life as a dancer," says the Northeast Baltimore native. At Lake Clifton High School, she was an athlete who enjoyed playing sports. After graduation, Powell enrolled at a local community college, planning to become a legal assistant.
That all changed when she began chaperoning a niece to rehearsals for a community production of The Nutcracker. Call it fate or destiny, but before long Powell decided she belonged in the dance world.
"I was watching the dancers and saying `Oh, I can do that,'" she recalls. "So I decided to take ballet lessons and as soon as I started I loved it. I had the aptitude for it, and I felt like this was something I had to do."
Powell immersed herself in modern, ballet and African dance classes offered through what was then the city's Urban Services Cultural Arts Program at Dunbar High School. Meantime, she continued taking legal courses, but after completing the degree requirements, did not even attend the graduation ceremony.
Instead, she pulled out the Yellow Pages, searching for schools in the area that offered dance programs. She decided upon Goucher College, and was accepted. So excited was Powell about her plans to dance, she had not spent much time investigating other details about her prospective campus.
"My first day, I was in the cafeteria, and I said to another girl, `I haven't seen a man all day.' That's when I found out it was an all-girls' school," she says, laughing. "I had no idea! All I knew was that I wanted to dance."
After earning a degree in dance education in 1982, Powell returned to her roots in the city's cultural arts program as a dance instructor. After more than a decade there, she joined the staff at the Baltimore School for the Arts, a position that continues to this day. Along the way, Powell also joined the dance department faculty at Towson University and made time with a friend to help found the Morton Street Dance Center in Mount Vernon.
"I have always liked the idea of movement," says Powell, explaining her diverse and busy schedule. "I felt like God gave me dance as a way to affirm who I am. It's been part of his plan for me."
A few years ago, Powell decided to leave the thriving and profitable Morton Street partnership to concentrate on developing her own dance school. With her older sister, businesswoman Yvonne Walker, she lauched Baltimore DanceTech Inc., opening the doors in September 1999.
"We truly stepped out on faith, because we had brochures printed up before we even had a location," says Powell of the school, now at West Baltimore United Methodist Church off U.S. 40.
Today, more than 100 students are enrolled, taking classes in ballet, tap, modern, African, jazz and other dance disciplines with Powell and four other instructors.
The sisters say their mission is to teach dance while providing "a well-disciplined but positive and loving atmosphere." Already, there is a summer dance camp in session, and plans for future scholarships and community outreach projects.