Suzy Shaw opened her dance studio 19 years ago — but really, it’s been with her since she was a child.
Shaw, 41, has seen great success with her Emerald City Dance Explosion that runs out of a corner space along Uptown Greenwood’s arcades.
Earlier this month, 26 dancers under her studio’s tutelage took home 17 first-place awards in various categories at the Epic Dance Showcase nationals, held June 19-23 in Sevierville, Tennessee.
She and her students have relished their accomplishments, but life hasn’t slowed down since their triumphant return: Costumes from the appearance are still packed, and the trophies are awaiting shelf space next to an already impressive array of hardware.
For Shaw, who came to Greenwood in 1996 from Columbia to attend Lander University, it’s the latest reminder of how blessed her life is.
“My job is my passion, it’s my life. I love it with everything in my whole soul. I will not leave it,” Shaw said. “In fact, when my daughter was born, I called to get a life insurance policy and he said, ‘Let’s talk about retirement,’ and I said, ‘I’ll just drop dead at work.’” I don’t need to have a retirement plan, because I’m not going to leave.”
A dance minor at Lander, Shaw began volunteering in area schools, which sparked in her a passion for teaching the art to young people.
“I never wanted to dance professionally. I fell in love with the teaching side of dance,” Shaw said. At 22 — fresh from an exchange trip to England — Shaw knew she wanted a studio of her own.
“I originally wanted to open a studio in Columbia, but I fell in love with Greenwood,” Shaw said. She also happened to fall in love with Lander’s technical director at the time — Eddie, who she’d go on to marry.
The Shaws moved their studio from Reynolds Avenue and Cross Creek Connection, eventually finding space at 407 N. Main St. in 2012 to accommodate their 150 students.
For Shaw, the craft has always been personal. Two of her dancers, who just graduated high school, began with her through a K-3 program.
Setting out to be a small business owner at 22 was a challenge Shaw never saw coming. It was difficult for her to get financing, to figure out how she’d make rent every month for her business. She knew nothing about payroll or insurance.
But none of those barriers were going to keep Shaw from what she knew was her destiny — which she also views as a tribute to her mother.
“We had dance,” Shaw said. Growing up with her two siblings and raised by a single mom, the children were enrolled in activities. Shaw joined them as a dancer after participating for years in gymnastics.
“When I started dance, I found just a tremendous challenge in ballet. It was so hard. It was the same drive and commitment that you would have to have for gymnastics,” she said.
Shaw’s mother at times worked four jobs to make ends meet and support her family.
“We literally were so poor,” she said. “But until I was out of my home, I guess in college maybe, I realized how poor we were but until then, I never, ever really knew. I thought everyone lived the way that we lived. And I didn’t have a bad life. We were so rich in happiness and things that were important, things that mattered.”
That experience taught Shaw that rejection was not an option as she worked to achieve her dream.
“If I know that if it’s what is supposed to be happening, then I’m going to make it happen. I’m not the kind of person that will aggressively pursue things, but I will definitely move obstacles around it to get whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing,” Shaw said. “And that came from growing up that way.”
Elizabeth Wilson’s 8-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, began dancing at Shaw’s studio when she was 2, competing last year in a national competition that required a solo performance, interview and photograph.
Kaitlyn took first place and was crowned Mini Miss Epic 2018.
“It was then that I realized that my daughter had not only become a beautiful dancer, but more importantly she had become confident in herself, more disciplined in her work and more dedicated to her studio,” Wilson said. “Over the years dancing at ECDE, Kaitlyn has learned how to work well with her peers.”
Shaw said Kaitlyn’s personal growth is the guiding principle behind her own work.
“It’s actually not about dance at all to me. Dance, to me, is the tool that God put in my life to change lives of kids who need that change,” she said. “Every day, I pray that God will hold this studio in the palm of His hand and take care of us. And one day, when it’s not His will for this to be my life anymore, that He will let me know that as well.”