A Family Affair

By Missy Sharpe, Photos courtesy of Edwina Worley

It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, and gathered in a dance studio in Northwest Austin are 20 dance students ready for their tap class with Miss Edwina. However, they aren’t sporting tutus and pigtails. No, that image would be the little girls peeking inside, waiting for the next class. This class is filled with a grandmother, a stay-athome mom, an accountant, an OB-GYN doctor and 16 other women who take the adult-level tap class at the Shirley McPhail School of Dance. 

Shirley McPhail opened her dance studio in 1970, and her daughter, Edwina Worley, now the current owner and studio director, continues to teach pupils from all walks of life how to take on rhythm and complicated movements, like the four-point crawl. This Tuesday morning, Miss Edwina’s 9 a.m. class shows off their routine to “Poison Ivy,” moving in sync as they shuffle across the floor.

 “Some jumped into dancing at the age of 60, and some started when they were young,” Worley says. “But only fun people come here and take tap.”

While the studio, of course, offers classes for young people (tap, jazz, ballet, pointe, lyrical, hip-hop and musical theater), it also provides several options for adults, including tap, jazz, ballet shape, hip-hop and yoga. Approximately 150 male and female adult dancers take part in these classes, and the studio also teaches an adult performance group, Austin Tap Ensemble, which rehearses three times a month and performs at events throughout Austin.

“We’ve had a student that had battled cancer that told me tap helped with her ‘chemo brain,’ ” Worley says. “For young children, dance offers a child the opportunity to move to music or express themselves through movement. For the adult, movement is so important to keep our flexibility and keep range of motion [in] our joints. Dance, for many of my adults, is a form of therapy that they look forward to and helps their entire being.”

Being generational is a theme at the Shirley McPhail School of Dance, known simply as SMSD throughout town. Many people who started dancing there in the 1970s, when it first opened, later enrolled their own children in classes, and now those children are bringing the next generation of their families to the school. Through the years, more than just a few of those students came straight from McPhail’s own extended family.

To say SMSD is a family affair is an understatement. Every member of the family has either taken or taught dance classes there or worked at Dancer’s Den, SMSD’s dancewear store, since the school first opened.

McPhail herself began dancing as a young girl in Tyler, Texas, when her mom would drive her to Dallas for lessons. Her mother, who was a pianist, would also spend weeks during the summer with her in New York, where McPhail would take dance lessons. She went on to be a music major at the University of Texas, and taught dance throughout town before eventually opening SMSD.

“At first, she would go around Austin to different studios with a record player to teach dance,” says Worley, who began dancing with her mom when she was 2 years old. “We would travel all around Austin or to places such as Mason, Rockdale [or] New Braunfels.”

Today, there are two locations for the dance studio: one on Mesa Drive in Northwest Hills and the recently relocated studio at Highway 183 and Anderson Mill Drive.

Worley has been in charge of the studio, along with her father and business partner, Larry McPhail, since her mom passed away from cancer in 1997. At Shirley McPhail’s memorial at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, the SMSD dance troupe performed to “Joyful Joyful.”

“It was a tradition to close our show with that dance, so it was perfect for Miss Shirley,” Worley remembers.

Forty-one years old when she took the helm at the school, Worley, for several years, felt a little lost being in charge of the studios and dancewear stores. Even though SMSD studios had been sold and closed throughout the years under McPhail’s leadership, Worley struggled to make similar decisions about the business. She knew her mother had a big presence at the studio.

“It took me five years to realize I didn’t have to wear my mother’s shoes,” Worley says. “I had my own shoes to wear and they fit just fine.”

Once she found her own leadership strengths, it was much easier for Worley to step into the role of studio director and owner.

“I had been raised and trained to be a dance teacher, not an employer of 22 employees, so, I’ve been training on the job for the last 20 years,” Worley says. “It’s sometimes tricky to be teacher, owner, a shoulder to cry on, creative director and, on top of all that, now add two daughters getting married in the same year! Prayer and support from family and other women in my field have carried me through this far.”

Worley’s daughter, Kristin Worley, graduated from Texas Tech University with a degree in early childhood education and taught elementary school in Austin before realizing her heart was really back at the studio where she grew up. She now wears many hats at the studio, serving as assistant manager, working at the Dancer’s Den, choreographing and teaching, in addition to following in her mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps.

“I’m a third-generation dance teacher, so, it’s so great to be able to do it and with my mom as my boss,” Kristin Worley says.

As a family business, SMSD faces certain statistics regarding success. According to the Family Business Alliance, more than 30 percent of family-owned businesses survive into the second generation, yet only 12 percent will still be viable into the third generation. However, according to the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson College, femaleowned family firms experience greater family loyalty to the business, agreement with its goals and pride in the business.

The loyalty at SMSD is evident. Edwina Worley’s stepmother, Judy McPhail, who Larry McPhail married later in life, after Shirley McPhail’s death, and who Edwina Worley calls her “bonus mom,” oversees SMSD’s cotillion program. Edwina Worley’s other daughter, Elizabeth Worley, and even more family members help teach and coordinate SMSD’s Cotillion Austin-Style classes, which originated 10 years ago for 5th- and 6th-grade boys and girls.

“They have fun and it makes an impression on their behavior,” Judy McPhail says. Along with learning dance styles like the fox-trot, cha-cha and two-step, they learn how to shake hands, make introductions and practice cellphone etiquette. At the end-of-semester graduation, students must send in a handwritten RSVP note to demonstrate their mastery of proper manners.

The women of this family aren’t the only ones involved. Edwina Worley’s brother used to come into the studio with his football pads on and take tap classes; Edwina Worley’s husband, Neal, is known as Mr. Refreshments at the studio; and family patriarch Larry McPhail also mastered the “half-Irish” in his two years of tap classes. The McPhails even filled up their own family tap class for a while.

Blood relations or not, many Austinites consider themselves part of the SMSD family. Kelly Treybig met Miss Shirley when she was 4 years old, after the Air Force had moved her dad’s job from Turkey to Austin. She was allowed to watch the class with her mom, and from then on, she would wear her yellow tutu and tap shoes all the time. She went on to attend what was then Southwest Texas State University to study child development and dance, and when she graduated, she called Miss Shirley.

“She said, ‘Well, of course you will come teach for me,’ in typical Shirley fashion,” Treybig remembers. “That was the summer of 1986, and I’ve been with SMSD ever since.”

Now, Treybig’s daughter, Kasey, also teaches at the studio, working at the Dancer’s Den and choreographing for SMSDance Troupe, the performance group for the studio.

“I often tell people that, in a way, I was dancing at SMSD even before I was born, since my mother, Kelly, was teaching there while she was pregnant with me,” Kasey Treybig says. “When I was 2 years old, I asked my mom when I would get to start taking classes at SMSD. She told me that I needed to be potty-trained and couldn’t wear my Pull-ups anymore, so I immediately took off the one I had on and went and put my big-girl panties on. I started my first class with Miss Trish the summer before I turned 3.”

Trish Kellam, or Miss Trish, didn’t grow up dancing at the studio, but she is most students’ first memory of SMSD, having taught at the studio for 42 years. In the early days, she would teach seven hours in a row of classes consisting of dancers 8 years old or younger.

“We have people call the studio and ask, ‘Is Miss Trish still there?’ ” Edwina Worley says. “She’s been a huge mainstay over the years.”

Now almost 80, Kellam still loves her “babies,” as she calls her students, and considers teaching at SMSD a blessing. While teaching, she uses a cane covered in roses that her students fondly call Rosie.

“My doctors want me to quit and I just say, ‘No, no, no,’ ” Kellam says. “I love teaching, and my heart still has all the love to give. I just love when my babies come running in the door. I just want to love them and hold them. It’s just wonderful.”

Those who have danced at SMSD throughout the past 46 years say the family aspect of the studio is what sets it apart.

Mandy Niles began dance with Kellam and Shirley McPhail when she was 4 years old.

“Miss Trish is one of my most memorable teachers and was absolutely the reason that I signed up my daughter at age 3 for dance at Shirley McPhail’s,” Niles says. “If she could have even a taste of the love of dance that Miss Trish shares, then I didn’t want her to miss that opportunity. Watching her teach my daughter is like having time stand still. Familiar songs, phrases and sweetness washed over my daughter as she tiptoed across the floor in her pink ballet shoes.” 

Jennifer Hutcheson has taken tap classes at SMSD for the past 10 years, and her son started taking classes when he was 4 years old.

“It feels like you are part of the dancing family they’ve created over the past 40 years,” Hutcheson says. “The family atmosphere continues through all of the adult dancers who treat each other like extended family.”

Because of this, the instructors have a connection with the students that goes beyond teaching shuffle steps and pliés. Through the years, it’s estimated the studio has supported more than 25,000 students. Some of those students have gone on to be Kilgore Rangerettes, Dallas Cowboy and Houston Texan cheerleaders or dance teachers themselves.

“We genuinely care about each other and every student that dances across our floors,” Kelly Treybig says. “We know not many of the children or adults will dance professionally or want to teach dance later in life, but if they do, we want to give them the structure and discipline and a base to build upon that can take them as far as they want to go.”

“Edwina is like a second mother to me, and Miss Trish is my grandmother. At least she loves me like she is!” Kasey Treybig says. “Not only are we all equally invested in the studio because of this, we are equally invested in one another, as well as our students. The McPhail family has created a lasting legacy at SMSD that reflects their kind and compassionate nature.”

When Shirley McPhail first opened SMSD’s doors in 1970, she may not have known the famous quote by Martha Graham, the American choreographer and modern-dance icon, who said, “Dancers are the messengers of the gods.” But maybe she did, because the message from the dancers at her namesake school is that the show will always go on. Surely, after 46 years in business and no curtain call yet, that’s something to dance about for the McPhail family, even if Miss Shirley is dancing in heaven.