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Photo Gallery | Sacramento’s Step 1 Dance and Fitness Studio Celebrates 25 Years of Excellence

by Margaret Gidding, freelance writer

Twenty-five years ago, November 1987, Pepper Von and Mary Wright opened the doors to Step 1 Dance and Fitness Studio at 1920 T Street in Sacramento. With no prior experience running their own business, they jumped in with both feet, hit the ground running, and have never looked back. As co-owners, Pepper and Mary have the perfect blend of skills, know-how, intuition, and heart to have created and sustained a studio that combined dance and fitness.  They are innovative pioneers of the dance and fitness world, and the studio continues to thrive under their direction, growing and changing with the industry.

The Beginning
In 1986, Pepper was teaching dance classes at Sacramento City College.  The college struggled to accommodate the interest and attendance Pepper’s classes generated.  Mary danced in Pepper’s dance company and took classes from him.  She had been a nursing home administrator for 10 years when the hospital was sold and none of the management staff were retained under the new ownership.  The timing seemed right; Pepper and Mary joined forces and started planning to open their own studio.  At that time, no other facility offered both fitness and dance. When Pepper and Mary talked about offering both, reactions from peers were skeptical.  But their intuition and vision could not be swayed.  It would be a huge career change for Mary and a big risk.  They would rely on Pepper’s name and reputation, which was well established in Sacramento by that time.

In 1987, after thorough research and preparation, they were ready to bring their plans to fruition.  Mary explained how difficult it was at that time to find someone to lease to them, neither with experience in running their own business.  Finally, with Pepper’s name in the dance and fitness world and Mary’s administrative skills, they came across the location and landlord that launched the legacy that continues today.  The doors opened; three full-sized studios offering ballet, tap, funk, and jazz.  Students from City College followed them to the new location and classes were full.  Pepper attributed the success to “the perfect combination of a brilliant administrator behind the scenes and an outgoing force as the face of the studio.”

Philosophy and Evolution
Pepper and Mary’s philosophy for the studio has not changed in the 25 years they’ve been in business: strive to be a positive contributing factor in the community and offer a quality place to train, a place for families.  The makeup of the studio has always been and continues to be multi-dimensional and multi-cultural, an aspect that has continued throughout the years.  The business is built and sustained on relationships.

Mary says she works just as hard today as 25 years ago.  She’s willing to listen to suggestions, try new things, and be flexible.  “You just never know which direction the fitness world will go next; it’s very temporary; something else is always right around the corner.”

It wasn’t always smooth sailing.  They have weathered some tough times.  They learned and grew the business together.  When Pepper and two other top trainers won the fitness aerobics championship in the early 1990s, the three, under contract, traveled the world for a year, leaving a gaping hole at the studio.  Mary, through her own determination and skill, kept the studio going.  She worked all over town to make ends meet during that period. Mary has always come up with creative ways to see them through tough economic times.

The studio initially opened to adults, but it wasn’t long before children’s dance lessons were added.  The children’s program continued to evolve over the years and the studio has been offering competitive dancing for more than 10 years now.  Two recitals a year are held including a full two-hour program for all of the groups over seven years of age, and an hour show for the under-seven age groups.

Currently for competition, there is a jazz company with 32 dancers at four different levels, three hip hop companies, one tap company and for the first time this year, students will be competing in ballet.

There are people who got their start at Step 1 whose names should be familiar to anyone interested in the dance world.  For example, the dance crew, Jabbawockeez, who were the winners of the second season of America’s Best Dance Crew in 2008.  Three of the original members began dancing during high school at Step 1.  And then there are Jeri and Monique Slaughter.  They both live in Los Angeles and work for Christina Aguilera.  However students define success, Step 1 supports them.

Mary paused to remember the wording to a quote that embodies her passion for the art of dancing-- “It takes an athlete to dance, but it takes an artist to be a dancer.”

“There are so many benefits for the children through dance. College programs have grown to offer more in the dance realm.  Step 1 trains its students to that level so they are technically strong enough,” she said.

Mary proudly points out that Step 1 has the most diverse children, both in ethnicity and shape.  “Any child that wants to put forth the effort and is enjoying it will find a warm and safe learning environment at Step 1,” she adds. “Through the competitions, the students make friends from all over the world and make connections with industry choreographers.”

Step 1’s goals for the children are to help them develop a passion for the dance art form and to build their self-confidence, offering a positive social environment while teaching them skills.

For the adults who attend fitness and dance classes, they leave feeling better than when they came in.  Step 1 provides a positive experience that helps people in their day-to-day lives.

Pepper reflects that some of the students at Step 1 are now third generation – the original student is now a grandmother bringing her grandchild in for lessons, while simultaneously taking a Fierce Funk or Zumba class in another room.  There is something for everyone.

Expressions of Gratitude
Pepper says he and Mary “are grateful and thankful to all of the participants and families during these 25 years for giving them the opportunity to touch and change their lives, and letting them be part of their journey; for trusting their families to them; and maintaining the integrity of the extended family bloodline of the studio.”

Mary expresses their gratitude for the years of support in thoughtful reflection:

“The children, parents, guardians are all thought of as family here.  We get to know them very well and are genuinely interested in their lives. We want to be a support system.  They care about us and we care about them. We want the children to become respectful people and a positive part of society as they grow up.  Because of all of the people and experiences over the past 25 years, my personal growth has been huge.  There is a caring aspect here.  We love and care about them and they have impacted our lives over the years.  We all feel that.”

More Than Just a Studio
As a dancer, fitness trainer, and international educator, to name a few of his many titles, Pepper has always traveled vigorously.  He slowed down for some years and stayed closer to home while his daughters grew up, but is now back on the road almost as much as he is in the studio.  

To Pepper, the studio is “his home base” – a place to come back to and create; it’s what sustains him while on the road; it grounds him; the friendships he has formed here feed him.  At the studio, he can really teach people, investing in them and watching them grow over time.  

There are many venues worldwide that have gotten some part of their education or experience from Step 1.  Many studios in Sacramento also received something from Step 1, such as training, experience, or guidance that helped them launch their own endeavors.

When Pepper is traveling and runs across former students who are successfully pursuing their dreams, he says he feels like a proud parent.  Whatever their form of success, he feels great pride in knowing he, Mary, and the studio had a part in raising a person with integrity, a quality human being contributing to society in a positive way.

Pepper, stepping into his polished and positive motivational speaking role, summarizes in three words what he calls “Step 1’s presence with intent: 1) educate related to dance, fitness, and life; 2) encourage through inspiration and motivation instilling moral integrity, and 3) support students on whatever road they choose as part of the Step 1 family.”

Mary’s love of the studio is reflected in her comment, “There’s never been a day that I’ve not wanted to come to the studio – the people; the environment; this is not a job; it’s a part of me.”  You can find her there any day of the week.

The saying, “Home is where the heart is,” for Pepper and Mary, brings them to the Step 1 Dance and Fitness Studio.  They both refer to it as home base and have both invested so much more than their physical and administrative skills – they invested themselves, heart and soul.

This studio is Pepper and Mary’s legacy.  And what a legacy it is. Congratulations to Pepper and Mary for having achieved so much through their joint endeavor that started 25 years ago.

25 Year Celebratory Open House - Step 1 Dance and Fitness Studio, Sunday, November 18, 2012, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m., 1920 T Street, Sacramento

Dance Company demonstrations throughout the day; Ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new studio at 2 p.m.

Visit the website for more information, www.step1danceandfitness.com


Source: Margaret Gidding, freelance writer